rebelling against low expectations

What It Means To Be a Third Culture Kid


Check out Part 1 of Alicia’s story here!

I was 19-years-old, sitting in a counseling office, convinced the weight of the world was on my shoulders.

The reasons for being there that day were varied and loose. I still don’t remember what we talked about in that short time except for one statement.

“You are a third culture kid, Alicia.”

She posed this phrase as a statement. It wasn’t a question.

Even if I wanted to tell you all that transpired after our move from Otterburne, Canada, to Lancaster County, USA, I couldn’t. Mostly because I don’t remember a lot of it. Some days vague memories jump out at me, but it’s mostly gray and foggy, like a dream where you try to completely open your eyes but you find it impossible to do so.

Fifth grade hit me like a ton of bricks. I went to a private, conservative Mennonite school. I was distantly related to half of my class. My last name was no longer unusual, but commonplace and almost expected.

The ability to introduce myself in French could not help me conquer verbs and adjectives nor did it do anything for my math homework. If it is possible to have a constant headache for months on end, then that is what I most remember.

The headache of trying to figure out a new school system. The shock of going to a church that all dressed like us, instead of being the only girl wearing different attire. Sunday School wasn’t a program of skits or songs about Pharaoh baby and sailing home, but an actual class around a table, where we sat on hard-back chairs and read from the lesson.

This new period of life was a maze of confusion and guilt.

I looked like these people. I dressed like these people. My name implied that I belonged here. The guilt came from feeling like an outsider and an intruder. It came from the exorbitant amount of time I fantasized a different life.

The confusion was trying to navigate the murky waters of adolescence and a new culture at the same time. I cried several times a week, always in private. The only reprieve came from daily, then weekly, phone conversations with my best friend.

It was not a particular person, group, or individual circumstance that caused these hard years. It was the clash of cultures blown up in the world of a child.

It wasn’t one moment of misunderstanding. It was a thousand little details that left me confused and frustrated. Some were humorous, like the time we asked where the washroom was at a friend’s house, and they led us to the laundry room.

Others were hard, like the day I figured out you need to be invited before you randomly go over to someone’s house.

The simplest way to sum it up is this: In my Canadian world, I was different and I knew it. My friends knew it too. “Why do you wear dresses and skirts all the time?” In these moments I would gather them around and, in hushed tones proclaim, “It’s because I am Mennonite.” Then we would run off and play another round of soccer or grounders. It was curiosity, but it didn’t change our relationship.

In my new American world, I looked the same. I dressed the same. My name said I belonged here. But I didn’t think the same or act the same, and this is what set me apart most. Attempting to even describe the exact differences is nearly impossible without categorizing or labeling.

From the age of 10 until that day in the counselor’s office 9 years later, I tried to convince myself that someday I would fit in.

I wanted to believe that at some point in my life there would be a time I could clearly say, “I am from here,” and wholeheartedly mean it.

It hadn’t happened yet, and suddenly I knew it never would. I am from Lancaster, yes. But I am also from Ontario and Manitoba and all those pieces of life have influenced who I am, whether I admit to it or not. It is different, perhaps, but not bad or wrong.

Throughout my teenage years, I looked at this difference as a detriment. We all applaud the idea of being different, but the reality of being different was and is excruciatingly frustrating some days. Most common love-hate questions?

“Where are you from?”

“Where did you grow up?”

“So you’re Canadian, eh?”

“Where are your parents from?”

“What was it like to live in __________?”

Every TCK dilemma is how to answer these or similar questions. The long version? The short version? The sarcastic version? Sometimes they are good questions. Other times it’s hard to know how to respond without launching into a 10 minute explanation.

Becoming an adult has its own set of problems. Where do I root myself? Do I even try to root myself at all? Which place do I refer to as “home”? Sometimes the heightened awareness of culture shock and adjustment is an asset. Sometimes you enter another country and tiptoe around, figuratively speaking, because you don’t want to offend anyone. Like a human chameleon, most TCK’s are subconsciously or consciously looking for ways to blend in or adapt quickly to the culture(s) we are in at any given time.

It’s not always an obvious difference that “sets us apart.” There are definitely varying degrees of Third Culture experience. Perhaps the greatest significance in the TCK label is just that: we actually have a definition for what we are.

It wasn’t so much that a professional counselor told me I was a Third Culture Kid, but rather it was because someone who barely even knew me paid enough attention to recognize that part of my story.

Belonging everywhere and nowhere is a gift, not an impediment.

It’s hard, confusing, exhausting, and soul-searching, but it’s still a gift. It’s okay to be different. The world needs to hear your insight and perspective that spans beyond a singular, primary culture. It needs you to risk in the places that hurt most.

My hope in these two posts is not just for you, the reader, to hear my story. Rather, that we as a community of people, no matter the story, can start engaging each other in discussion and dialogue on how to use our multi-cultured childhood experience as a tool for good.

How can we walk in grace towards the people and cultures around us?

What has been most helpful to you, as a TCK, in your Third Culture experience?

To my non-TCK readers, what have you learned (if any) from these posts? What can we do to better engage you with our experiences, while also hearing yours?

Share Your Thoughts in the Comment Section!

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Photo courtesy of Charma Melody and Flickr Creative Commons.


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About the author

Alicia Esh

is a student of Jesus, travel enthusiast, and cooking experiment-er. She's spent several years learning (and still learning) what it looks like to really love well by hanging out, teaching, cooking, and interacting with kids and youth. She's learning that the unexpected life is the good life, whether that means traveling the world or daily living right here, right now in Lancaster, USA.


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  • I’m struggling with this right now as a TCK visiting America for the summer. I look white, but I don’t feel white or act white. I’m half-Asian on the inside, and it’s hard to be from one culture and be forced into the mold of another. It would be one thing if I looked Asian and was visiting–people might be understanding and forgiving of my quirks. But I don’t look it. So people give me funny looks when I say or do odd things.

    Thank you for writing this–we TCKs don’t have it easy, and we likely never will; but God loves us for our quirks and goofy mannerisms, and He made us this way for His glory. 🙂

    • if you ever want to talk or vent, I’m here and I would love to hear from you! Being a TCK is so hard. There should seriously be a world wide support system or something!

      • Thanks 🙂 And I extend the same offer to you! I’m sure I’ll be in need of someone to listen once I head to university next year; I’m half really excited and half dreading the loneliness I know I’m going to face.

          • Either works, though I’m more likely to respond to e-mails (I don’t get on Revive as much anymore, and when I do I’m really bad at replying to messages haha). I’ll PM you my email over Revive. 😀

  • I’m not a TCK; I’ve lived in the same house for the past 9 years in my thirteen years of life. Yet somehow, I really feel like I can relate to this. Having gone to about six different churches, I always feel like the one who doesn’t belong. The one on the outside, the one with a different perspective, the one who sees and processes things in a totally different way. I’ve started to embrace this about myself instead of trying to change it. People tell me that I should try to make friends and be more involved in what’s going on around me, but honestly I’d rather just accept who I am and not spend my whole life trying to be someone I’m not.

    Heh, idk whether that’s actually similar to what this is about or not, but it’s what this post made me think about ;P

  • Oh wow…I can REALLY relate to this half even more that the first!! Where you list all the questions and the mental dilemma you go through about how and what to share when asked those things…Ohmyword how I could relate!! I actually almost cried reading this just seeing how much of my own story (in theory, thoughts, and emotions) I was reading. The part about fitting in physically in one place; though mentally in another…YES! And that’s such a hard thing to explain or balance.
    Wow….This really REALLY spoke to me! And just encouraged me to read something from someone who has experienced similar emotions that I have!
    THANK YOU!!!

    • Wow, Megan, thanks so much for your response! I love connecting with those have had similar experiences and who are also asking similar questions about life. Praying Jesus guides you in processing your own TCK experience. I think you have a lot of good things to offer through your experience!

  • You really have nailed the feelings of never quite belonging in the place you find yourself and you are right, it is a gift. It’s an ability you build up to fit in almost anywhere, externally at least. Internally it is a whole different ball game. You watch what you say and do every second of every interaction. The gift is the awareness of the culture and the nuances as well as the ability to relate and communicate cross culturally on a far deeper level than a single culture kid.

  • Thanks for sharing, Alicia. Although I grew up in the US, I started international travels at age 13, now 13 years ago. For the past few years I’ve lived in East Asia and feel like I have a lot of TCK characteristics as I’ve adjusted to Asian life. I have several friends who also grew up in the US and are now in Asia with me and we refer to ourselves as TCKs. It is really helpful to have a group of believers going through the same thing. I hope you have the same! May God continue to guide and strengthen you!

  • Hey Alicia,
    I totally relate. I’m a third-culture kid too, and its been more of a struggle the older I grow. I’ve experienced a sort of disparity in the country I find my pride in and the country of my birth and where my parents are from. I was raised in a multi-cultural society and wasn’t ever really told to embrace the culture my parents were raised in as my own. So I was free to embrace different cultural influences and own them as my own. That has been exciting actually. What makes things difficult is how people will relate to me, especially people from the country of my birth. I’m expected to think and do things like them unquestionably, and they can’t seem to understand how I’m different. For this reason its been easy for me to actually resent the country of my birth and wish not to associate myself with it. Becoming a believer has certainly given me a greater identity and becoming a rebelutionary has been awesome because over the last many years I’ve been able to connect with other third-culture kids. I sometimes wonder how my ‘cultural-confusion’ will influence the way I raise my own children one day soon, its an interesting thought to me.
    I’ve really appreciated this article, because being a TCK can be lonely, its great being able to identify with other people like me.

By Alicia Esh
rebelling against low expectations

The Rebelution is a teenage rebellion against low expectations—a worldwide campaign to reject apathy, embrace responsibility, and do hard things. Learn More →