Third Culture Kid: ‘A Regular Way of Life’ that Extends to More than Elite, Expat Kids

The longest and saddest goodbyes for me often took place over summer breaks. It was a time where my friends and I usually went “back home” to see our families. As an immigrant from a country 14 hours and a couple grand away, we could only afford it once every few years.

This situation is not uncommon for many immigrant families living in Canada. Parents fear their children being out of the loop with their heritage and language so they spend their savings and scarce vacation days on bridging the gap between cultural identities.

As a teenager, I dreaded going to Pakistan. I just wanted to spend “a normal summer” in the suburbs with my friends. Soon enough, the angst turned into anger. I resented my mom for being reckless with her money on airfare just so we could make small talk with extended family and experience heatstroke.

Related article: Why I’m super excited to go to Pakistan this summer

It took a recent death in my family for me to realize how grateful I need to be to my parents for allowing us to maintain those relationships with loved ones overseas.

For those unfamiliar with the term “Third Culture Kid” (TCK), it basically applies to “individuals who have spent a number of developmental years outside their parents’ country of origin.”

With 1 in 5 Canadians born outside of this country according to Statistics Canada, more than 20% of our population, including myself, can identify as a TCK.

The term was coined by American sociologists David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken when they published “Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds” in 1999. They found TCKs to be multi-lingual, broadminded, and more culturally aware.

Nonetheless, when doing research into the topic, most articles pointed to me to children of militants, diplomats, and businesspeople from the West. In other words, well-off white people. See here, here, and here on the first page of Google’s search results.

The definition of TCKs is finally being extended to refugees and immigrants. It baffles me that it took this long for media and academia to realize that children from third-world countries can also grow up in third cultures.

Since the internet failed me, I talked to someone with the lived experience of being “a non-traditional” TCK.

Sami Al Kanafani came to Canada in 2012 on a student visa paired with his Syrian passport. Sami was born in the U.A.E to a Syrian, originally Lebanese, family. “But I’m not from the U.A.E, I was never a citizen. You have to be born to Emirati parents [to be a citizen],” he said.

Where are you from meme
What can’t memes do?

In places like the U.A.E, “you can’t become a citizen [by birthright] so you and your family have to search for a new home yet again.”

The lack of professional opportunities, rights, and education coupled with war dictated Sami and his family’s reoccurring migration.

An online survey in 2011 found that most of the 200 participants made their first move before the age of nine and had lived in an average of four countries. Most had degrees — 30% had a postgraduate qualification — and 85% spoke two or more languages. Those attributes help make TCKs attractive to employers.

third culture kid
Sami and his cat Sterling whom he says feels closest to home.

Sami, however, feels differently when it comes to employment. “You’d think that having experiences from all around the world gives you a jumpstart because you’ve seen a lot of different ways of doing things, but it doesn’t… When someone doesn’t have a network or leaves their network, it really hinders their performance and exposure to opportunity. You have to start over again” he said.

When I confronted him with the traditional examples of TCKs I’d found in my research, he said

“We’re not all just diplomats and oligarchs. We’re immigrants who are the offspring of immigrants. Even my parents didn’t have a home. I am from nowhere.”

The twenty-three-year-old also talked about how deeper relationships are difficult to maintain because life hasn’t always been in the same place for him. “Now when I meet people, I have this new definition in my mind that things don’t always last forever”.

I realized that Sami and I both had social circles full of TCKs. It’s so common in Canada that “it’s just a regular way of life” Sami said.

Third culture kids
(left to right) Zahra (me), Mousa (born to Egyptian parents in the UAE and now a Canadian citizen), and Sami on a camping trip to Severn, Ontario in 2017

For Sami, home used to mean a place. Now he says “home is just a feeling — a difficult one to get.”

I also took the liberty to ask some more TCKs friends how they respond to the cringe-worthy “where are you from?” Here are some responses:

Where are you from?
Lamees, 23
Where are you from?
Alvin, 24
Where are you from?
Zainab, 22
Where are you from?
Martin, 26
Where are you from?
Hernando, 23
Where are you from?

2 Comments Add yours

  1. vo1ss says:

    A very honest story about the life of a TCK, and truly a pleasure to read!


    1. Thank you so much! Sami was very honest and open with the interview which just made the story that much more meaningful to write.

      Liked by 1 person

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