Rediscovering Myself as a TCK

Last night, I attended my university’s Third Culture Kids student organization meeting for the first time. When I received the organization’s promotional email for the meeting, I didn’t know what the term “third culture kids” meant. I went anyway because the email asked me “Are you a student that grew up overseas?” and I was. Even more so, I went because from somewhere deep down in my sea of memory, I managed to snatch up a shard that told me I had heard the term before. I remembered that a Japanese-American friend in college mentioned this term to me a few years ago, saying that I may be a third culture kid (TCK). At that time, I didn’t pay much attention to it and just let it slip out of my life, thinking that the words “third culture” sounded a bit weird. Last night, I discovered its meaning and a whole new world.

I was born in Iowa, a Midwestern state in the United States of America. A year after my birth, I returned to South Korea with my parents, who are Koreans. I grew up in Daegu, Korea, following many of the typical Korean cultural norms in life, such as worshiping the ancestors through rituals with the extended family or being deferential and obedient to those older than you, until fifth grade in elementary school. That year, my family and I moved (technically back) to the U.S., to live in Indiana, another Midwestern state. At the time, I knew very basic English (“hello,” “teacher,” and “chicken”) but, having a young and fresh mind, I absorbed everything in the environment quickly, becoming American. I lived in Indiana for four years, graduating from public elementary and middle schools. Then my family and I moved back to Korea. After living in Daegu again for several years, this time assimilating back into Korean culture, and attending college for two years, I came back to the U.S., transferring to a university in Nebraska, (guess what?) another Midwestern state. Now, having graduated from college and moving to Texas for graduate school, I travel between the U.S. and Korea from time to time to visit friends and family.

Although I moved across two countries a number of times, I didn’t question my personal and cultural identity until I was in Nebraska for undergraduate study. When I was young, I just absorbed whatever there was around me, be it English language or Korean norms. I wasn’t mature enough to think about what was going on within me. But after returning to the Midwest in Nebraska, the fundamental assumptions I had held about myself began to shake. I thought I was a hundred percent Korean—I didn’t think I was American in anyway except that I had a U.S. passport. But as I interacted with people of diverse cultural backgrounds in the U.S., I began to realize I had ways of thinking and cultural preferences that subtly or obviously differed from those of Koreans. This recognition made me ask myself, “Am I American?” My further interactions with Americans seemed to reveal that I wasn’t completely American either. The questions that arose from these observations and realizations—am I Korean or American? Am I more Korean or more American? Which side do I belong to? Who am I?—I kept asking until last night, the night of the TCK student organization meeting and the night that changed my perception of my own personal and cultural identity forever.

At the meeting of TCKs, I broached the questions I had for myself about my personal and cultural identity to the attendees. Basically, I said that I was confused about how I feel like I am sometimes Korean and other times American, how I couldn’t choose a dominant identity to describe myself. Then a Chinese-American TCK sitting next to me responded and blew my mind. She said that when she was in China, where she had lived for fourteen years, she felt like she was American, but when she was in the U.S., she felt Chinese. “In the end,” she went on to say, “I feel like I am in the middle.” This is how I had felt all along! From this conversation and meeting, I realized that there were others who didn’t feel that they fit into one traditional cultural identity or the other—just as I didn’t. I didn’t need to pigeonhole myself into one culture because this identity with no classification was in itself a category of identity. Some time after I got out of the meeting, I found out that in the 1960s, sociologist and anthropologist Ruth Hill Useem formally defined this category of identity, or TCK, as a person who spent a significant portion of their developmental years outside their parents' culture.

My discovery of the concept of the TCK transformed me. After learning about the existence of others like me firsthand, I felt I firmly belonged to a community, a feeling which I had lacked ever since I started to question my identity, and a feeling that I realized was important. I now feel I am not alone and have people like me with whom I can identify. In short, I feel like I am more firmly part of the world.

More importantly, after learning about TCKs, I formed a sense of identity. Now I can describe myself as a TCK, who doesn’t necessarily classify as belonging to a single traditional culture but to a particular global community of people who are “citizens of everywhere and nowhere.