Third Culture Kids: “Where Are You From?”

Third Culture Kids: “Where Are You From?”

Text Third Culture Kids "Where Are You From?" inside a square with arrow edges

To understand what the term third culture means in the shortest way possible, just look at the popular Lebanese restaurant, Zaatar w Zeit. Arabic speakers wouldn’t be able to read the name, English speakers wouldn’t be able to understand it, but third culture people would have no trouble with either. The idea isn’t merely that these words are simply transcriptions or translations of one linguistic culture to another. Rather, it’s the mashing of two cultures together to create a unique, third one. The old menu is more reflective of this idea with sandwiches named Kafta w Jebneh and Djej w Jebneh. The Kafta w Jibneh you get at Zaatar w Zeit isn’t the same sandwich your grandmother used to make, but something quite different. In a nutshell, this is what third culture is about.

Children raised in the context of two cultures, and who subsequently mash them together, are known as third culture kids. The term was developed in the second half of the 20th century to accommodate the rapid increase of children reared between cultures (perhaps due to the increased pace of globalization). In Beirut, there’s no shortage of third culture kids — perhaps because of the large amount of foreign schooling systems found in the country. We have American schools, French schools, and even a German school. Another major influence is of course television, with the bulk of our the most popular shows being American imports aired on regional channels.

This upbringing results in children being raised bi- or trilingual and having greater insight into another culture, making it easier for them to move between it and their native culture.

Being raised between cultures can have obvious advantages for a person’s future and person’s present. In a country like Lebanon, where people feel an urgency to leave, third culture kids have a wider choice and easier access to education and employment abroad. On another level, being raised outside the constraints of any one single culture can help prevent bigotry and narrow-minded beliefs. If someone is aware that other cultures value things differently, then that person may not be so inclined to believe that their beliefs are universal truths. In this way, third culture kids are natural born cultural relativists, understanding almost immediately the diversity of beliefs and traditions that exist across cultures.

I’d go as far as to say that, since third culture kids are not handed down any singular set of cultural beliefs, they instead have to invent themselves as they go along. This results in rich individualization, since each individual third culture kid will have taken unique aspects of each culture to create their persona. As a result, you have very interesting, incredibly fluid individuals who cross social, cultural, and national boundaries.

Most people don’t think of him as such, but Edward Said was actually raised as a third culture kid, perhaps one of the most famous Arab examples. Even his name presents the issues with the third culture kids’ experience, matching the undoubtedly English “Edward” with the traditionally Arabic “Said.” He spends the bulk of his autobiography, Out of Place, writing about his experience growing up in Western schools in Cairo, these experiences resulted in him never feeling fully Arab nor fully British, but propelled him to develop a strong sense of who Edward, the individual, was. This separated Said from the conventions of either culture and also made him acutely skeptical of depictions of Arabs within Western discourse. This, in turn, led him to develop ideas for his seminal work, Orientalism.

This example may be misleading because of his fame and grand status, and might unnecessarily romanticize the experience of being a third culture kid, because, for the most part, growing up that way can be an exhausting and an anxiety-inducing experience. Said felt this too and described in the opening of his book the “acute memory of the despairing feeling that I wish we could have been all-Arab, or all-European.” He goes on to list a series of questions that every third culture kids will be tirelessly familiar with: “What are you?” “But Said is an Arab name?” “You’re American without an American name?”

I personally cannot recount how many times I’ve been asked “You’re Lebanese? But why is your Arabic broken?” Those asking the questions are never satisfied as they can never really figure out the anomaly they are talking to. This is the flipside of the third culture experience: the sense of never really belonging to any one conventional group.

Blue and green eye

It’s not controversial to say that most, if not all humans, sense a need for belonging. Yet, for third culture kids, this feeling of belonging is rarely appeased. They may feel like they belong to their native culture until something blocks it. These hindrances can be linguistic, moral, or interpersonal in nature. Alternatively, they may escape to another nation only to discover that they do not feel like they belong there either.

The appeal to groupthink is an old one. Today, it manifests most strongly in nationalism. If one does not hold allegiance to any one particular nation, then building an entire worldview around it seems ridiculous. By distancing oneself from any one nation or culture, one grows skeptical of fanaticism and jingoism while also feeling a sense of alienation due to a lack of belonging. This makes forming bonds of solidarity difficult, especially if, let’s say, there is a linguistic gap with the host nation. This is definitely true in Lebanon where some activists find it difficult to talk to the broader society, especially since the language they use is imported. This is most acutely seen in the discourse around LGBTQI+ rights, where terms such as gay and homophobia are borrowed directly from English because they do not have direct equivalents in Arabic.

The anxiety that third culture kids feel toward interacting with their HOME culture can sometimes lead to alienation and dissociation from the people around them. This reinforces atomization, creating a society where people are unable to even speak to one another, let alone develop strong communal bonds. In such a society, each person exists in their own world and acts mostly in their own self-interest. If the way we view the world is so radically different from one another, it would be hard to build social movements around mutual cooperation and solidarity.

However, the more hopeful conclusion would be that third culture kids are predisposed to seeing the value in individuals. They might be more inclined to reject the presuppositions of nationalism, or that our personalities and beliefs are determined by the nations we are born into. They are instead inclined to see people for who they are, as wholly individual complex organisms who are constantly trying to find their place in this world.

Perhaps their need to belong will also pull them closer to building communities based on solidarity, since they’ve never belonged elsewhere before. Through their understanding of what it feels like to not belong to a place, they could be the greatest hope for social organization. They would be individuals who seek to create collectives of individuals, that would be the truest form of solidarity: a collective of outcasts, not fighting for their own empowerment, but enabling and strengthening the bonds between cultures and between individuals.

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