THE STRUGGLES OF BEING A THIRD CULTURE KID

I grew up in Spain, but my parents were born and bred in England.

This, my friends, is what is known as being a “third culture kid”.

I first read the term on a blog post Angela wrote a couple of years ago, and it’s a concept I’m really fascinated by – in a very personal way.

The official definition of a “third culture kid” is a child who’s grown up in a culture that’s not the one where their parents are from. So you have your first culture: where your parents are from; your second culture: where you grow up; and your third culture… the one that’s a mix of the two.

It’s a confusion of cultures.

And it’s that third culture that ends up defining us the most.

It’s the one that makes you feel a liiiittle bit like you don’t belong anywhere… because how can you? You’re not entirely one thing, and you’re not entirely the other. You’re always going to be different to everyone on either side.

“Oh my gosh you’re so lucky!” is the reaction I almost always get when I tell someone that I grew up in Spain.

And it’s true. I am lucky.

I had a fantastic childhood, I grew up living ten minutes away from the beach, and I’m fully bilingual. I’m eternally grateful for the amazing opportunities I’ve had from growing up abroad.

However. I have also had a lot of sunburn. I was “the foreigner” (seriously) at school for years, despite never having lived anywhere else. And I’ve picked up a lot of Spanish mannerisms that frequently confuse the people around me.

I think being a third culture kid explains a lot about who I am. It explains a lot about the choices that I, and most of the other third culture kids I know, have made. It’s why we we love travelling, why we’re restless, and why we struggle to settle in just one career, one city or one country.

(It’s also a HUGE part of what makes me feel so passionately about Brexit.)

Unless you’re a third culture kid, it can be kinda hard to understand how weird it feels sometimes…

So I thought I’d put together a list of some of the things I’ve struggled with most since making the UK my home!

third culture kid

Sometimes when people ask me where I’m from, I lie

This is a classic third culture kid problem.

My story is long and a bit complicated, and sometimes it’s just easier to say that I’m from London than to have to go through the whole rigamarole of explaining everything…

Yes, I’m actually British. Yes, I lived there for 18 years. Yes, I know I don’t look Spanish (because I’m not). Yes, I have noticed that I’m very pale. No, my parents aren’t Spanish (see above). Yes, I can speak Spanish fluently.

YES, I HAVE NOTICED THAT I AM VERY PALE THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR POINTING THAT OUT. AGAIN.

(And please for the love of cheese don’t ever ask me to “go on, say something in Spanish then!”. I’m not a performing monkey and it makes me want to kick you in the shins a little bit.)

third culture kid

“I can’t place your accent… where are you from again?”

My “posh” accent is what happens when you grow up learning English from your Dorset-bred parents, without kids your own age around to mould you. I never really heard any English slang until I moved here for uni, and when I did, I actually kinda struggled to understand half the conversations going on around me!

I’ve also developed a third culture kid habit of picking up bits and pieces from other accents. There are specific words that I always pronounce in another accent (gir-AFF, not gir-ARFE; past-ELLE not past-el), and I have touches of Welsh, Irish, Essex and American thrown in there as well.

As well as the accent confusion, I also picked up a lot of my English vocabulary from reading Enid Blyton books as a child/teenager. Which is all well and good… except no one ever taught me how to actually pronounce the words properly.

A fact my mother found particularly funny that one time I asked her if I should prepare the Man-Get-Out for dinner…

third culture kid

My English general knowledge sucks

I went to a Spanish school, so I never studied Shakespeare or Austen or Dickens, because they’re English authors. We studied Lorca, Cervantes and Pérez-Reverte.

My long division is upside down. I have no idea what half the technical terms in Maths or Science mean, because I learned them all in Spanish.

My spelling is pretty awesome, but my grammar is all over the place (thank you Mallorquin, for teaching me how to put the word “but” at the end of the sentence, instead of at the beginning…). I also sometimes mix up my words, and will directly translate a Spanish word into a made up English one, without even realising I’ve made it up.

I don’t get half the pop-culture references people my age talk about. You know those nostalgic Buzzfeed/Hannah Gale lists about living in the 90s? I have never heard of most of the things on them.

(Though it turns out Pogs were totally an international thing.)(Except back home we call them Tacos.)(I’m not even joking.)

third culture kid

It’s a small world after all

I’ve lost count of the amount of weird “small world” coincidences I’ve had since I arrived in the UK.

Since moving to England, I’ve bumped into school friends, childhood friends, and random acquaintances more times than I can count.

I once stood back to back on the tube with one of my old work colleagues, and only realised she was there when someone shoved her into me. (Think of how many tube lines, tube stops, trains, carriages and sections of the carriages there are in London!)

Most recently, my blog friend Immy (who I also work with, and is also about to become one of my neighbours) and I realised that I’d met her boyfriend several times over the years at home, cos he went to school with a load of my best theatre friends.

Honestly, it doesn’t even shock me anymore.

Third culture kids. We’re everywhere.

third culture kid

It’s the little things that are the biggest struggle

Balancing the niceties of two cultures can be really hard.

There are so many little things that are native to each culture, but that most people don’t even realise they do. And it’s those little things that aren’t taught that can really make you stand out when you’re a third culture kid.

At uni, a few friends mentioned that I had a bit of a reputation for being rude. I was really hurt, really confused and really, really couldn’t understand where everyone was getting that impression from.

It was only after I’d been here for about three years that I started to realise what the problem might be. And when two different Spanish friends also pointed it out as weird, that’s when I knew I wasn’t imagining it:

English people say please and thank you a lot. Like, A LOT.

If I’m in England and I say “could you pass me the bread?”, nine times out of ten I’ll get a pointed look and an even more pointed “PLEASE”. Because it’s polite to say please and thank you, right?

But where I’m from, you don’t HAVE to use the words. People do, obviously. But nowhere near as often as people say it here. In Spain, it’s mostly about your tone of voice, your facial expression and your gestures.

Small things, but they’re something I’ve had to learn how to adjust, depending which country I happen to be in at the time. Not as easy as it sounds!

third culture kid

I’m sure there’s more to add to this list, but I can’t think of any right now and this blog post is already 1500 words long.

(I just read it out to Gary and asked him if there’s anything else I should add, and he said: nope, that pretty much sums up your weirdness. So that’s nice.)

Hasta la vista baby!

PS. Further reading: Am I rootless, or am I free?

Follow:
Share:
  • I am not a third culture kid, but I suppose if I had kids they might feel that way? But I do get a lot of this as an expat. I also went to a French school for three years of my education, so there are big concepts in science that I also don’t know the English terminology for. I remember when I switched back to English school I tried to argue with my teacher that an answer I’d written on a quiz was correct just not in the right language.

    I never knew about upside down long division though. That’s weird.

    Aisling | anthologie.

    • I think the school terminology thing is such a big one, and people just don’t even register it. I felt stupid for about half my time at uni cos I just didn’t understand what people were talking about!!

      Yeah the long division one is weird. Mum and Dad could never help us with maths homework cos we just couldn’t coincide the two haha. Apparently it’s “upside down” for a lot of continental Europe. xx

  • Eeeeep Katy this has sparked so much nodding and “me too!”s while reading this – ESPECIALLY the Enid Blyton part – my mum used to laugh at me because not only could I not pronounce half the words I also sounded like I was from the 50s!
    I’ve not actually heard the term third culture before but oh my gosh that’s exactly what I am. I’m half tempted to write about it myself – would that be ok? If I linked back of course?
    It’s weird sometimes but I definitely prefer having multiple cultures and not just being restricted to one, I think it creates a very unique and special view of the world! And a lovely sense of familiarity when you stumble across someone who is the same :) xx

    • Hahahha YES!!! I stil get teased by my friends for saying weird words like Gosh and Delightful hahaha. And yesssss of course write about it!!! :D I’d love to hear your take on it xxx

  • Laura Hadley

    Love this post! Especially the Man-Get-Out! When I was younger I pronounced it man-gee-tout (and the mangy bit sounded like it was disgusting) haha. I only know basic Spanish and can completely see why it has been confusing for you but from your writing you wouldn’t be able to tell that you were brought up in Spain. Your childhood seems so interesting Katy, I love it!

    Laura | http://www.laurahadley.co.uk

    • Hahahhaha I kinda love Mangeetout. I might just start saying it like that ♥︎ Thanks Laura!! xxx

  • This was such an interesting read. I grew up in the South of the UK with parents who were very much from the North and THAT was weird enough, all in one country. I guess I’m thinking specifically about the accent thing but actually there are small culture shifts even in England. I can’t even begin to imagine how strange it must have been to be a third culture kid. It’s all part of making you the awesome babe that you are though and that’s something pretty damn cool.
    M x

    • Ahaaaa! THIS explains the chips and gravy!!!! IT ALL MAKES SENSE NOW. And yep, definitely culture differences. My parents are total southerners, so my english side is very southern, and living with a northerner, you can definitely still tell the small differences! :)

      PS. THANKS ♥︎ xxx

  • Katy, this was such an interesting post to read, I absolutely loved it! Although, it took me about 5 minutes of looking at ‘Man-Get-Out’ to realise what you meant haha! I feel like it would fabulous to go to a dinner party with you, just thinking of how many life experiences you’ve had that us guys wouldn’t have had. I would love to hear them! :) I agree with Laura too, you write so well that you wouldn’t be able to tell you were brought up in Spain!

    Soph x | http://www.sophierosie.com

    • Yay thank you lovely!!! :D Means a lot coming from you!

      And yes, it took my mum a while to realise what I meant too, and then she laughed for about half an hour before explaining to me haha.

      Also: DINNER PART WHENEVER YOU WANT ♥︎

  • This was a fantastic post and really enjoyed reading it! I had neighbours who moved over to Spain 9 years ago and their youngest child doesn’t remember England at all. Despite being English through blood and where he was actually born, he is a Spanish child by where he has lived and gone to school. He plays for a Spanish football team and the only English friends he has are those in the same position as he is. Their eldest daughter is almost 19 and despite having 5 years of education in the UK, when she moved back here last summer her education was totally different to people her age.

    I personally think it’s fascinating hearing about people’s stories when they’ve lived abroad for 6 months, let alone living in a different country for most of their life. I hadn’t even thought about the subtle differences such as please and thank you in language. Thanks so much for sharing this!

    Sophie x | Essential Twenty

    • Thank YOU so much for reading and for your lovely comment Sophie!!! :) It’s funny, because the small differences become really huge when you don’t even realise they’re there! It definitely made things hard, because it’s not something people really notice is there until it’s not! xx

  • I LOVE THIS POST. It’s so interesting to hear about the aspects that I would never have even thought about.

    Nicola // pink-confetti.co.uk

    • THANK YOU LOVELY ♥︎ it’s funny, cos a lot of it I didn’t even realise myself until I started writing!! xx

  • Love this, such an interesting read and SUCH a small world. Also, you are the most adorable child! I cant wait to be neighbors heeheee! Immy x

    http://www.immymay.com

    • You’re going to be sick of me by the end of the year hahahahah ♥︎

  • Being from New Mexico and speaking Spanish as well, some of these really do make me laugh. (Like being made to prove it like a performing monkey) At school we’d say the pledge of allegiance in both English and Spanish. My favourite comments that I’ve gotten from people – even Americans which is pretty inexcusable is – “Wow! Your English is really great!” One day we’ll have to compare vocab because I know there’s some big differences between Spanish in Spain and Spanish in the Americas. (For one, you’ll have to go through all things “vosotros” related with because you don’t really use it in Mexican-Spanish so my conjugating there is poor. Really poor.) xx

    • Ha! Yep, I get the opposite: Wow! Your Spanish is really great! … well yes. 18 years of learning of it will do that to a person. And yes! I’d love to do a vocab comparison. I’ve always been fascinated by the slight differences. For years, all Spanish Disney films were just dubbed by South American Spanish speakers, so it was always funny to listen to, because it was so different than what we were used to! xx

  • The slow pace

    Me encanta este post! Yo soy española, criada por italianos en España. Puede parecer que son culturas en las que no hay muchas diferencias, pero sí las hay! Nunca había pensado en algunas cosas que mencionas en el post, pero son totalmente ciertas!!! Ahora vivo en Alemania, así que imagínate la diferencia entre mis modales y mi forma de ser comparadas con las de los alemanes. Terrible!
    PD: ahora voy a comentar siempre en español jeje!

    • Jajajjaja bieeen! Me alegro!! :D es extranyo (me faltan letras en este teclado jaja) pero hay tanta gente que no se da cuenta de las pequenyas diferencias. xx

  • meg

    This is such an interesting read! And I feel lots of people need to see this and learn about third culture kids.

    Meg | Elmpetra

    • It’s such an invisible thing, no one seems to really talk about it! People seem to understand that if you’re Japanese or Indian, and you moved to the UK, there are going to be culture differences, but no one seems to expect it of people who look and sound as English as I do – which makes it hard to explain why I’m different! xx

  • WE CALLED POGS TACOS (AND TAZOS) TOO. YOU’RE NOT WEIRD I SWEAR.

    • ARE YOU SURE ‘BOUT THAT THO. xxx (Yep, we also called them Tazos too!!)

  • Cate in the Kitchen

    Really interesting read Katy!

  • Does having a Father from Greece and a Mother from England count as a third culture kid?! I guess it must. I can relate to a lot of these. Even though I was brought up in the UK (I only spent the first 2 years of my life in Greece), I spent my childhood speaking Greek at home, watching Greek TV and films, going to Greek school on a Saturday afternoon so I’m fluent in both languages (I actually have an A Level in Modern Greek) but it meant I missed out on a lot of childhood stuff and it has made me different. But I guess that’s what make us, unique and individual.

    I have to say I hate the whole performing monkey thing too. xx

    Ioanna | hearting.co.uk

  • Sara

    As a French-Canadian living in England I get this in a few ways. I experience it differently, but I get this. I mean when you are white North American like myself, you are already displaced from your roots to begin with, because North America isn’t our native home. My Scottish and French heritage are my heritage, but not necessarily my culture. And living in the UK for years has just added another complexity to it. I have no idea what my culture, what my native food should actually be. It’s such a strange thing.

  • Sara

    And people saying ‘oh, speak some Québécois’ is probably the most annoying thing on the planet.

  • I’m Anglo-Danish (mainly), born in Germany, raised in English boarding schools, but I don’t speak Danish or German (French, Italian and Spanish on the other hand, those I can do.) I relate to SO much of this – mainly not being able to answer the question “where are you from” in a single word!

  • I can relate to so many of those things too, even though I’m not technically a third-culture kid (I was born & bred in France, just like my parents before me). So obviously, I didn’t feel so different as a kid, but since moving to London 4 years ago (4 YEARS!!), more and more on this list has become true.

    My English general knowledge also sucks (Zola & Hugo are more my thing!), I also hate it when people insist on me speaking in French because they looooove the accent, and I have started to include please and thank you, and would you and could you and combinations of all of those in pretty much every sentence I say/write.

    But the most difficult bit is when people ask me where home is. Because of course, home is at my parents, and always will be, but France feels less and less like home, so much so that when I go there, I consider it holiday-ing, not ‘going home’. And London is also home, but I’m not entirely sure the UK will ever be (especially in light of the whole Brexit situation)…

    Sandra | Cake + Whisky

  • Love this – it’s so interesting where we get our identities from. I’ve always lived in the UK but my father is Iranian so I also get a lot of comments on my paleness (always nice to be reminded) and how my accent sounds “very English” – I just have to laugh it off these days. I love that I have two cultures to draw from and I can’t imagine it being any other way. x

  • This was so interesting to read! And I also have to wonder if you not saying please and thank you as much would be picked up on as much if you were a guy? There’s probably no way of knowing that, but it is something that people seem to be talking a lot about at the moment in relation to the word ‘sorry’ so I wonder if our Ps&qs are under the same scrutiny! Stephie xx

    http://www.acupofcreative.co.uk

  • I actually liked reading this, it made me smile! You’re just SPECIAL and that’s a good thing.
    Also I’m off to google what a Pog is so don’t feel too bad…

  • This was such an interesting read! I had never even heard of a third culture child before so learning about your experience growing up in a different culture to your parents was definitely a surprise. Really glad you shared it with us :)

    Ali | Ali Caitrin

  • This was a really interesting read! It reminds me of the time when my friend (whose parents are from two different countries, but grew up in the UK) turning round to me and saying sometimes I wonder where I really belong, because people don’t see me as British because of the colour of my skin. I’m not sure where I’m going with this… but anyway v.similar x

    vvnightingale.com

  • Hanna

    This totally fits me! –Hanna Lei

    Latest Post: The Estee Edit MetalliShadow

  • Charlie Elliott

    The day I tell someone I’m half Jamaican and they don’t comment on why I’m so pale will be a Dear Diary moment.

  • I loved reading this post, Katy! As a bit of a nosy person, I love finding out new things about people, and, although I perhaps cannot relate, I feel that I know you a bit better after reading this :)
    I adore the throwback photos, too!
    Hope you’re having a lovely day,
    Ellie (thestorybookgirl.com) x

  • This was such an interesting read! I’ve never heard of the term “third culture kid” before but it makes so much sense. I’m not one of them, but I can relate to the whole making up new words (I do that both in Swedish and English haha), mixing up my grammar, and not being polite enough (although I’m getting so used to the British way that I’ve started to find Swedes very impolite haha). xx

  • Woah, such an interesting post! I have a less extreme third culture kid syndrome as my parents were both raised in California but they raised us in the South. Nothing like you, still in the same country. And yet still, I feel like I can relate to a lot of this. Beautifully written and inspiring!

  • Never heard the term ‘third culture kid’ before. Even though i can’t relate but it was definitely an interesting read.

    -M
    megvedere.wordpress.com

  • Tiffany Tales

    I’ve never heard of this phrase before. I think it’s really interesting that you’ve got a mixture of two cultures! Lovely post x

    Tiffany Tales | Lifestyle & Beauty

  • Oh I love this so much purely because I’m a third culture kid and I’ve never heard of the term before. It had that OH MY GOD this is me effect on me!! I was born in the UK but moved to Spain at the age of 12 and I’m still here 14 years later, so everything that my friends back in the UK did as teens I never experienced.

    I do the whole directly translating words from Spanish to English and I sometimes just speak in Spanglish. I also had to get myself out of the habit of ending every question with “no?!” when I speak in English. You hit the nail on the head when you mentioned not feeling like you belong anywhere. A part of me calls England home and a part of me calls Spain home… but then there’s a part of me that feels like neither really are home. I guess that’s just life!

    Thank you for summing it up so well and introducing me to the term Third Culture Kid.
    Love,
    Peta

    24hoursintoday.com

  • Oh, this was an interesting insight! I’ve never heard of the term ‘third culture kid’. My family are very much all living in the exact same spot they were born… Including me haha.

  • 신성화

    Katy!! I don’t read your blog as often as I probably should but every time I do it’s a gem. (This is marichelle btw. Not sure what’s happened to my disqus??)

    This post was very relatable to me even though I’m not in exactly the same boat since it comes from being half white and half Filipino rather than growing up with two expat parents. I spent my childhood split between Filipino and British communities without much merging.

    I spent my early years with my Welsh grandmother learning to be seen and not heard, and then in my pre-teens we found a big Filipino community and started going there. I didn’t know any of the gestures the other kids did to their elders, I didn’t understand their slang or pop culture refs and was missing a lot of language full stop.

    Everyone was so loud and vibrant and all the adults expected me to be the exact opposite of what I’d been taught to be. People made fun of my ‘posh’ accent but then kids at my majority white school wondered why I said some words strangely or pointed at things with my lips, or were confused as to why my response for “what did you have for dinner” was always ‘rice’

    Feeling like you don’t belong is so accurate, as was your comment on feeling restless. I can’t help but wonder how many more kids will end up feeling like this with globalisation increasing. It’s scary and exciting. Maybe feeling like a third wheel will fade a bit. Thanks for this post :) sorry for the long comment hahaha

  • This was such an interesting post! Very well described. It’s kind of like here in the states when you had a parent in the military- people ask you where you’re from and you wonder ‘well should I tell them where I was born? The coolest country I lived in? The state I lived in the longest? The place I graduated from high school?’ It’s a weird thing, but it’s also kinda cool to be unique in that way!

  • This is the second time today I stumbled upon the term “third culture kid”, and while I am not exactly a third culture kid myself (more like a first generation immigrant), a lot of the things you mentioned in your post hit really close to home. The long division part of your story made me laugh out loud. To this day, I do long division the same way I was taught in grammar school and nothing will change that; I am sure I confused a lot of teachers in high school during tests.

    Of Bees and Bonnets

  • Love this post! I had 4 years of being a TCK and can totally relate to some of these points although growing up a true TCK sounds like it was actually great fun, if not a little confusing!

    Emma x
    emmasjoys.wordpress.com

  • Fascinating post – I would never have known that there were so many little cultural differences out there! Really interesting read :-)

  • English people ARE so polite! To the point of being annoying I think sometimes. The saying “sorry” for absolutely everything drives me bonkers too. I’m sure I seem really rude to everyone too! Also, the made up words, my friend at University was from Columbia and English was her second language and she used to combine words to make new ones all the time and I loved it. Keep on keeping on with your made up words :)