The Struggles Of Being A Third Culture Kid

September 14, 2016
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 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’ve 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 background is complicated, and sometimes it’s just easier to say that I’m from London than to go through the whole rigamarole of explaining it…

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. Yes, I can speak Spanish fluently.


(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 to help mould your language. 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 Tazos.)(I’m not even joking.)

third culture kid

It’s a small world after all

Since moving to the UK, I’ve randomly bumped into school friends, childhood friends and 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 mannerisms 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, 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 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.)

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


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