On Belonging Somewhere

Sunning ourselves on the terrace in the pale Norwegian sun, I watched my daughter and son-in-law relax, knowing their daughter was asleep. On maternity leave and paternity leave simultaneously, they have been able to be much more attentive to her than their own parents were to them. They are both Third Culture Kids (TCKs), born in the country of their parents’ service. They grew up in the confusing world of contrasting cultures, learned to speak in two languages, and normalized transoceanic transport. Their passports reflect only part of their identity.

They are in their thirties, still processing what it meant to grow up straddling cultures. I am nearly 70, also a TCK, but have not recognized its impact on my life as they have. It was long after I left college that “TCK” was even a label to explain to me why I rarely felt at home anywhere. So when I have the chance to dig in, ask questions, and learn from this generation—I do. They seem to handle the dissonance rather well. 

“When did you really start feeling like a Norwegian?” I asked Jan Olav. His family left Japan when he was 14. He replied, “I don’t actually feel Norwegian, even now.” Despite 23 years of Norwegian education, culture, work ethic, and close family ties, he doesn’t feel like he fits in. I’d never have guessed. I asked Bel, knowing that she didn’t identify strongly as American: college and work hadn’t broken through that barrier of superficiality that made her feel the outsider. She and her husband agreed: she seemed more American here in Norway than she did when she was in America, where her differences are more noticeable. 

This is oddly true for me as well: when I’m far away from America, immersed in another culture, my foreignness simply seems “American.” But in the States, I feel odd, an outsider, not picking up on some of the unspoken values of daily American life. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to defend my country because I do not comprehend it and most justification falls short. 

My parents’ generation raised TCKs as though we were small adults who would adjust to whatever surroundings we were in. So, for the most part, we adjusted and became a type of chameleon. Whether we were aware or not, we tended to do the same with our own children. Not knowing the effects of being TCK on a developing brain, we copied what we knew. Naturally we made some changes—most new parents hope to correct mistakes their own parents made—but we were far from perfect. 

Since I knew no better, I grew up thinking that being a TCK was a privilege, an honor, something to be proud of—even if it made me strange. It also made me think it was the best way to raise kids who would be more aware of the world around them, more responsible, and more grateful for what they had. This is true to an extent, but it is only half the picture. Being of a third culture comes at a price that the children and the parents both pay. Being a TCK brings a gap in the fabric of who you are. I have known there was a hole somewhere near the middle of me. I’ve known it my whole life though I didn’t understand it. I wondered if perhaps everyone had it. Or possibly I was a doughnut-shaped soul. That hole is a sense of belonging to a place, being part of a tribe of people.

Different TCKs deal with this gap in various ways. My solution was to try to belong wherever I was. I’ve now lived on five continents. I’ve attempted to learn multiple languages. I’ve tried to create “home” wherever I’ve stayed and attempted to invent one for my children without a keen grasp of what constitutes one. Through many decades, for me “home” was wherever my parents were—long after I moved out and on to university and grad school. (Ironically, once “home” was an island in the Caribbean I have never visited.)

“Home” is a powerful concept, and when my parents died, it came full-force that home is also “place.” 

And I had no place.

Now I see my daughter and her husband carefully crafting a place for their children. They thought about it: how urban, how rural, access to work, schools, church. They considered community, and despite being “outsiders,” they are investing in relationships to last a lifetime: relationships that will bless and encourage their children.

I look at their approach to being TCK with whole-hearted admiration. They know what they lacked growing up and have decided to make sure their children have it in abundance. I’m sure the awareness of the world, the plurality of languages, the value of other cultures will also be part of the upbringing. But most of all, they are giving their children a chance to belong in a specific place. They are endowing them with an identity of wholeness and belonging. I am grateful on behalf of my grandchildren.

Karen DuBert is a Third Culture Kid (TCK) married to a TCK and has raised two TCKs. Raised in South Korea, she has taught and mentored in Eswatini, China, Moçambique, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Now in her autumn years, she coaches young people for cross-cultural work in southern Spain.