Being a third-culture kid makes me uncertain of where I call home

Finding comfort in the university transition period

Image by: Curtis Heinzl
Clanny moved countries each year growing up.

“So… where are you from?”

This question frustrated me growing up. I found no answer that satisfied the people who asked it. It’s a loaded question that, depending on who you ask, really means many other things. One person might really mean “where were you born,” which breeds an easy answer: Ottawa, the capital city of Canada.

But that’s not what most people mean when they ask.

Most people in my life ask it to mean “what’s your cultural background,” in which case I alternate between Burundi, Rwanda, or Congo, or all three. I’m Burundian-Rwandese-Congolese.

Then, there’s “where did you grow up?” This is the one that makes me pause and start to get irritated. I usually settle for a general “east Africa” answer. It becomes a nice conversation starter; people want to know more, and I get an opportunity to trade a few stories until the true meaning of the question comes to the surface of the conversation: “Where do you call home?”

Honestly, I couldn’t tell you.

I’m what you call a ‘third culture kid,’ which describes the phenomenon of being ‘from’ one place and raised in another environment totally different than where your parents are from, and where you were supposed to grow up.

That’s my experience, plus travelling and moving countries or switching schools once a year.

I went to school with a rotating cast of kids in similar positions. We’d rotate in and out of schools, sometimes appearing for a few months and being whisked away by circumstances out of our control. Everyone lived there, but few were ‘from’ there. At the very least, we were all doing that together and could trade stories of unfamiliarity.

We all understood the discomfort that came from waking up somewhere new at the end of the day.

But moving each year wears on you, little by little. A lack of stability can chip away at any hope you have of making and maintaining friends. You give up on opportunities, clubs you want to join, activities you want to take part in, and friends you want to spend time with over the summer.

There was no point.

At the end of the semester, the people you love will leave, and at the end of the school year, you’ll be next. Mom is going to sit you down and tell you something new is coming next. A new house, a new school, a new country, so don’t unpack, because you’ll find yourself scrambling to pack again in a few months.

For years I’ve felt this wordless fury grow in my chest. I moved every couple of years and was always caught between wanting to grieve every friend I lost and every opportunity I missed out on while also trying to be grateful.

I’m complaining from a place of privilege. I never knew where I was going to live the next year, but at least I knew I had a roof over my head. I went to great schools, lived in a whole bunch of cool places, and met interesting people—I wouldn’t have met my best friends if I didn’t travel so much. I have more to be grateful for than I have to mourn.

Sure, when you’re a kid, your parents are responsible for you and decide a lot about your life, but there’s something deeply angering about seeing that exercised on a bigger scale—being whisked away to another country and having no choice but to go, no matter how badly you want to stay.

I’m now an adult, doing my undergraduate degree, and I have the most control over my life than I’ve ever had. However, because of a lot of different factors—including the pandemic—I’ve lived in a new place every year, mimicking the instability I grew up with.

Even though I’m lucky, I’m still frustrated. I’ve shrunk down my possessions to what can fit in a dorm room.

I’m tired of moving, I’m tired of throwing away or giving away things I’ve gotten attached to. I live off whatever can fit into a couple of suitcases.

But now I’m not the only one.

Besides my cohort of third-culture kids, most people in college or university will probably understand what my reality has been for my whole life. Moving away from home, settling for something new, and maybe changing your mind once or twice.

Then you graduate, move again, and things keep adjusting until you find a place to settle. I desperately want to settle. I feel so anxious whenever my future starts to look murky and uncertain, because a lifetime of moving has me on my toes, ready to run to the next destination.

That’s not realistic now.

University is a transitory period in everyone’s life. It seems the rest of the world has joined the fray that I’ve become used to—always being in motion, slowly working towards an end goal of stability.

I know in a few years I’ll be back where I started: in a new city, new environment, maybe even a new country even, who knows.

As for that question: “Where do you call home?”

I don’t know yet, but I know that one day, we’ll all get to the place where we can answer that question with certainty. I look forward to that day.


Moving, Third-culture kid, transition, University

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