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Where is Home for Third-Culture Adults?

I don’t think of home the way most people do. Born in Brazil to American members of a new religious movement/cult, I moved frequently. "Homes" were the many communes in which our group’s members lived.

A week after my nineteenth birthday, I left the group and country I’d spent my whole life in and flew to the United States — my parents’ home country, but one I knew only from movies.

Fourteen years later, "home" still doesn’t conjure an image of any one place. Where is home, I wonder, and do people like me ever feel like they have one?

Moving “Home”

Third Culture Kids” (TCKs), usually defined as people who grow up abroad because of their parents’ career choices, often feel they have no home. They adapt well to new environments, appearing to fit in yet only really feeling a sense of belonging among others who also grew up across cultures.

When I crossed the U.S. border at nineteen, the customs official’s cheery "Welcome home!" as he stamped my American passport was the first of many startling incongruities. I quickly learned no one suspected I was from somewhere else. My English was unaccented, my blonde hair and white skin led many to tell me I "looked Midwestern."

But I didn’t want to “look Midwestern”. I didn’t understand U.S. social norms, didn’t dress in the right ways, know the proper small talk, or move through space in the way everyone else did. I found ways to mention I was from Brazil, to avoid others thinking I was stupid.

But you’re American

Once in college, I discovered I didn’t like the foods my peers did, and didn’t know the movies or references they grew up with. I’d laugh along as though I knew what they were talking about for a while, then disappear into my phone, messaging friends back in Brazil.

Early research notes that TCKs often feel like immigrants. I often wished I could call myself a foreigner, but I’d held U.S. citizenship since birth. Except for my occasional odd grammatical constructions and mispronunciations, I spoke perfect English.

I knew I was lucky not to face the bureaucratic, xenophobic, and linguistic barriers actual immigrants confront, yet I envied their sense of identity and their easy categorisation.

My classmates never seemed bothered when international students discussed their home countries, yet expected me to simply be American. But I didn’t know how to be American or understand their social world. My stories had all happened somewhere else and after a few too many "in Brazil…" tales, a classmate started calling me "Brazilian hipster".

Not a Happy Homecoming

TCKs often feel more positively towards the culture(s) where they grow up than their parent's home culture. My parents were encouraged to "become one" with their mission place, adopting its food, language, and customs, so though I was home-schooled in English and we often spoke it in our communes, we didn’t do much else that was strictly American. While the Fourth of July was just a date to me and Thanksgiving a description in textbooks, I have fond memories of wearing flouncy dresses with pen-marked freckles on my cheeks to winter São João parties (held, of course, in June wintertime).

Researchers have found that feelings of disconnection, grief, and loss are common among TCKs who repatriate for college, along with feelings of frustration, and, most prominently, anger and depression.


How Third-Culture People Perceive Home

Whenever I’m asked where home is, I feel a wave of discomfort. For others, home evokes a specific place with streets full of childhood scenes. A city with a house where they gather for holidays, the corner of the world where they feel most completely themselves. I have no place like that.

Many TCKs feel a constant state of restlessness as adults, life on the move is their only familiar "home". Some develop a serene acceptance of their outsider status as a unique insider.

Amy, a TCK I interviewed while writing this article, was an adolescent when she reframed a growing sense of "I belong nowhere" to "I can belong everywhere". Her take reminded me of an image I made soon after arriving in the U.S., on a green and yellow world map I overlaid in script, "Always remember: if you can’t succeed here, there’s the whole rest of the world to try your luck on".

I spent my first decade in the U.S. desperate to leave the rural towns where scholarships led me and make my life in a place that better resembled the bustling urban landscapes where I grew up. I thought maybe that would make me feel at home.

Today, I’m a writer and researcher with a PhD in cognitive psychology, living near D.C. in a neighbourhood that epitomises the adult life I imagined. And yet I don’t see the U.S. as home. It doesn’t awaken my early memories, doesn’t give me the sense of ownership, belonging, comfort, expert knowledge, and fluid, self-assured movement that I associate with the idea of home.

What I Have, in Place of Home

Sometimes I wish I had a single place that would elicit all the feelings home conveys. One place I could point to and claim. More and more, though, I feel that adopting one place would require a renunciation of everywhere else that’s important to me.

The impulse to resist the adoption of a single place, to see it as betrayal, isn’t just in me. Although TCKs are often characterised in terms of their global citizenry and adaptive flexibility, they are also described as unable to commit. I see this in myself, in my unwillingness to embrace one place, and let it be home.

In talking with Amy, I found she doesn’t think of home as the street-you-know-everyone, where-all-your-memories-are way I feel people often want from me. She told me, "Today, I think of home in a less literal way of just where I can be fully myself, and there are very few people and places and it’s mostly by myself". She shows others the true aspects of herself, just not everything, not all at once. "We are rarely fully ourselves with anybody and that’s just part of life and everybody lives a version of that, but some of us more than others".

Since arriving in the U.S., the people to whom I feel closest are those who can be defined as cross-cultural: international students, Americans who grew up as racial minorities or traversing cultural and class boundaries, children of first-generation immigrants — people who heard another language at home and who can’t find their favourite childhood foods in regular grocery stores. I find we share a similar sense of both belonging to multiple places and cultures and not fully belonging to any.

I may not have one place that is home, but a beach, anywhere in the world, gives me a sense of comfort and belonging. So does curling under a blanket with a book, dancing with friends, and running through a city park. Every morning in my U.S. apartment, I bake homemade pão de queijo. The warm, distinctive smell, the crunch of crust and the chewy, steaming center, every day, feels like home.

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