My Third Culture Experience

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Hello!

I did promise my new post would be more upbeat.
This topic is one I figured was pretty obvious if you’ve read a couple of my posts, but not everyone knows what it means to be a Third Culture Kid. Up until a few years ago, I had no clue I was one myself.
So let’s go back to a few years ago when I was browsing for new books online and came across one that sparked my interest immediately;

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I read the description about it and I felt a jolt go through me. It described me and how I grew up completely, and I felt a little less alone.
For anyone unfamiliar, I’ll explain as best as I can through my own experience.
It’s basically about kids who grew up in a different country than their nationality, and the struggles they face because of it later on in life.

The pictures throughout this post are all from recents trips I’ve taken around Malaysia.
I think the last post had enough throwback pictures for a while.

Both my parents are Dutch, and were born and raised in the Netherlands. They decided that they wanted to start a life abroad before I was born; they set out to Italy so my dad could start his dentist practice there.

In June of 1994, the world became slightly more joyous place with the birth of yours truly.
And damn it you are welcome.

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I was born in Mendrisio Switzerland, just across the border from northern Italy. My mom didn’t trust Italian hospitals in our area.
I still think it’s pretty awesome I was born there. The Swiss didn’t really give a flying F because they made me get a Dutch passport anyway and still treat me like a tourist.
Thanks guys. Much love.
For the first ten years of my life, my home was northern Italy. Whenever people ask what my home town is, I’ll say it’s Cocquio Trevisago. It’s so small that it wouldn’t even show up on google maps until recently. I lived in a house on the side of a mountain surrounded by a forest with the most awesome view of the slightly bigger town below. I grew up playing barefoot in the woods, and I had the best childhood ever. Not trying to make you jealous here, but it was pretty damn sweet.

Embarrassing confession, but my Italian is horrendous. I speak like a three year old and basically throw out random words in the hope that something will make sense. It’s my own fault I never learned Italian properly, because my siblings did. I wanted to learn English over Italian, and my mother would get us children’s movies and cartoons in English. I went to an international school, where Italian was taught. I just never paid any attention in that class and the teachers didn’t care.

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So the school I went to was a European school; and if you went to one as well you know the struggle of explaining to people what that means.

“They’re like international schools, but not really. You learn your own language, but also the host country language and you have different sections of European nationalities. There’s basically an emphasis on learning European languages.”

After almost fifteen years in that school, you’d think I could explain it better.
Nope.
I was in the Dutch section, and there was a German section, French, Italian and an English one. There were also some nationalities sprinkled in that usually ended up in the English section.
cheers to Sweden and Spain
The sections varied in size depending on the host country the school was based in. In total, there are fifteen of these schools across Europe.
I think. A lot of them are closing down.
Looking back, I was incredibly lucky to have gone to one of these schools. My family wasn’t wealthy, and these schools are not exactly cheap. I’ve heard it’s become increasingly difficult to enroll in one if you don’t have a parent working for the European Union or the school itself, but I’m not sure.

I always felt like I was very Dutch while I was growing up. I went to the Netherlands once a year to visit my grandmother and spoke Dutch with my friends. To my knowledge, I was completely Dutch.

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Moving to Mol (Belgium) when I was ten was an initial culture shock. I went to the same kind of school, so not much changed there, other than the Dutch section being much larger. Belgium was very foreign to me. It shares a border with the Netherlands and we speak the same language, but there are some big differences in culture.
There’s a slight competitiveness between Dutch and Belgians too. Dutch people will oftentimes look down on Belgians, and I used to be like that. I grew to love Belgium over the years, and I do consider it my adopted home. I have mixed feelings about returning there, but I have very good memories of the place. Just like Italy, I never felt like I was part of the local community though. My accent is different, and it’s obvious that I’m not Belgian to anyone who speaks Dutch.

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The real shock came unexpectedly; when I returned to the Netherlands for school.
I was so excited to finally move to the country of my nationality and truly feel at home in a place for the first time in my life. I’d be surrounded by Dutch people, who all spoke my language in my accent.
I was pretty devastated to discover it didn’t feel like coming home at all. I felt like a total outsider, even worse than before. I was this weirdo who spoke Dutch but with all these European influences. A lot of people assumed I was pretentious at first, which wasn’t ever my intention. I never thought of myself as better than anyone because of my upbringing. All I wanted was to feel like I belonged somewhere; the only way I knew how was by sharing my experiences. Those just happened to be very different from most of my classmates in the Netherlands.

It took a while to adjust, but I managed to build a life in the Netherlands eventually. I never felt at home, though. I learned it was best to keep my upbringing quiet until I was asked about it directly,  to avoid any confusion.
There are little cultural things you miss out on when you don’t grow up in a country. For example; the Dutch are notorious for being loud and rude. I always thought I was like that too, until I actually lived there. First week in Utrecht I got yelled at for taking too long to figure out how the bus tickets worked. I got so freaked out I cried.
The guy was surprised and apologised immediately; he didn’t mean it in a harsh way at all. It was just the way he talked.

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(Just quickly going to interrupt this post by saying I tried Durian and it is absoutely disgusting. Moving on.)

Most of my close friends are third culture kids too, and we’ve experienced very similar things. We make friends easily, but have learned to say goodbye to many of them. Expats get relocated frequently, so we’d have friends for a while and then they would leave. Every year new kids would come, and others would move away.
You live, you learn, you adjust.

Some of us want to live in one place now, and never travel around again unless it’s for a vacation.
Others, like myself, want to travel and explore the entire world. Not just through a holiday, but really live somewhere and absorb a piece of the culture. Eventually, I do want to go back to one place, build a home and stay there. I’m not sure about the where just yet, although I have formed an idea of my ideal place.
I don’t think I would want my children to be raised feeling as displaced as I did sometimes.

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If you’re a third culture kid yourself, someone who grew up in a culture different than their own, I highly advise you to read the book by David Pollock and Ruth van Reken.  It opened my eyes and made me feel a lot less alone.

If you’re not a third culture kid, I hope I gave you some insight in what my upbringing was like and what my view on it is. Many people think they want to pack up and start a new life in a foreign country, without actually considering what that means or what consequences come along with it.

 I’ve accepted that I’ll never be considered completely Dutch in the Netherlands, and that’s ok.
I’m still Dutch and I’ll always be content with my nationality, but I don’t have an overwhelming sense of national pride either.
I watch football, I celebrate Dutch holidays occasionally and I do like the color orange. I eat stroopwafels, poffertjes and I love hagelslag on toast more than anything.

I’ll always bring a piece of the Netherlands with me, no matter what country I end up in. I’ll also bring along a piece of Italy, Belgium, Greece and Malaysia.

Much love and speak soon,

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Liz

xo

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2 Comments

  • Charlotte

    I completely relate to this! 🙂
    I was born in the UK and lived there until I was 8 years old, until my dad got a job in Australia so we all uprooted and moved there, and we’ve been living there ever since. I never considered myself Australian, and was always known as the English girl at my school, which I kind of absolutely loved. I had so much pride for being from Britain, and would never even dream of considering myself anything else.
    That was until I came to the UK on a student exchange from my university this year. Since pretty much when we first moved to Australia, I had my heart set on moving back to England as I never felt like I completely fit in in my new, warmer home. Even though I became a full citizen of the place, it always felt wrong thinking about myself as Australian.
    But as soon as I came over in January, I realised how not-British I am, and how much I do actually represent Australia in the way that I am. It was the biggest shock coming over and meeting all my relatives again, and having even them not really consider me from the same country as they were.

    So now, I’m trying to figure out where I fit in in the world, or if I do actually fit in anywhere. Sorry for the life story, this post just really resonated with me and I didn’t realise it was an actual thing either! 🙂

    • lizz

      Ahh Thanks so much for your comment Charlotte! And no worries, I love reading these stories! It’s a strange feeling to explain to people, because you don’t really belong in either place but you belong in both at the same time, which doesn’t make any sense. The Global Nomad University transition book ( I highly recommend for you by the way) described it like the feeling of being a fish out of water. For some reason that is the most accurate description I could give it too, haha. The woman who wrote it talks about her children and how they especially struggled to transition back to their native country when they went off to University. I don’t agree with all of her tips, such as getting involved in the international community in the native country. I think you’d only alienate yourself more. I’ve found it’s best to keep quiet about my exact upbringing so people don’t perceive it as bragging, but when I’m asked about it I’m happy to share.

      You’re very lucky to have the upbringing you did, although sometimes it might not feel that way. I remember when I first came to the Netherlands I was so happy to come ‘home’ and so disappointed when I settled in and didn’t belong. All I wanted was to be like everyone else. Your upbringing in Australia made you the person you are, though. Always remember that!
      There’s also nothing wrong with being proud to be British, it will always be your heritage, even if people who lived there their entire lives might think differently. You’ve probably just adopted some different ideas/ customs during your time in Australia, but that doesn’t make you any less British. I remember feeling like I shouldn’t be proud of my Dutch heritage for a while, because I wasn’t considered very Dutch when I returned. Wherever I go in the world, I’ll always be Dutch first. Just like I’m assuming you’ll always be British.
      Something that really helped in my feeling of belonging was traveling, and simply accepting that my upbringing did make me different. Not better, but different. When I was genuinely interested in how my friends were brought up in the Netherlands and asked them about it, they were also much nicer in asking me about my upbringing.
      I can’t tell you where you belong in the world, that is something you’ll have to figure out on your own. Pretty much all of my friends who are third culture kids have a different idea about their upbringing and life, and they all ended up somewhere else . I have noticed they all still love to travel around though! Definitely give “Third Culture Kids” a google search, maybe the e-book is available online somewhere as well.

      Best wishes and thanks for your message!
      -Lizette
      xo

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