By: Jazmine Calhoun
A Third Culture Kid, or TCK, is someone who spent the majority of their developmental years in another country, influenced by an entirely different culture than their own. They are the kids with the detailed, tangent narrative to the question, “Where are you from?” As a TCK, I lived in Germany for seven years. Although I have American citizenship, Deutschland ist immer die Heimat (Germany is always home). I did not just visit Germany. I lived the German experience wholeheartedly, insomuch that Germany is a crucial part of my identity. Therefore, after graduating high school, I knew I would miss Germany and that I would have to adjust to the States (how TCKs’ refer to the US). However, I did not realize what a big culture shock I would have upon returning to my land of citizenship.
While I lived in Germany, I spent summers in the States, and I spent most of my childhood in the States, but it was different when I returned here to live permanently. I remember leaving the airport hearing English everywhere and realizing that I was not in Germany anymore. No “Ausfahrt” signs, Deutsches Eis (German ice cream), and I could just smell the difference in McDonalds – I have yet to eat McDonalds in the states since returning in 2010. I felt like a foreigner in my own country. It was like watching your favorite kid cartoon as an adult and all the innocence and joy had disappeared. It felt as if I knew this place, I remembered this place, but I still felt out of place.
It is strange explaining to people that I had a greater culture shock returning to the States than while living in Germany. How could I experience a culture shock in my own country? The American culture is innately in me, so seven years should not have made my transition back home that difficult. The truth is that I developed this window into my culture that allowed me to understand it unbiased. Yes, I am still American, but I do not have the American perspective alone, so now I can understand my country more fully.
When I returned to the States at 19, I felt I had had more freedom in Germany at the age of 14. The lack of autonomy in a country that prides itself on freedom shocked me the most. The mentality of Germans towards teens is different from Americans. In America, we think we treat teenagers as adults, especially in college, but honestly, we tend to cradle young Americans. Maybe it is the issue of safety, which was not big in Germany. Still, I felt more like an adult in Germany at age 14 than at age 19 in my homeland.
I developed a more critical perspective of American culture. Before moving to Germany, I saw nothing wrong with where Americans placed their values, but after living in Germany and engaging with people that had various backgrounds, my perspective changed.
For Aerian Irvine, a junior international affairs major from McDonough, her new understanding of American customs caused a slight culture shock. She spent her childhood in South Korea, where respect, honor and duty toward those older or of a higher social standing than yourself is still vastly important and central to their culture – a value that has been slipping from American culture. She experienced the hardest time respecting those who did not want to be called “Mrs. or Mr.” even though they were older. “It was like going against the grain,” Irvine says. “Koreans just hold more value towards respect… I have to call someone by their title.”
However, for Elizabeth Goddard, a junior social studies education major from Athens, the American pride of freedom of expression shocked her the most after returning from China, which is a generally reserved society. She recalls how expressive students were in her classes in the United States compared to China. However, for Goddard, being classified as part of the majority shocked her the most. “It was strange when I came to UGA and considered a part of the majority,” Goddard says. “I had been part of the minority all my life, so I had to get used to not being one of two white girls.”
Kimberley Allonce, a graduate student in public administration from Haiti, thought the American value of individualism at the price of a strong family proved most shocking. Allonce has only lived in the United States for five years, but he quickly noticed the American need for individualism. It was a shock to see teenagers so eager to leave their parents’ home instead of living with their parents until they are married, as is customary in Haiti. He could not understand the purpose of a “nursing home” for grandparents. In Haiti, “family holds more value for us. You do not leave the home, and if you do, you do not travel too far from it,” Allonce says.
The most disturbing and shocking thing for me was realizing racism. Not to say that racism does not exist in Germany, as I am sure it does, but not to the degree as in America. However, upon returning from a culture that I believe to be very accepting and open-minded, I finally realized that racism existed. This window perspective into American culture challenged me to step outside my comfort zone to see America for its truth.
Although all of our experiences are our own, as a TCK, we can switch cultures in a matter of seconds. I believe this is our biggest gift. We understand each other in ways that no outsider could. We recognize the constant moving and learning how to say goodbye. We get the addictive need to learn a new culture and travel. Every TCK’s culture is uniquely their own, but we all share common traits as Irvine, Goddard and Allonce point out. As TCK’s, we are more culturally sensitive and understanding of people and use that connection to better the world around us and instigate change. While it may be an odd, identity-crisis-inducing life style, anyone who falls into the Third Culture Kid status agrees that they wouldn’t trade their upbringing for anything.