When Third Culture Kids Grow Up


At the 2012 Global Voices Summit in Nairobi Kenya.

Many of us who were raised in countries that were not our parents’ “homeland” or have parents from two different countries, have been labeled as third culture kids. Our parents’ work and lives allowed us to travel to different countries and often live on several different continents throughout our childhood, learn to speak countless languages and move seamlessly between cultures, often picking up habits from each of them that we make our own. Many people consider us lucky and, for the most part, we are.

But what happens to third culture children when they grow into adults? When the time comes for us to settle down (for a while at least), raise children, build lives and put down roots, third culture children sometimes have a tough time making the transition to becoming one culture adults. Although many of us have often wished we had been born and raised in one place, with only one bedroom and one yard that remind us of childhood and what other people call “home”, we simply don't know how to belong to just one place and one language.

This is where the World Wide Web comes in, and this is why you will find many former third culture kids, now third culture adults, playing and thriving on the Internet. They're involved in online communications, the tech industry, international media, activist organizations, and all sorts of other areas that are driven by, or which prosper thanks to the Internet. Cyberspace, where every place, every language and every culture is available to us, is where we feel at home.

Global Voices is a perfect example. I joined Global Voices when our wonderful former Editor for Central and Eastern Europe, Veronica Khokhlova, stumbled upon my English-language personal blog about “life in expat-repat limbo” in Belgrade, Serbia.

Let me clarify (if that's at all possible in this case): I was born to Serbian expat parents in Spain, raised mostly in Portugal, except for three years spent in Kuwait while growing up, where I picked up the English that you see in this post. I've also spent a lot of time on and off in the US where members of my immediate family live. My native languages are Serbian (Croatian, Bosnian), Portuguese and English; but I also speak Spanish, Italian and can read and understand Macedonian, French, Romanian, Bulgarian, Russian, Ukranian, and several others. Even though I had little free time to spare, I was happy to join Global Voices as an author in English, member of the Serbian Lingua team, and of the Portuguese Lingua team.

Just two and a half years after starting as a volunteer, I was invited by Global Voices to join our most prolific authors, editors, contributors and collaborators for the biannual GV Citizen Media Summit 2012, held in Nairobi, Kenya. Kenya, I confess, was one of the few countries I longed to see but hadn't yet. But what I found there was not at all what I expected. Over five long, exciting, filled-to-the-brim days, I was in third culture adult heaven.

On the first day of the Summit, a member of the Global Voices Italian team, Abdoulaye Bah, a Guinean native and Italian citizen, came up behind me and said, “Dobar dan” (“Good day”), in perfect Serbian. Many Africans have studied in the former Yugoslavia, and I have run into plenty of them throughout the world, but it was a warm surprise to find a GVer among them, Abdoulaye's life has been more interesting than most. Abdoulaye has already told the fascinating story of fleeing his birth country and ending up in Italy, working for the United Nations. What he didn't have room to mention is that he first fled to Belgrade, Serbia, and went to high school here. We spent a while reminiscing on his teenage days and Tito's Yugoslavia – a new memory we created together that can't be picked up just anywhere.

On another day, we went out to watch a World Cup match at a local burger joint in Nairobi. By that time, many of the GVers I had been hanging out with had heard me speak several languages, some of them not quite sure where I was from anymore. At half-time, I went outside for a quick cigarette and chat about international politics, an easy topic to run into at any GV event. When I returned to our table, packed with third culture adults from at least five countries, Rafael Tsavkko, our Portuguese-born Brazilian and in-house conspiracy theorist, asked where someone was, in his native Portuguese of course. Instinctively, I responded in Portuguese that I had just seen that person outside having a cigarette. Rafael then went into one of his priceless rants that began with “What the hell? You speak Portuguese too??” and launched into a theory about how I might be a secret agent type, how no secrets could be kept from me and that I was probably the only one who knew what everyone was saying about each other. All in jest, of course, so I responded that I had been groomed as a child to be a counterintelligence operative but was left without a job after the Cold War thing fell through. Another new memory created that one can't find just anywhere.

And last, but not least: at the party on the last evening, Elena Ignatova from Macedonia, Tetyana Bohdanova from Ukraine and I were standing in a corner, talking. Sounds normal enough, except that each of us was speaking her own native language and, because we were familiar with the topic of the conversation, we understood each other perfectly. At one point, we noticed GV co-founder Ethan Zuckerman standing next to us, leaning in to hear. We asked him to join us but he said he was just wondering which language we were speaking, as he couldn't quite catch it. When we explained that each of us was speaking her own language, he stood back in surprise for just a second, then grinned widely and said something along the lines of, “This is exactly what Global Voices is about.”

The evening ended in a traditional GV a capella rendition of Queen's “Bohemian Rhapsody”, sung in several accents and terribly out of tune. Because this, this spot on the Word Wide Web that is a scrapbook of different cultures and opposing views, is where third culture kids come when they grow up.

Danica Radisic is a corporate communications consultant, writer, blogger and poet. When she's am not happily dedicating her time to Global Voices as its Central & Eastern Europe Editor, she play a part-time adult as a mom of two and CEO of Krazy Fish Consulting. On Twitter she's NikiBGD.



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