Maisie Mills discusses what it means to be a "third culture kid", and how this impacts her understanding of home and identity.

“Oh so you are one of those?”

A few weeks ago, my friend and I were scanning the shelves of Waterstones, talking utter rubbish. Flicking through the travel books, I started talking about my background. 

“One of what?” I said, utterly confused. 

“There’s a word for it. Third-something. Give me a sec.” 

He pulled out his phone and, after typing for a moment, he smiled, and with a sense of fulfilment, declared: 

“You’re a third-culture kid.”

I was a bit taken aback? How could I be something I didn’t even know existed? 

After talking for a while, and perusing the internet, I realised that he was probably right. Using Wikipedia’s trusted definition, a third-culture kid (or TCK as we’re sometimes referred to apparently) is a child who grows up in a culture different to that of their parents, yet still has influence of the parent’s culture. In response to the conflict of cultural interest around them, they create their own hybrid culture: a literal third culture which exists as its own distinct fusion of the two cultures. 

The friend I was with is Korean by birth, but was educated for a bit in the UK, so I naturally asked him if he was one too. He smiled again, this time sympathetically, and told me that he wasn’t. 

“Korea is my home. I know that no matter what, once I’m done here, I’ll go back.” 

I was startled. For me there’s never been the question of going back, only ever going forward. Yes, I’ve revisited places that I used to live, but they always feel haunted by the ghosts of my past self. Once I’ve left somewhere, it’s not a home anymore. Sometimes it feels like it wasn’t really a home to begin with. There are no distinct points on this map, just fictional lines as I trace A to B. Perhaps the word ‘launchpad’ is more suitable? A place from which to jump? Not a trampoline. If I were on a trampoline, I’d jump up with the safety of knowing I was going to land. The trampoline is safe in its predictability, the inevitable fall into a home. I don’t get that comfort. When I jump, I’m trapped in mid-air, hoping to settle somewhere that might – at least somewhat –  let me fit. There’s no comfort of a protective net below me.

It did feel quite comforting to be told I was something. That my experience was recognised as something tangible, something that differed from the norm. Yet, the one obvious caveat of the umbrella term TCK is that each TCK will have their own experiences, and so, in a way, will still fail to even exist within the group. Each person’s composition will be their own individual patchwork, never the same as another, never fundamentally comparable to another. In my context, for example, my parents are both British, but I’ve spent about half my life living outside the UK, split between Australia and Italy. So what does that make me? 

Australitlish? Italistralish? Englastraliano

Whatever order you put them in, there’s always going to be some kind of prominence. But I don’t really see them in a particular order; more a jumbled mess. I do appreciate the irony of having a trinity of cultures when thinking of myself as a TCK. I feel as if I should have reached the point of a kind of theological completion: a Godly divinity to the completion? of myself. Sanctification in my trio of England, Australia and Italy.  (To clarify, I feel neither divine nor complete.)

One of the key symptoms of being a third-culture kid is being ‘rootless’ or ‘restless’. Am I really rootless or do I just have more than one root? More than one place which I can tether myself to. Does being a third-culture kid prohibit me from establishing connections with the things, people, places that I’m meant to have? If I have no roots am I even able to grow? All perhaps a little too existential and cringe, but true in its own right. 

The BBC published an article in 2016 titled: “Third Culture Kids: Citizens of everywhere and nowhere”. The article cites Gillian Tap; a third-culture kid who speaks of the difficulties of being stuck between worlds. When she moved countries, she remembers feeling that “everyone knew everyone and no one knew me”. For me, this speaks a truth not only of moving into an environment where everyone has known each other for a long time and trying to establish your own connections within the pre-made space, but also the inherent act of trying to penetrate a new culture. Everyone knows everyone because, to put it frankly, they are of the same. To be third-culture is inherently to be ‘other,’ in whatever sphere you occupy. All different until you adopt some similarities. But even then, distance and detachment take precedence over similarity. Belonging is still not an option. 

“Everyone knew everyone and no one knew me”. Ain’t that the truth. 

“Everyone knew everyone and no one knew me.” Am I even know-able? 

“Everyone knew everyone and no one knew me” … Did anyone even try to? 

Does anyone even try to? Does anyone see beyond the face and the voice, the hair and the skin? Does anyone feel three hearts, three voices, three minds? Each battles for their own dominance: a life-long stalemate. Trapped in No Woman’s Land. A balancing act of fitting in and falling out. 

If I had to choose a home, I’d choose movement. As the TCK’s home I present… MOTION. The act of moving or transferring is my comfort. There’s safety to transport – the enclosure of a plane, or train, bus, car or metro. Constant, perpetual cycles of going,



Never gone.

Never here, never there. I don’t like the departure or the arrival but I like moving somewhere. Transport holds a combination of movement and stasis: as the body is allowed to rest, the mind can roam freely, observing what passes, both in the physical landscape and events that have previously happened to it. I like how movement can capture what is unsaid and unknown. Taking a train is both a passive and active exploration. Your body is moved but you are not. Your mind follows the tracks. Forwards, not backwards. 

Even when I’m walking, I don’t want to stop going onwards. I’m scared of committing to the finality of a destination. Sometimes when I’m walking somewhere, especially when I’m listening to music, I want to keep walking forever and not get where I’m going. I’d like to be eternally mobile; forever going, not yet gone

Everything in the liminal. 

Phillip Larkin’s poem Places, Loved Ones captures this sense of movement and restlessness: 

No, I have never found 

The place where I could say 

This is my proper ground, 

Here I shall stay 

What is it to have proper ground? A ground that is hard and obsolete: never-moving, unchanging. Hard. For me, ground feels a little more like clay or quicksand; ever shifting, never the same again. 

If I were to rewrite Larkin’s poem, it would begin: 

Could it ever be found

A place where I can say 

To the people and the ground

Will you let me stay

BBC article mentioned above: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20161117-third-culture-kids-citizens-of-everywhere-and-nowhere 

The complete Larkin poem: