The Third Culture Children of Academics
This reflection begins with a conversation between me and a mentor with a similar childhood.
Within the conversational context of personal development, he told me, “You know, I’ve noticed this archetype with us academia kids. There’s this pattern.”
“And what is that, Kak?”
“These kids are highly intellectual, very privileged, have relatively safe life paths. When they were little, some of them followed their parents abroad to study, and some didn’t. But for those who did, there’s a whole ‘nother layer to their persona.”
Without skipping a beat he continued, “These international academia kids grow up to have an extremely global mindset, tend to be a bit nerdy, are generally detached from other people, are not very open to others, not necessarily close to their families, and while growing up they’re pretty much just confused about who they actually are.”
“That was on the nose man; you’ve got me.”
Third Culture Kids (TCKs) are individuals who were raised in a place different from their parents’ origin during their childhood development years. It’s coined third culture because all TCKs share and relate to a totally different set of identities, because they don’t exactly belong to their parents’ (first-culture) nor their childhood environments’ (second-culture) archetypal identity.
In an Indonesian context, TCKs are very often the product of the life of academics: lecturers and researchers who bring their families abroad in search of knowledge. With Indonesia’s strong narrative of contributing-to-the-homeland, these academics often return home once their journey is complete, bringing with them their foreign-raised children.
These timeframes abroad are not insignificant. A master’s degree means 2 years growing up abroad. A doctorate means a good 4 to 6. And both? You’re looking at 6–8 years.
Precisely 7.5 if you happen to be a certain Rakean Radya.
Now that’s an entire childhood.
And I can’t honestly tell you that my transition to adulthood in a third-world country like Indonesia was any smooth sailing. But that’s exactly the reason why I very easily sync with other children-of-academics, especially those who also grew up abroad.
We have our own culture: we’re fellow countrymen.
[Van Recken] says TCKs are more likely to speak more than one language, have a broader world view and be more culturally aware. But she warns life as a TCK can create a sense of rootlessness and restlessness, where home is “everywhere and nowhere.”
We’ve become adults in a context precisely defined by struggling to define ourselves. Our very identity is having no clear identity. It’s not hard to sense this in others, and I guess we easily attract those of the same frequency.
Unfortunately, even within this shared third culture, not everybody’s got it the same way. With the factors of age, gender, school, and much more at play, not everybody’s transition is the same. And our reactions to these transitions can vary wildly. For example, while my brothers and I returned to Indonesia at the same time, our stories and characteristics massively differ.
And this brings me back to my mentor’s way-too-familiar summation:
“These international academia kids grow up to have an extremely global mindset, tend to be a bit nerdy, are generally detached from other people, are not very open to others, not necessarily close to their families, and while growing up they’re pretty much just confused about who they actually are.”
As children of academics, we have had the pursuit-of-knowledge drilled in us since birth. And that we tend to do independently. So once you cross that with a unique foreign upbringing, you’re bound to get a kid who largely develops alone.
That’s what it’s like being third culture children of academics. Our shared identity is having no identity. Our shared road is the lonely road.
This year, I’ve come to realize that a good majority of my anxieties and insecurities can be traced back to the archetypal background of a TCK.
I cannot adequately describe to you the pain of always being different through the eyes of a confused and growing child, bitter and unsatisfied with the environment he was supposed to call home. I cannot properly narrate the discomfort stemmed from an inability to connect, either through language or culture, which stubbornly remains even years after the American accent in my Bahasa Indonesia faded away.
And I cannot sufficiently enumerate each and every factor of difficulty I have experienced up until this day as a consequence of my upbringing. So I can only hope that you can somewhat understand.
Understand, and not pity. I am not looking for pity.
There is good news, after all.
Today I can safely say that I’ve become much more comfortable about this whole bonanza than I used to. Aroud exactly last year, for example, several contexts that framed me as a distant outcast made me severely uneasy about forever walking the “lonely road”.
But doing things my own way is a Rakean thing. And I gotta embrace Rakean things.
My brief return to the United States in the Fall Semester of 2022 certainly helped recontextualize a lot about my own past, teaching me lessons of identity much more valuable than anything I learned in the UPenn classrooms.
Through much self-reflection, what has become increasingly clear is that given the circumstances the Creator has written for me, there are incredible pathways I can unlock if I willed. And it would be irresponsible and ungrateful of me not to unlock them. So while I do not particularly like labels nor enjoy flaunting my circumstances as a badge of honor, I must recognize that my labels and badges are essential keys that can open many doors.
If you’re of a similar upbringing, I know you can relate. Very many bonuses come at the price of our challenges, if you’re willing to view them as such. So to my fellow TCKs and children-of-academia, you citizens of everywhere and nowhere, whether you’re already at peace with your transition or not, I must impart to you that for our kind, greatness is coming.
But only if you have the will to pursue it.
And on that note, I’ll close this article with something I wrote at the age of 10.
You have to give credit to little me. He was right.