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Defining ‘home’ as a third culture kid

Freshly labelled ‘university students’ quickly realise the three questions that can provide a gateway into conversation with their new peers: “what do you study?”, “what year are you in?”, and “where are you from?”.

The final question, which at a glance should be the easiest to answer, can actually be the most difficult for many. I, for example, was born in Switzerland, grew up in the States, spent my teenage years in Denmark, and now study in Edinburgh. So, what do I reply to that question?

Living abroad, my family and I spent our summers in a small Danish town where my parents are from, and this was considered ‘home’. As a child, I only saw Denmark through rose-tinted glasses; summer was never-ending, I was surrounded by family, and I didn’t have school. This image changed when we moved from the States to Copenhagen. Denmark went from being my happy place to the place that was too far away from my friends and had endless, dark winter months. 

Our perceptions of physical places alter throughout our lives, as new memories are constantly being formed in the same locations. 

When I came across the term ‘third culture kid’, I realised this concept of feeling rootless is a more widespread phenomenon than I’d initially thought. A ‘third culture kid’ is someone who has spent their formative years in a country different from their parents’ homeland. Such children often don’t identify with the country they are born and raised in, as they have been told home is somewhere else. On the contrary, they also don’t feel like they belong in their parents’ home country because they weren’t raised there. 

The impact of being ‘displaced’ means that children often form tighter bonds with their family, as everything else is uncertain and family is the only constant. These kids find it difficult to relate to their peers because of their dissimilar childhoods. Worldwide, most people spend their lives in the same country, if not the same town, as they were born in. This creates a sense of community and unity, which third-culture kids can often feel excluded from. However, with transnationalism and the diffusion of cultures rapidly rising, diverse backgrounds are becoming more socially accepted. Yet, the innate human need for belonging persists. 

The psychological walls many third-culture kids put up to protect themselves emotionally can be equally as frustrating for those around them, as it is for themselves. Third-culture kids may not put effort into friendships and they might unintentionally neglect these friendships because they don’t believe in their permanency, it’s hard to allow yourself to feel close with others when you worry you may leave them at any moment. This self-fulfilling prophecy only ends when kids realise that distance and diverse upbringings don’t have to be detrimental factors in determining the durability of a friendship. 

I was never fully aware of my resistance to letting people in until I moved to Edinburgh, where my new friends insisted on getting to know me, as only a few people outside my family do. As this move was self-chosen and I didn’t have a security net in the form of my family with me, I found a true home in Edinburgh and my friends, unlike anything I’d known before.

My strong familial ties always gave me a sense of safety and stability growing up, but simultaneously, they were what allowed me to remain in my comfort zone. Family was a constant and something I knew wouldn’t ever disappear, meaning friendships were neglected. Identifying the answer to the question of where my home is, has been frustrating me for years and likely will continue to until I finally decide to settle down somewhere for good. For now, though, my familial home will always be Denmark, but Edinburgh is now the place where I finally feel like I belong. 

Image Credit: Petr Kratochvil via