How Will My Third Culture Kids Identify Themselves?

If you’re new to my blog, I am American and my husband is Nigerian. We met in Seoul, love captured us, and before long I was pregnant. Our children were born in Korea as third culture kids.

We are a black expat family living in a society and culture that is different from the one we each grew up in, but that our children reside in. They have never lived in their countries of citizenship and are being raised abroad to date.

How will they identify themselves?

For example:

A: Where are you from?

B: I was born in Korea. But, my mother is American and my father is Nigerian.

A: Oh, you’re Nigerian-American.

B: Yes, but I haven’t lived in the United States or in Nigeria. I grew up in Korea, the U.A.E., the Netherlands and Canada.

As a social scientist, one thing I know about third culture kids is that they don’t know where to call home and will create an identity for themselves, which changes based on the situation.

A short and easy answer would be for my children to tell others, “I’m Nigerian-American.” However, the reality for them as third culture kids is that that is just their nationality. It wouldn’t tell the full story because they may not feel Nigerian or American, considering they would have grown up in an entirely different national society and culture than us.

It is very easy for their father and I to identify our home because we have established roots in the society and culture we were born into and we were raised within our immediate and extended kinship. But, what about our children?

I have been thinking about this a lot and have pondered over several questions.

  • Will my children feel rootless when they’re older?
  • Or, will they feel privileged to have experienced life as global citizens?
  • How do I ensure they have a sense of belonging?
  • What’s more important–a sense of belonging to a national culture or a sense of belonging to a community?

It’s not a secret. I enjoy living abroad and I could do this indefinitely. 

Now that I have children, I want them to share in this experience. I want to raise my children to know they are apart of something greater than themselves–the social world. I want them to be active members in the global community, multilingual, culturally competent, and compassionate to all. What better way to learn these things than to experience life in different societies and cultures than through cultural immersion?

On the other hand, I don’t want my children to feel rootless in the process of me wanting to live and work in various places around the world. When I think of how I grew up and how my daughters are growing up, it is vastly different.

I grew up in a monolingual home in a rural community and spent days playing with my cousins. Family vacations comprised of us driving down to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. No one in my family lived abroad. In fact, I didn’t get my first passport until I was 28 years old.

My children were born in a country different from their citizenship and got their first passports as newborns. Holidays have been spent here in Korea, China, Japan, and Vietnam to date. Only my oldest daughter has visited her country of citizenship once and that was when she was seven months old. They don’t know their cousins. They have had to get to know their grandmother and aunts through Skype.

Their favorite cartoons are Korean characters. They understand three languages. Playing at kid cafes are their normal. We didn’t have such when we grew up. We played outside.

As we plan for our next journey, it is important to figure out our ideal situation for our children. To do this, I believe we have to establish a criterion for where we decide to live abroad and at what point will we decide to stay put. 

If you’re a third culture kid or an expat parent raising children who were born and are being raised abroad, please comment and share your experiences. How are you establishing a sense of roots for your children while you make a life abroad?

4 Comments

  1. Very interesting dilemma you have. I have nothing to add other than I did not know your husband was Nigerian. I have first cousins who were all born and raised there but eventually they all settled in London. I did not know them (or even my Aunt) growing up because we obviously didn’t even have Skype or social media back then. Ah technology!

    • That is cool. What city or area?

      Eventually, I am sure we will choose a place to settle down and honestly, I prefer being closer than 7000 miles away from both of our families. I really cherish the bond I had with my grandparents (and cousins) and would like for mine to have that with their grandmother. My mother is their only grandparent because his parents are deceased.

      While we do video calls frequently with our families, I know for my mother it isn’t enough. She really longs to be near them. So I feel bad sometimes. Technology, most certainly helps because Amira knows grandma as “grandma” and she gets excited when she calls. She knows the Skype and FB Messenger ringers. LOL I can’t imagine this life without technology. The struggles back then. Oh, my!

      • My cousins are all from Owo. I can only imagine that being closer would help. I have only limited memories of my grandparents on both sides. On my fathers side, my grandfather died the year I was born, and by all accounts he was kind of a rough and difficult man. She was around, and I have a few fond memories, but she was also not very ‘tender’ in terms of affection. My mom was born and raised in Ireland, so I never met her dad, who died when I was 8 (technically he met me as a baby), and my grandmother we only saw a few times owing to her reluctance to travel and the fact that it was rural. So I get the desire to get closer and to have those relationships. Technology helps but it is no substitution for being there. I wish you all luck with figuring this out sometime!

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