Reflections on my Third Culture Kids

“We had been living in Qatar for about three years when my 8-year-old daughter told me about a new friend. When I asked where this girl came from, my daughter replied, “She’s from school.” Obviously, her friend’s ethnic and cultural background was unimportant. That was an eye-opener for me.”

The article was originally published in March 2020 in Danes Worldwides printed members’ magazine, DANES.
By Trine Ljungstrøm – Photo: private

When we moved from Copenhagen to Qatar in 2006, I thought it would be an expat experience for three to five years. I was convinced that we would come home to Denmark, and that I would continue my career in biomedicine. But that didn’t happen. My husband and I have decided to stay expats for several reasons, one of which is the international upbringing and schooling of our children.

When you move abroad with children because of professional ambitions, you might worry about how it will affect your kids. Having spent the entirety of my upbringing in the same school and same home in Denmark, I have been reflecting on what it is like for children, including my own, to grow up as a TCK – a Third Culture Kid.

In what ways has my children’s TCK childhood been different from mine? What obstacles have they faced, and what opportunities has it given them?

“Surrounded” by ticks

Born in Qatar, our son is now 13 years old. When he was 7 we moved to Milan, and when he was 10 we moved to our current home of Abu Dhabi.

Our daughter, born in Copenhagen, was 6 years old when we moved to Qatar. She is now 20 and studies math and physics at University College London.

Moving abroad wasn’t hard for my husband. On the contrary, he himself is a TCK, having grown up in Denmark, Luxembourg and Belgium. His Chemical Engineering studies at the Technical University of Denmark also included stays in the US, China and France. He was restless living a quiet suburban life in Greater Copenhagen, and he wanted to pursue professional and personal opportunities abroad. When a job offer in 2006 proved too good to pass up, we packed our house and life into a container, rented out our house and moved to Doha with our 6-year-old daughter.

Trine Ljungstrøm at Jebel Shams in Oman: “We had been living in Qatar for about three years when my 8-year-old daughter told me about a new friend. When I asked where this girl came from, my daughter replied, “She’s from school.” Obviously, her friend’s ethnic and cultural background was unimportant. That was an eye-opener for me.”

I must admit that I didn’t give his international background much thought when we met 25 years ago at a dorm in Copenhagen. I saw him as a Danish guy who grew up in a Danish family abroad. It didn’t occur to me that he would like to move abroad again once we had become a family. But as I became familiar with what it means to be a TCK, I started to understand how his perspective on Denmark and living abroad differed from mine, largely because his connection to Denmark differed from mine. It boiled down to the simple fact that he didn’t grow up in Denmark.

Providing an international education for our children has been very important to him, as it opens a world of opportunities for further education and ensures they will be (at least) bilingual. Both of our children speak, write and read English at a native level and they both speak Danish fluently, although our son still has a little catching up to do on his reading and writing.

Rootlessness

A major issue faced by many TCKs is a sense of rootlessness stemming from their frequent moving to new places and changing schools: friends come and go, and they might never really feel at home anywhere. This has been one of my biggest concerns. I have focused on making our home feel like home – a Danish home – whether we were living in the Middle East or in Europe.

We have Danish books, DVDs, toys, music, food, decorations and furniture. We try to stay in touch with our family and friends back home, and I regularly send home newsletters and photos chronicling our life. We have organised Danish children’s birthday parties at home with treasure hunts, homemade buns and lagkage. We uphold Danish Christmas traditions, and I prepare a pakkekalender with a little present for the kids every day in December. We watch various julekalender shows for children on DVD. And we prepare traditional Danish food like rugbrød, frikadeller and ris à la mande. But does eating leverpostej and lakrids make you a Dane?

“Why is it so important where our roots are?” my daughter asked me when we discussed this article. She continued: “I think it’s because it’s important for you to be Danish. Isn’t it okay if you feel comfortable in several places? Do you need to be rooted in the same place for the rest of your life? When I am abroad and people ask me where I’m from, I’m definitely from Copenhagen, and very proud of it. But when I’m in Denmark, everybody else is more Danish than I am. Everything I do and say reflects a conscious decision to fit in. I prepare the sentences in my head before I say them.”

I think she is right.

There are many ways of “being Danish”. It is a gift to feel at home in many different places, with the ability to navigate the unique nuances of each respective culture.

I believe in the importance of maintaining a connection with your country of citizenship and its deeply rooted cultural values. To us, these values include diligence, humour, ethics, trust, responsibility, independence, fair play, honesty and respect. I think it is quite natural to feel at home in your country of citizenship even if you haven’t lived there for many years.

Having roots and a sense of belonging can take shape in many different ways. My children have biological and legal roots in Denmark because their parents and passports are Danish, and the rest of our family lives in Denmark. Yet certain mental roots are a function of geography and time. People who live in a foreign culture for many years typically adopt some of its traditions, cuisine, culture and language – and even adapt to the local climate. Over time, a sense of connection and home evolves and takes root.

Mother tongue(s)

My son enjoys being part of the multiethnic community at the American Community School of Abu Dhabi. He has close friends from India, Pakistan, Argentina, America, Egypt, Jordan, Italy, Spain, United Arab Emirates and Iran. I recently asked him how he feels about living abroad, and whether he feels Danish.

“Yes, I am Danish, but I was born in the Middle East, and I have lived here for nine years, so I have a special connection to this place,” he replied. “Also, going to an American school and having American friends affects my language. I don’t have an accent like you and dad do.”

That is true. We still have strong Danish accents when we speak English, even after living abroad for 13 years. Some things never change.

English is our children’s second mother tongue. They speak it in school and with their friends. They tell me they dream in English.

After a week-long school field trip, my son told me: “I didn’t miss you and dad, but i missed speaking Danish.”

It warmed my heart. We speak Danish at home, and we write WhatsApp messages in Danish. I haven’t been as strict with regard to correcting his grammar when he makes mistakes or uses English words in a Danish sentence as I was with his older sister.

My son is interested in learning Danish properly, and we do some home-schooling in Danish grammar, vocabulary, reading and writing every summer.

But even though we are two Danish parents, speak Danish at home, visit Denmark for several months every year and maintain many Danish traditions, our children still struggle to keep up with the Danish language and culture. They are TCKs at heart.

Language is a central component of identity, and language identity gets turned upside down when you move to a new country and begin using a different language.

By comparison, I went to the same primary school my whole life and I didn’t have to make an effort to make new friends until high school. That is one of the most pronounced differences between my children’s upbringing and mine. I think one of the hardest things for them has been when we moved and had to say goodbye to dear friends, or we were left behind when others moved.

It is immensely hard work to build a new life from scratch all over again and develop new friendships, in a new school, in a new country. As a result, their approach to making friends and learning about different cultures is much more accepting and tolerant than my own, even though I consider myself open-minded.

Another difference between my TCK family and myself is the desire to travel and explore new places. I do like travelling in other countries and cultures, but visiting home and spending time with family and friends in Denmark is also very important to me. Thankfully, I have more time off than my husband, so we are able to manage both.

World citizens

We have been very fortunate to be part of international schooling systems and communities. Our children have had some incredibly dedicated teachers and amazing learning facilities, and they have made great friends too.

We had been living in Qatar for about three years when my 8-year-old daughter told me about a new friend. When I asked where this girl came from, my daughter replied, “She’s from school.” Obviously, her friend’s ethnic and cultural background was unimportant. That was an eye-opener for me.

This wealth of intercultural experience expands social understanding and provides a depth and breadth of connections to people and cultures that makes the world seem a little smaller. As a result of these experiences, our children and other TCKs would say that they have roots in many different countries.

Our daughter has the courage and drive to travel the world and meet new people. During her gap year after high school, she visited a friend in Seoul, backpacked in Australia, and met up with a friend in Florence for an art course. She has a fantastic network around the world.

Every year, the kids and I spend 10 to 12 weeks in Denmark. We really enjoy being here; we love staying in our summer cottage in Odsherred, and we always visit various cultural and historical attractions. We bicycle in the forest, eat fiskefrikadeller with remoulade and go to the beach. But that is just the top of the iceberg of cultural understanding and a sense of belonging. Most of the cultural iceberg is under the water and not visible or easy to understand. Many of the cultural codes and core values of a place cannot be taught or learned by reading a book. They must be experienced. If you don’t live in your country of citizenship, many aspects of behaviour in relation to school, work and social interaction can be difficult to grasp. The pop culture references are not the same. Television shows, music, slang and certain sayings are different; they work in one country but not in another.

As more and more families decide to work and live abroad, more and more children will grow up as TCKs. I believe that many of these young people will go on to study abroad and look for flexible work environments as well. They have a multicultural background, a global personal and professional network, and a more open-minded approach to others than previous generations – and thus an inherent desire to contribute to greater tolerance in the world.

Adjusting to my professional path from a biomedical research scientist to a housewife has not been without its challenges. I have now returned to the workplace, and it is really good for my mental health to be part of a team and feel a sense of purpose by helping students in the nurse’s office at our school. Although I’m not using my PhD in Molecular Cell Biology, I do use some of this expertise in my daily work and as a writer. Education is never wasted.

I believe we have raised world citizens who are ready to travel the globe for work and adventure – just as we have done. In my experience, TCKs have a strong sense of cultural understanding, they appreciate diversity, and they are adaptable – essential skills for success in our rapidly changing world.