True Story: I’m A Third-Culture Kid

What does it mean to be a third-culture kid? What would it be like to grow up all over the world with parents from two different countries? Elizabeth shares her story and insights >> yesandyes.orgImagine growing up all over the world, with parents from two different countries. Does that sound glamorous – or stressful? Today, Elizabeth shares her story of being a third culture kid.

Tell us a little bit about yourself! 
My name is Elizabeth, and I’m a 33 year old writer and digital strategist based in Thailand. I’m also Mum to Kaya and wife to Billy.
As a writer, I ghostwrite for coaches and also contribute to travel and wellness publications like Matador Network. As a consultant/coach, I specialize in helping life and health coaches thrive online, through writing in-depth blog posts and learning how to rock Pinterest and Facebook groups.

I play videos games for fun. In fact, I’m about to replay Silent Hill 3 in a little bit. I also LOVE studying nutrition and herbalism.

For those of us who don’t know, what does it mean to be ‘third culture’?

A Third Culture Kid is a child that is raised between cultures, or in a country that neither of their parents are from. This unique personal culture makes TCKs (as we’re called) unable to clearly express where we’re from. There are pluses and minuses to being a Third Culture Kid, and for me, the constant yearning to ‘find home’ mingles with a desire to explore the world.

Which cities and countries did you spend the most time in? And how did you come to live in those places?

I spent my childhood between the Midwest, the South of France, and Singapore. My Dad was a salesman and owned a boating company, which meant he had to travel often for work. He had offices in Europe and Asia, so that’s why we inevitably spent lots of time in those continents.
When in the Midwest, I was either in Minnesota (where I went to music school) or Wisconsin. I personally didn’t like that part of the world and always viewed France as home. This meant that whenever I was in the States I actually felt homesick and uneasy. My accent is American and I was born there, but I’ve never felt ‘from’ there.
We also spent time in the UK as my Mum is from Cambridge, and I’m a dual citizen.
Of those places, was there one that felt most like ‘home’? A place where you felt you ‘fit in’ best?

Antibes. That was where we lived in France and for one reason or another, I identified with life there and viewed it as home. I did enjoy Singapore though and if I had spent more time there, I would have enjoyed living there long-term. In fact, that may be why I ended up in Asia as an adult!

When you meet new people and they ask ‘So, where are you from’ – what’s your five-second, cocktail party answer?

It’s always hard to answer. I say I’m British American and view France as home as I studied and lived there for many years. This never goes down well. The retort is usually “Well, where were you born?” and then I say Wisconsin, but that I was always traveling and don’t view it as home.

It’s a very awkward conversation, and it gets worse when I’m in the UK as I basically have to pull out my passport to show I’m British, because of my accent.

How do people generally react when you tell them about your upbringing?

They think it’s complicated but interesting. I try and frame it in as unpretentious and simply as possible. Here in Thailand, no one really cares about my accent or that I’ve got a confusing story. They’re more interested in where I learned Thai or why we home-school our daughter.

What are the benefits of being third culture?

I understand people who are ‘different’. I’m very open-minded and tend to question everything. This was the polar opposite of how kids acted in my town in Wisconsin, where you were almost expected to dress and act the exact same as everyone else.

Being a TCK is also the unconscious driving factor of why I work from home and crave freedom. I’m unemployable. I need to be immersing myself in classes or learning something new, and self-employed.

The drawbacks?

Apart from explaining my personal culture to people, the hard thing is never feeling like I’m where I need to be. It’s hard to explain, but I get a constant sense of needing to be somewhere else all the time.
I was also bullied in school, up until I broke down and said I wanted to study somewhere else. I never bragged or even talked about where we went at all. The kids just sensed I wasn’t ‘normal’ and made their own assumptions as to what was wrong with me. This gave me an innate dislike of the Midwest. I still struggle with it when my friend asks me to visit her in Wisconsin.
My mind was actually blown when I moved to Los Angeles when I was 19 as I had never experienced that type of openness and cultural diversity in the States before! In reality, I was ignorant on the many amazing places in the States, and I had equated the US to Wisconsin because I hadn’t traveled extensively there until I was older. I now really look forward to going to places like New Orleans one day.
The interesting thing was that in France, this never happened. There were kids from all around the world, all walks of life. People were very accepting. This is probably because in Europe, you can be in a different country in a few hours and we had EasyJet (a cheap airline) before budget flights were available in the US.
Travel was something everyone wanted to do, and did do, no matter what their budget was. I went to school with an American raised in Chiang Mai and a Canadian whose family lived on a boat in Spain. And then there were Palestinians raised in the UK and Polish-Brits. It was like the UN!
I think I’ll always feel different, and I’m grateful to have an amazing husband who understand my cultural identity and need to ‘find’ myself.
Do you feel like you’ve developed any specific skills because you’ve lived so many places?
My curiosity for life and interest in reading was sparked by spending time in France. Everyone reads there. They sit at a cafe or bistro for hours. In one of Anthony Bourdaine’s shows, he said ordering a coffee at a cafe is like renting a seat, and it’s true. You’re there more for the ambiance than the coffee, although the coffee is damn good.
I was so, SO lucky to have had my teen years in France, where I sat at my local cafe and would write about the regulars that puffed on cigarettes and looked mysterious. Then I’d order another coffee and rustle through my overly-large bag to see what books I had on me. I’d never bring one.
It was then I realized writing was my calling. And I realized even if I’m not Hemmingway, we writers don’t have a choice: we need to keep writing.
Similarly, I think I ended up doing digital strategy (social media and content marketing) because I got used to trying to make new friends whenever we’d be traveling. I saw the benefit of putting myself out there, in an authentic way. Blogging and  social media are really the same thing in that we’re trying to connect with like-minded folks who resonate with us.

And of course I do travel writing because I indeed still travel loads.

What have you learned from this experience that any of us could apply to our daily lives?

I’ve learned the importance of being inquisitive and raising inquisitive children. This curiosity is sort of killed in school, save the few teachers or mentors that really help us pursue our dreams and interests and question outdated systems. If we had more curiosity in our world, we’d have more innovation and less corrupt corporations and governments.

Thanks for sharing your story, Elizabeth! Do you guys have any questions for her?

P.S. True Story: I immigrated to America – and then moved back to my home country and True Story: I’m undocumented

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  1. Elizabeth

    Great interview, I just wish it were longer! Would love to hear a little more about her current life, like how she ended up picking Thailand, how she learned Thai, and why she does home-school her daughter, since she mentioned it.

    • Elizabeth Bradley

      So glad you enjoyed it! We moved to South Korea in 2009, when my husband embarked upon husband first job as a teacher. After a year, we vacationed in Phuket imfor a month then moved to Italy, but we all sort of fell in love with Thailand so moved back and have been here ( off and on) ever since. Because my husband and I are quite passionate about education ( particularly alternative education) we decided to homeschool/unschool.

      Thanks so much Sarah for featuring me!

      • Sarah Von Bargen

        Thank YOU for sharing your story, Elizabeth!

      • Elizabeth Bradley

        Sorry for the typos! I was writing on my phone lol 🙂

      • Cheryl L

        Beautiful story! Being from Singapore but never really belonging there either, and now living halfway across the world, of course, I was surprised (almost to the point of shock!) to learn where you’d grown up. Even funnier is how I chanced upon your blog this morning and couldn’t stop reading it all through the late morning… and it’s almost 4pm now on another blog to read your interview! Oops. Great writing, keep going, and just know that you’re one of the stronger inspirations that might just tip me over the fence into starting my own website, finally!

  2. Sophie

    Me too Elizabeth! English Dad, Kiwi Mum, life in Belgium, the US, Australia and finally settled in small town NZ. I can’t do a 5 minute “where are you from” as much as I sound English, I’ve lived there for 2 years of my entire 41. And there is no way of explaining the whole thing in a short time.
    It’s lovely to hear the story of a fellow third culture kid.

    • Elizabeth Bradley

      I’m so happy to hear from another TCK too! And it sounds like you’ve lived in even more places than I have! Are you enjoying living in NZ?

      • Sophie

        Oh I love it Elizabeth. But like you, I miss different things about every place I’ve lived, not to mention that I live on the other side of the globe from my family and some dear friends.

  3. Kate

    Your innate distaste for Wisconsin is still apparent in your article and it makes me feel sad for you. I actually moved to Wisconsin in high school and while
    I struggled living in that area (mostly do to the age I moved and the short time I loved there), I’ve found the community where I attended college and also the area where I finally settled to be amazing. I’m sorry you had a difficult experience when you were here, but wanted to defend this place too.

    • Kate

      Please forgive the typos! Trying to post on my phone! I should know better.

    • Elizabeth Bradley

      Wisconsin has some wonderful places I’m sure! I was in a small farming community and had a difficult situation, and in no way meant to imply that the entire state was like what I encountered. 🙂

      • Kristine

        Sorry you disliked Wisconsin so much. Please know we’re not all like what you experienced. Some of us can be jerks but not all 🙂 My daughter was always excited when a new kid was joining the class and wanted to be their best friend and show them all around.
        I think you’re story/life is incredibly interesting.

        • Elizabeth

          Thanks so much Kristine for your kind words! My experience was just a unique/strange one and I was in a smallish town. My BFF is from Wisconsin and my hubby is from Michigan and I know how many awesome people there are in the Mid West. At one point in our travels, we lived in rural Tuscany and the same kind of rumor mill type of thing that I saw happening in my small midwestern town was almost exactly the same as there. And my uncle lived in a village outside of Cambridge and experience the exact same thing I did as a kid in the States. I think it really depends on the town/city, no matter where one lives.

  4. Rae

    I’m a TCK here, too, of the Foreign-Service brat variety. I got called “Africa girl” when I moved to back to the States after two years of living in South Africa, like something straight out of Mean Girls. The teachers would call on me to talk about my experiences, but I learned pretty quickly that it would get me picked on at lunch time…but in the end, I feel pretty lucky to have grown up the way I did. I’m teaching English in Taiwan now, but I wish I were self-employed. Didn’t like feeling “confined” to the U.S. when I was there, but miss it madly when I’m not. Interestingly, my three younger siblings have all gone the whole job/car/mortgage route back home… When people ask, I say I’m from Pittsburgh, cause my mom’s family is from there, but I’ve never lived there. My husband tells people we’re both from Virginia, but that’s only because we were both living there when we met, before we moved to Taiwan. Never a short answer, and yeah, I get the fears about coming off as “pretentious” when you try to tell people your story.

    • Elizabeth

      Rae, I am so sorry this happened to you and it’s almost exactly what happened to me, in some respects! Except in my case, even the majority of teachers at my small Catholic school didn’t like me ( it’s a long story) so they wouldn’t even ask about where we had been or take any interest in my story, which was fine as I knew I’d get picked on if I shared it anyway. And I know exactly what you mean about feeling confined, you’ve summed up EXACTLY how I felt when I was there! And I didn’t want to feel that way either. I actually tried as hard as I could to conform and fit in, even if it meant lying about where we went when we were out of town ( I would frequently say Florida lol). I have a friend who is a TCK from Ghana that was raised in Italy and she has a really interesting story. She moved to the UK and met her husband, and they now live in Canada. She absolutely loves living there! A German friend of mine from school ( in France) married a Japanese-Argentinian that immigrated to Australia. So many TCKs and dual citizens nowadays, which is awesome!

      My husband taught ESL for many years. Are you enjoying living in Taiwan?

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