My Cultural Frame of Reference

As a Third Culture Kid (TCK), I really connected with the story about Larry and cultural identity. TCKs are children who were raised in a culture that is different from their parents’ culture. The usual scenario for a TCK is like this: your Canadian parents take you to live abroad for work (usually militarty, government, business, teaching, or missionary work). Let’s say you move to Japan and you spend three or four years there going to an international school. After Japan, your family moves to Germany for three years, then Brazil, and finally Guatemala. You finish high school and are shipped back to Canada to go to university. But when you go “home” you find out that you don’t feel Canadian, you don’t share the culture. You are also not from any of the countries where you lived. You have, in fact, created a personal third culture that blends your passport country’s ways with those of the places where you grew up.

That’s pretty much how I grew up, except that I consider myself a Fourth Culture Kid for the simple reason that my passport country was not the country where my parents grew up either. My parents grew up in Ecuador where I was also born. We immigrated to the United States (my passport country) and traveled because of my father’s work for the US government. I grew up in Ecuador, California, Peru, and Brazil before moving back to the United States, which was supposed to be home for me. Except that it wasn’t. I have never felt Ecuadorean, American, Peruvian, or Brazilian.

I cannot tell you the number of times that people have said to me, “but you’re Ecuadorean/American, how do you not do/think/say/act/eat/dress etc like your people?” I did not conform to peoples’ expectations of what my culture should be based on my place of birth and family heritage, or based on my citizenship, or based on where I lived.

As a young person (teens and twenties) this was extremely painful for me — at an age when we all grapple with identity I felt like I didn’t even have the starting point. When simple questions like, “where are you from?” create existential angst, it’s kind of difficult to worry about other parts of identity.

Having no fixed cultural reference means that I have a mutli-verse of cultural references. Now that I’m 35 and have accepted this, I can finally see the benefits: I’m lucky to have ways of relating to and connecting with all kinds of people, I’m lucky to see the similarities rather than just the differences between cultures, and I can empathize with people, like Larry, who don’t feel that they are part of the narrative that others ascribe to them.

And most of all, it just doesn’t bother me anymore to not be Ecuadorian, or American, or Peruvian, or Brazilian, or Canadian. I’m Daniela, that’s all.

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