[Written by: Natalia Melenteva]
I will have to confess something straight away: I am one of these annoying people who starts sentences with “when I lived in…”
It is not that I always choose to do so. It is just that, as a Third Culture Kid, it is often difficult to avoid saying these things. There is no straight answer to the inevitable question of “where are you from?” Or, “where did you go to school?” For us, questions like these mean either telling the white lie of naming one country to avoid explaining your entire life story, or to go into lengthy explanations about how, why, when…
No, there is no short way of explaining your life, and there is certainly no way to stop yourself from sounding like you’re showing off when pressed with further questions – especially when it concerns languages and knowledge about other cultures.
I happen to be multilingual: sure, some of it was purely circumstantial, but all of it was hard work. Even when you grow up in a foreign country, the language does not just “naturally” come to you. Yes, it is easier for children to pick up languages, but there will be a phase when you have to start attending kindergarten or school and your language is simply not up to standard yet. And while everything will come to you later, this phase is no fun, since in my experience children are very good at singling the odd one out.
A TCK is a child who was raised in a country – or countries – different to where their parents were raised, or different to the country on their passport. As a result, from a very young age we will be the odd ones out.
In my case, I moved from Moscow to Germany when I was just seven months old. Both of my parents are Russian, so I grew up in a Russian household while attending German schools and making German friends. At some point the German language became so natural to me that I struggled to say what my native language was – Russian or German.
Shout out to my amazing parents: their dedication meant that my sister and I grew up perfectly bilingual and in touch with both cultures. My parents always did what they saw as best for us, no matter how hard it sometimes was – being a TCK means that there will always be a division between generations, since the children grow up in a different culture from their parents, and with different expectations. There is also the eternal conflict between children wanting parents to adapt more, and parents expecting children to respect their own culture. (The BBC’s show, ‘McMafia’, explores this rift very well.)
Just the other day I saw a tweet saying: “bilingual culture is reading everything in the second language but the numbers in the native language”. It can be confusing to explain what bilingualism means. While the idea of it is that someone has a command of two languages, it is said that the language someone counts with, dreams in, and through which they experience emotions, is the mother tongue.
But it’s not as simple as this. The second language can be the academically stronger one, depending on the language of the educational system. Many ask what language I think in, but that all depends on where I am, whom I speak to, and in what language I’m addressed. The same applies to dreams. Sometimes I get confused when I text someone in one language and then someone speaks to me in another and my reply just becomes a mixture of both.
When talking about TCKs, we often talk about cultural confusion. We grow up in a place that we are not inheritably part of. We grow up with different customs and sensibilities than those of the country you are living in. It has been said that we grow up with a sense of not properly belonging anywhere and belonging everywhere at the same time. And this certainly is true for me.
When I go back to Russia, I understand that I am not fully a member of its society. I grew up in a different culture, with different values; and despite my parents’ best efforts to give me a ‘Russian’ childhood (Soviet cartoons are the best, by the way), the German influence has made me a different person. I have never had the same experience as my Russian friends, who lived all their life in Moscow.
But this works both ways: I would never be fully German due to my Russian upbringing. This is because of the little things that my parents have retained, like the Russian tradition of celebrating New Year’s Eve over Christmas (no, I do not feel like my life is incomplete due to the fact that I have never celebrated Christmas and yes, we still get presents, just on the 31st), or having to wear slippers at home, as well as “home clothes” – this is very important: we are not allowed to wear “street clothes” when we are at home, and this is a rule that mothers and grandmothers will implement relentlessly.
Despite identifying myself as Russian and following Russian customs, when I return to Moscow, I feel like it is my home and not my home at the same time. I was born there, yes, and go back multiple times a year, but I will never have the same experience that my friends had growing up there. In fact, ‘going home’ for me usually means visiting two or three different countries, and planning to see my friends requires a diary, so I can tell when I will be in this country or another. I am left with friends all over the world but without a core group anywhere (except for maybe university).
This is a contributing factor to the confusion and struggle to fit in somewhere. As a child, you do not want to be different but, being a TCK, there is no way that you are not. With time, you learn how to combine the cultures you have been immersed in and you find an understanding of your identity. But this is a long, difficult and sometimes isolating process. It is also with time that you learn ‘being different’ is actually pretty amazing – you learn to celebrate that your experience has been unique.
I was 10 when we moved back to Russia and my sister and I both attended the German school – there was no way we could just enter the Russian school system after starting German schools: the teaching styles and the programs simply would be too different. We also knew that we would be going back to Germany eventually, so there was no way we could just enter the Russian school system for two or three years and then go back again. So, we got enrolled in the German embassy school in Moscow.
The idea of embassy schools is that wherever you go, you can seamlessly enter the school system of your country and continue to study one curriculum. It allows the students to move across countries without any problems at school. Consequently, almost everyone coming to the school has a similar story: dual citizenships, command of at least 3 or 4 languages, stints in countries all over the world because they just happened to be where their parents had to go work. No one considered that odd. Changing languages in one sentence was nothing rare and neither was leaving a class that was taught in German and immediately switching back to Russian.
In these circles, you are one of many. It is a bubble that allows you to build connections for life, since you will know someone in Madrid, or Beijing, or Washington, or… No one thinks that you’re weird for this and no one ever asks what your dad does. It does not matter. In our minds it is perfectly normal to be moving around a lot.
I finished my high school in yet another country, and an international school offered the same sort of bubble as before. In a class of just nine people, nine nationalities were represented. By the time I entered this school, I had a clear understanding that I am Russian, but I equally easily fell into groups of Germans. I could choose which culture I wanted to belong to at any given time, or what language I want to speak, all depending on who I want to be friends with – or not.
Only when coming to a British university did I understand what rarity it is to speak multiple languages. I also understood how great it is to meet people similar to myself – people that can share the experience of changing schools and growing up in different countries. At the same time, going to Glasgow University has finally allowed me to settle down for at least five years and build an amazing group of friends, join societies, and in general just have a normal student life.
It is here that for the first time, I have the same experience as everyone else in terms of starting my education in one place and (hopefully) finishing it here as well. At university, I have hardly any international friends and I prefer it that way – it means that my British or Irish friends allow me to be part of their culture, teaching me about traditions, slang and about the way they spent their childhood and school years.
And while absorbing all this, I have never felt my nationality so strongly, and so culturally fluent at the same time as I do now. There is a very clear understanding of who I am and my passport to a large extent is a confirmation of that. Having this background does not mean that moving to new countries is easy, or that will not take time and effort to get used to. But I know that eventually, I will adapt, I will learn the language and I will be fine, since this is what I have had to do since I was little. I was privileged enough to grow up with different cultures and customs.
Of course, there were (and are) times when I wished to simply be like everyone else: to have a group of friends at home and to only one school and to be fully something; to belong to one culture and know all of its ins and outs. But then I think back on all the amazing memories and friends I have made along the way, and all the fun we had, and I know that I would not want to have it any other way.