Inside the Life of a Third Culture Kid

Where are you from?

A simple question that usually has a simple answer. Often, the question is only meant to determine where you grew up: Chicago, Istanbul, Buenos Aires, London. Other times, it’s meant to determine your ethnicity, or the source of an unusual accent. Your family’s origin, where you were born, or where you spent your childhood usually suffices.  “I was born in Paris.” “I grew up in New York.” “My family is originally from Honduras.” While every origin story has some degree of complexity, the answers to these questions are often straightforward. But sometimes the answer isn’t so simple.

I was born in Bogotá, Colombia, to an American father and Brazilian mother. I spent my childhood in São Paulo, Brazil, and my teenage years in the suburbs of Chicago. I had three passports before I could talk, and when I did learn to speak, it was an unconscious and undifferentiated continuum of Portuguese, Spanish, and English.  I am a Brazilian and an American, with deep patriotism for both. Picking one would be like having to choose one parent over the other.  Needless to say, my response to “Where are you from?” is complicated.

Sociologist David C. Pollock calls people like me “Third Culture Kids,” children who have spent a significant part of their developmental years outside of their parents’ culture. “TCKs frequently build relationships to all of the cultures they experience,” he writes, “but do not have full ownership of any of them.  Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.” (H/t to the meme, 31 Signs You’re a Third Culture Kid.)

I always hesitate when answering this question, mostly because without a five minute explanation, whatever answer I give will never be 100% accurate.  So for brevity and sanity’s sake, I am sometimes from Chicago; at others I am from São Paulo.  For close to 10 years, I have lived in Washington, so sometimes I am from “DC”. My wife is a Polish national and I can speak Polish, so on occasion I have even claimed Poland.

It is not an abandonment of one place for another, as it might seem to some, but rather an acceptance of all that I am.  This concept is probably hard for someone who can definitively say “I am from Los Angeles,” or “I am Italian,” to fully understand. But those of you who have parents with different nationalities, or those of you who have grown up in different countries—namely other TCKs—know exactly what I am talking about.

As a Program Manager for CDC Development Solutions, I am fortunate to have the opportunity to travel the world, setting up International Corporate Volunteer (ICV) programs for clients like IBM, SAP, Merck and John Deere. Being a TCK allows me to flow in and out of different countries and cultures, and I can honestly say that because of how I grew up, I almost never feel out of place.  But outside of my current home in the United States, where I feel most at home is Brazil.

In mid-June, what started out as protests of bus fare hikes across a few Brazilian cities blossomed into a full-throated airing of various grievances all over the country. On June 20, 2 million people took to the streets and demonstrations continued for days. On June 21, I arrived in Porto Alegre to meet with potential host organizations that will receive teams of SAP pro bono consultants this fall.

The timing of the trip was completely unintended, but as both a Brazilian and an American, it was an incredible time to be in Brazil. The country appears to be finally fed up with the corruption that permeates all veins of society, a rot that has constrained progress in social services that should have kept pace with the country’s impressive economic growth over the past decade.  One sign I saw read “We are taxed like Germans but receive services like Sudanese.”  Brazilians from all walks of life are saying enough is enough.  The protests were well-timed for impact - the Confederations Cup being held in Brazil already had the world’s attention, and the spotlight will only get brighter as the World Cup and Olympics come to the country in 2014 and 2016.  If there ever was a time for Brazilians to demand change, it is now.

Yet, as I walked the streets of Porto Alegre, surrounded by my countrymen’s demand for change, my TCK conundrum came full circle. Even with my strong affinity for Brazil and its people, I had the nagging sense that this fight for justice did not apply to me. Was I insufficiently “Brazilian” to feel equally motivated by the situation’s injustice?  Was my rage inadequate as a result of not having to deal with the frustrations other Brazilians face on a daily basis?  In this particular instance I was an observer, and even felt a slight pang of jealousy that how I grew up forbade me from sharing these feelings with those around me.

The benefit of a TCK lifestyle is multicultural fluency—I truly feel like a global citizen.  My son, Maxwell, is 7 months old and my wife and I fully intend to immerse him in American, Brazilian and Polish cultures, and hopefully he will reach fluency in all three languages.  I consider myself fortunate to have grown up how I did—especially in the globalized world we live in. It makes it easy to assimilate wherever I go. But the knife cuts both ways: with a loose definition of origin, it’s easy to feel like you’re not from anywhere.

Feature photo: Sul 21 

Daniel Elliott

Daniel Elliott

Daniel Elliott is a Key Client Manager at PYXERA Global, where he is responsible for guiding the strategic direction of major clients’ global pro bono programs. Daniel was nominated by the Diplomatic Courier Magazine and Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP) as one of the inaugural “99 Under 33 Foreign Policy Leaders” in 2011, acknowledged for his decade of work experience in the international affairs, international development and foreign policy arenas. Fluent in English, Spanish, Portuguese and conversational in Polish, Daniel has worked in over 60 countries on 5 continents.


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