The challenge of living life between cultures


“I wanted to show them that I was not American, but that I was not Thai either. I was a third culture kid.” / Illustration by Ally Rzesa

By Katiana Hoefle

I realized how different I was from everyone else when I first came to college. 

When teachers would ask students to go around the room saying where they were from, I would always brace myself for the response. “I’m from Thailand,” I’d say. The classroom around me would raise their eyebrows in disbelief and shock. What was this white girl saying? I assumed they’d always thought the worst, that I was lying or over-exaggerating to seem cool and interesting. I felt I needed to prove myself in order to make them believe me. I learned to say, “I lived there for the majority of my life,” instead of “I lived there for ten years” to try to show them what an impact living in another culture had on me. 

I wanted to show them that I was not American, but that I was not Thai either. I was a third culture kid. 

The term “third culture kid” was coined by sociologist Ruth Useem in the 1960s after she moved her children to India for work. She said third culture kids were “children who grow up or spend a significant portion of their developmental years living in a culture outside of the parents’ country of origin and typically their country of birth.” Due to the boom of globalization and the increase of interrelation between countries, the number of third culture kids increases every year. But many people still don’t know that they exist. 

Living between cultures definitely had its challenges. I never felt like I truly fit in or that anyone could really understand my experiences and beliefs. I expected to go through life always feeling like an outsider. It became easy to get stuck in the negatives, but then I learned how vital it is for third culture kids like me to embrace the parts of our experiences that make our lives special.

Moving from Minneapolis, Minn. to Chiang Rai, Thailand, I was always the foreigner or “farang.” Locals would whisper and point to their friends when they saw me walking down the street. Parents would run up to me and shove their children in my arms, asking if they could take photos with the white girl. Walking through markets, strangers would grab my curly blonde hair, in awe of the style they had only seen in movies. Even though I grew up there and spoke the language, it didn’t matter. I was treated like a foreigner in that country, and I always would be.

Returning to America was even more difficult. While I looked the same as everybody else, I felt even more foreign than I did in Thailand. I did not understand the value of the dollar or how to read temperature in Fahrenheit. I felt embarrassed when I didn’t know what street sign abbreviations meant or anything about American football. And because of this, I was afraid people would think I was dumb for not knowing the things everyone else grew up with. 

Due to growing up in a foreign country, I did not have the same instincts as someone who grew up in America. Therefore, it was easy for strangers to take advantage of me. I did not know whether I was being ripped off by ordering too expensive of a meal. I did not know if it was inappropriate for a man I didn’t know to place his hand on my back when walking by me. To combat this, I constantly asked my new American friends if these situations were normal. While they always responded kindly and with patience, I tried to refrain from asking too many questions because I was afraid of being annoying. 

For many third culture kids, these feelings can cause depression and anxiety. Clinical and Health Psychiatrist Dr. Fabian Saarloos said in an interview for Gulf News that this occurs because “growing up in a different environment from the original culture/nation leads children to miss out on certain experiences, and thus sets them apart from their counterparts, which in the case of ‘going back home’ can be difficult as they cannot smoothly integrate with and assimilate from the leading culture.” 

I wrestled with these concepts of defining myself while growing up. In a conversation with my sibling, Cela, they explained how they experienced these feelings as well when coming to terms with their identity. They said being asked to categorize identity can cause loneliness.

I am still working through how difficult it is to never really be a part of any culture. But now I am trying to change my perspective. I am grateful I get to choose the lessons I want to learn from both cultures. I try to be respectful of people’s backgrounds and cultures like how I was taught in Thailand. And I can feel empowered and independent like I was taught in America.