For Freshmen. By Freshmen.
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Jun 13 2016
by Nathan Mixon

10 Things Third-Culture Kids Need You To Understand About Them

By Nathan Mixon - Jun 13 2016
Walking into a new place is generally difficult for everyone. We all know this much. When we find ourselves thrown into a place that has a culture that is almost entirely unknown to us and we have to navigate that culture on our own, hard times come about. That's why so many high school juniors and seniors look at colleges that are near home or in-state; those universities have cultures that are much like the ones the students experience at home. And even if you're thinking, "Not me, I looked at schools about as far away from family and my hometown as possible," there is still a sense of comfort in the culture there. It may not be familiar, but that incognizance is probably a large part of why you were interested in that school in particular. Whether you're looking for something you know and is home to you, or if you're attracted to a school because it's completely different from the "home culture" that you want to escape, what one knows about the culture of the school plays a massive part in the decision-making process for school. Every college-bound student hopes that he or she will step onto the campus and feel comfortable with the environment and nature of the school. But what if he or she actually doesn't know a thing about what the school is like or what to expect? Well, that's the sinking feeling that so many third-culture kids coming to America for college get and we need to understand this.

Now, I understand that not everyone even really knows what the term "third-culture kid" really means. Let me briefly explain. A TCK is a person who has grown up primarily in a culture that is outside his or her parents' home culture. We think of diplomats' kids, missionaries' children or even military kids that live overseas. These people are from a "third culture" because they experience that of their parents or guardians but also that of the place they are living in, and the mixture of those two creates this "third culture." End of brief lesson on TCKs.

Having grown up in the bustling African city of Nairobi, Kenya, and living in the midst of both Kenyan and western cultures, it is often hard for me to really have a sense of personal culture. And trust me, this is normal. It would be impossible to recall all the seminars and talks I've been a part of that have discussed this sense of "homelessness." And now, as I and my friends graduate from high school and move on to new horizons, we ask ourselves, "Where is home?" My aim here is to help homegrown college kids have a better understanding of how to reach out to TCKs at college and hopefully, to show other TCKs why we are allowed to be ourselves. 

1. First of all, we aren't all the same. 

Third-culture kids obviously come from cultures all over the place. Or rather, a mixture of many cultures from all over the place. Third-culture kids are going to act and think differently from people who have spent their whole lives in one home country. And we are also going to act and think differently from each other. Don't let stereotypes ("Mean Girls" comes to mind) about TCKs cloud your views. International kids come in every shape, color and size possible. 

2. We do look like the rest of you but we're different deep down. 

I'm a white American, born in the United States to two American parents. I really do not look very different from any other American you see every day. I don't even dress that differently. And of course, what we see is what we understand. It's the same for all humans. If we see someone who looks different, we assume he or she is different from us, and similarly, if we see someone who looks the same, we tend to assume that that person gets our culture the same way we do. And often, these assumptions turn out to be totally right. But in the cases of many TCKs, though we may look like someone from your culture, the likelihood is that they feel quite out of place in their new college and home. Whether or not a TCK is introverted or extroverted, feeling comfortable and being able to reach out and find good friends is often hindered by this feeling of "homelessness." We want to feel welcome and appreciated for our differences but also to feel at home at our respective colleges.

3. What might seem normal to you could be totally foreign to a us, and vice versa. 

This is exactly what culture shock is. We move to the States (usually) for college and see things and people and interactions and are thinking, "What the heck is the deal with these people?" But of course, we're weird too and you'll see TCKs at your college and wonder why they do the rain dance every night. Okay, just kidding, no rain dances. But we have different customs and habits that are strange to other cultures.

4. Remember, we aren't just from one different culture. 

TCKs experience many different cultures and environments that include their parents' culture. Don't think that just because someone grew up in England and has a bit of an accent, that he or she doesn't know anything about its home culture, your culture. But also be aware that he or she is not going to understand things about, say, America, as well as you are even if he or she is an American citizen. What's on a passport doesn't necessarily tell you where a person's really from. 

5. Oh yeah, we have passports. 

TCKs travel like crazy. If you have questions on traveling out of country, ask us and we'll have the answers.

Jon Rawlison for Vagabondish

6. Third-culture kids aren't necessarily natives of whatever country they've lived in. 

I've been asked countless times if I speak Kiswahili fluently. And I don't. Granted, I do wish I was fluent but there are loads of countries where most people (especially in the bigger cities) are fairly proficient in English. I never needed to be fluent in Kiswahili to get around. Don't assume that an American TCK can spit out rapid-fire Cantonese on request. Feel free to ask but don't be surprised when he says he can't do it. Also, we just aren't necessarily experts on these countries. It's our parents that work, not them. Our only job is to be a kid.

7. "Where are you from?" can be one of the hardest questions to answer. 

Where my passport and blood tells me I'm from may not match up with where my heart says my home is. Asking that question is going to require more than two words, guaranteed. So beware the question, you may want to be sure you're comfortable and have some good snacks when you ask that one.


8. We can't drive. 

All right, that's a bit of a generalization. I mean, I have both an American license and a Kenyan one. But it isn't uncommon for TCKs to not have licenses. We don't spend much time in our parents' home country so when we go there for college, we'll need rides everywhere. Offers, anyone?


9. Goodwill is our jam. 

Cheap, second-hand clothes right down the street? Yes, please.

10. We can't exactly go home every long weekend. 

For many of us, our families stay in whatever country we are coming from when we leave for college. We may have to wait six months or a year, for Christmas break or the summer, before we can visit our family or they come to us. So know that if you're making good friends with a TCK, he or she is gonna crash your house on the regular.


Being without a home culture is a stressful thing when one is moving and settling into a place where one is surrounded by locals who know their way around like the backs of their hands. Making friends can be intimidating and it's easy to pull back. But in the times when a TCK isn't able to make him or herself approach others, to have someone approach him or her and welcome him or her into the culture of the college, into a comfortable, inclusive setting, to be asked about and feel cared for, these things are a big deal. You can really make someone's day by making them feel at home when he or she feels like they don't know where home is.

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Nathan Mixon - Temple University

So I've lived basically my entire life in Kenya (well, about fourteen years), mostly in the capital, Nairobi. I'm starting at Temple University and majoring in Sport Management. I enjoy the outdoors and just walking around, discovering cool niches wherever I go. And soccer. I like it. Writing about myself? Not so much.

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