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  • Writer's pictureShelley Reinhart

What Does It Mean to Be a Third Culture Kid?

Jonathan Raj tells his story...

Being born an expat in Dubai shaped my formative years in ways that are difficult to explain to those who haven’t had similar experiences. When I was in kindergarten, my mother used to be able to tell which of my friends I had been playing with each day because of how much my accent would have changed by the time I got home. I would swap between Arab, Indian, British, and American almost every day, much to her amusement, and would wake up the next morning with no trace of the previous day’s changes. By the time I reached high school, I had settled into a stable ‘Dubai accent’ peppered with Arabic words, British expressions, and American slang, courtesy of my international school. My graduating class consisted of 35 students from 20 different countries, and when we meet today, our English sheds the accents adopted from the countries we have moved to and returns to the patterns we picked up from the linguistic tapestry of our childhood.

Dubai is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, and its effect on my accent is just the visible tip that belies the iceberg of cultural complexity just beneath the surface. The end-result of growing up surrounded by that much diversity is that it is impossible for me to strongly identify with any one culture. Much like my accent, I don’t quite belong anywhere. I am a Third Culture Kid (TCK). With that identity comes a lifetime of restlessness and an inability to give a simple, honest answer to anyone asking me where I’m from. But it also gives me a background that is increasingly valuable in a world that recognizes the importance of diversity. Our multicultural childhood allows TCKs to contribute to a kind of diversity that cannot be quantified demographically. It is a diversity of identity. A diversity of culture, language, heritage, history, and experience that creates cross-cultural teams ready to solve today’s global problems. It fosters a global outlook, effective intercultural communication, and above all, a mind open to new experiences from other countries, cultures, and people.

While my background provided me with a strong intercultural foundation, I was only truly able to understand how I could use my experiences when KnowledgeWorkx offered me their “Teen ICI Scholarship” to attend the Inter-Cultural Intelligence Certification workshop.

KnowledgeWorkx is a company that equips people and organizations to recognize personal cultural preferences, develop their intercultural intelligence, and create a shared 3rd cultural space. The skills and knowledge I gained during that experience have been invaluable for both my own personal development and for forming relationships with the people around me as I navigate my new phase of life as a 1st generation immigrant.

Shortly after graduating from high school I left Dubai to go to university in Houston; arguably the most multicultural city in the U.S. Being able to understand and embrace cultural differences - and having the vocabulary to talk about them effectively - helped me to overcome the difficulties associated with moving into a new culture. I have been able to recognize some of my own biases, adapt my communication to suit the people I am talking to, and be an effective part of intercultural teams.

The intercultural competencies I have developed so far are some of my greatest strengths, and I am always looking to challenge myself in ways that can develop them further. My recent decision to move to Cincinnati represented one of my greatest challenges to date. While the city is certainly diverse, it cannot compare to Houston or Dubai. I found that learning to integrate into a more monoracial society was more difficult than I expected, but as a result, I am honing intercultural skills that I never had the opportunity to exercise in more diverse environments.

On a more personal level, I was inspired by Chimamanda Ngozi’s TED Talk on the ‘Danger of the Single Story’ and other articles on narrative diversity to challenge the Western bias in my media consumption. To this end, I have sought out more foreign-language movies, TV shows, and translated books, and have been rewarded with characters and stories that have shaped who I am as a person. The way that different cultures tell their stories is fascinating, both in the story arcs and conflicts they choose to represent, and the values and ideals they impart. Having a more diverse pool of media to choose from provides both an easy way to step out of my comfort zone and shared conversational touchstones with people from all over the world.

The intercultural aspects of my story are common among international students. Our shared struggle to find our place in a new culture provides common ground which often leads to easy conversations and fast, firm friendships. The true challenge, however, comes from those with very different backgrounds to my own, with whom conversation is more difficult. At every turn, my assumptions about the experience of growing up in a farming community, being in the military, or even being American, are challenged and replaced with a better understanding of the people who live these experiences. Intercultural intelligence is at its core about connecting with people across a gulf of potential cultural misunderstanding, and my desire to grow in intercultural intelligence pushes me to continue seeking out people who can challenge my assumptions.

Being ‘international’ has become a much larger part of my identity than I had ever anticipated, and I don’t see that changing anytime in the future. I am extremely grateful for the intercultural skills I have been able to develop and the privilege of being able to apply them in so many places. My experiences as a TCK and now as an immigrant permeate through every aspect of my life and have made me, in the truest sense of the term, a global citizen.

Jonathan Raj is a former KnowledgeWorkx intern and was the first recipient of the ICI Teen Scholarship award. He is currently a Biomedical Engineering student at the University of Cincinnati.

Connect with our KnowledgeWorkx Education experts to learn more about TCKs or organize a virtual talk for teachers, parents and teens.

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