Visions of Disloculture


“I was like a cat taken and left miles from home – I was really trying to find my way back to India.” Lawrence Durrell, English author born in Jalandhar.


A ‘third-culture kid’ childhood may be associated with enhanced creativity – but why? Could the answer be related to pattern hypersensitivity triggered by ‘disloculture’? 



(a) Fractured childhoods: the making of the third-culture kid

Cultural geographies are reshaped by migrations. When we exchange our natal dust for another country’s dirt we leave tracks and berms. Movements of emigrés cause multiple tiny erosions and depositions, and these summate: they make new bays and beaches, wear down old mountains, throw up new hills, blur ancient boundaries. Relocation changes culture – including that of those who relocate.

The impact of migration on migrants1 may depend on the extent to which individual lives are forever separated into before and after. In some cases, breaks with the past may be temporary, and soon reversed: a contract is accepted, fulfilled, terminated. In other cases, the relocation is not so much a break as a pendular steady-state, characterised by a series of oscillations between the old home and the new: a diasporic back-and-forth that both feeds nostalgia and keeps it at bay. But some migrations may be painful fractures; fractures which may heal, or may not, according to whether the breaks are complicated – made compound, perhaps – by other factors. 

Consider migrant children, brought up on the fragile isthmus between the almost-island of their parents’ culture and the looming landmass of the host country’s mores; consider those taken from that childhood world and placed on a smaller, still more fragile beachhead back in their parents’ country. Consider the different loves and loyalties they find, like strange sea-shells, on their uniquely given intertidals; consider how these shells are shattered, or replaced, as life’s storms remake their isthmus’ beaches; and how, again and again, the cross-currents of the two cultures iterate a new boundary zone, always the same yet different each time it is observed. Is one isthmus or another their home? Or does home lie only at one or the other end of a spit? Or is there in fact, for these people, no such thing as home, only lost patterns of belonging . . .

In Grant Gee’s film ‘Patience’, an appreciation of ‘The Rings of Saturn’ (a book by the extraordinary German writer WG Sebald, who as an adult settled in England and remained there until his untimely death), one of the narrators notes that Sebald was never really at home, either in Germany or in England, and goes on to say (I may paraphrase): “home is a childish concept, in that adults never have homes . . . only children have homes.” Whether that is true of adults or not, it seems certain that this ‘childish concept’ is indeed important to children. And this suggests that the migration-associated fracture of the childhood home (‘home’: the statehood conferred by one’s upbringing?) into two eigenstates may have significant effects both on the child and on the adult which the child must become (Box 1). 

Box 1: The making of a TCK: consequences of a fractured childhood

“When moving to new countries, [we] also become symbolically displaced, unable to draw upon the local knowledge, or symbolic language of a culture, to produce culturally specific representations that are legible within the new place. This is what . . . Barriendos Rodriguez calls the symbolic dimension of human mobility:3 ‘the symbolic dimension . . . not only concerns the positional changes of bodies in space, but also the displacement of social representations and the very power of individual self-representation’”2

 “Symbolic displacement can have serious consequences. As we move across different cultures, it becomes difficult to negotiate the terms by which we want to be seen, understood and treated. The cultural norms change . . . the terms by which we are recognised are forever mutable and contingent upon context and environment.” 2

 “. . . one’s agency comes into flux after crossing borders. Placed in a new environment, the extent to which one is able to communicate undergoes drastic changes.” 2

 “Third culture kids are distinct from ‘normal’ kids in some fundamental psychological way . . .”5

 “TCKs develop cultural patterns that differ from those of their counterparts who grew up in one place . . . it affects their developmental patterns and can create a sense of chronic loss.”2

“Due to their young age and still malleable identity, TCKs face many difficult issues with self-representations that greatly affect their agency in ways other migrants don’t experience. An inability to manage such issues of agency and representation in a new culture can leave a TCK mute, unable to communicate at all – symbolically or verbally.”2

“For months after our move, I refused to speak in public. At four years old, I couldn’t handle an identity, an image of myself, as being different from the other children around me.”2

“Talking about . . .  any experiences . . . was a huge risk, because the listener rarely understood . . .  and would in some way criticise, belittle or dismiss my memories. This, coupled with growing up in a typical TCK household where the difficulty of adapting to different cultures was rarely acknowledged, turned me silent. And resentful.”8

 “ . . . the need for roots and origins is often strongest in people who move constantly” 33 (quoted in2)

“Being a third culture kid is a struggle for identity against heavy odds . . . Often you look different, and often there is an intimidating language barrier between you and the world around you . . . You inhabit an in-between space, a created world, and you lose the all-important sense of ‘home’”5

“Where are you from? . . . The innocent enquirer will generally believe that we ought to have an anchor-point . . . a place to go when we need to be safe . . . This . . . only serves as a sad and unnerving reminder for the third culture individual who must continually face rootlessness.”5

“Normal life consists of an existence punctuated by important transitions. The third culture life is a life of transition punctuated by important moments of stasis.”5

 “TCKs are never intended to stay in the country in which they grow up . . .and often this means they are not allowed to stay with themselves, with their most ‘native’ self. Likewise, whatever ‘home’ was – a river, a sandy road, a hallway in a house, voices from the kitchen, a caregiver – we cannot keep.”6

“Being a TCK means learning unique lessons not only about the world but also about [oneself] . . . coping skills were regularly put to the test. Every move was a kind of death . . .”8

These effects, and their impact, are now recognised as potentially important; indeed, they have been the focus of a number of academic studies. And these investigations have spawned new vocabularies; perhaps most notably, the term “third-culture kid” (TCK): 

“A third-culture kid is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. 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.”9 

“Third-culture kid”: to me, this is an unfortunate phrase. It is ugly. It is clumsy. And it is opaque: anyone new to the concept will have no idea what the term might mean. Even if we accept that TCKs generate or belong to a ‘third culture’ (which is highly debatable), it’s hard to accept that no better phrase could have been found or constructed10. But I won’t be the one to promote a new terminology, and I’m not interested in arguing for or against a ‘third culture’. There are more interesting things to discuss, and what interests me is the influence of a TCK upbringing on creativity. 


(b) The third-culture kid and creativity

Without access to academic research (most published studies are behind pay-walls, and I have no budget for this essay), I can’t evaluate the scientific case, if any, for TCKs being particularly creative (but I’d love to receive any relevant studies that authors may wish to send). Nevertheless, publicly available resources do seem to speak to and support the notion that TCK-type polycultural exposure is associated with enhanced creativity (Box 2).

But why should a TCK upbringing affect creativity? Is there an a priori argument for this? One possibility is that intimate exposure to different cultures – different ways of being and doing – favours the kind of cross-fertilisation that is generally held to promote new ways of thinking and new ideas. Certainly, I’ve long believed that creativity is boosted in boundary regions and borderlands; in places where one way of being, or one discipline, overlaps with or nudges against another. It’s analogous to the enhanced biodiversity (the ‘edge effect’) found at the boundary between ecosystems. Hence, when I worked in R&D and technology commercialisation, I held that ground-breaking creativity – ‘innovation’ — was more likely to occur when different fields were apposed: DNA and silicon chips; materials science and cell biology; optics and nanotech; prokaryotic quorum signalling and AI.  Maybe polycultural exposure has a similar effect – a kind of broadening of the mind to new possibilities, to unguessed synergies that might occur when different approaches or resources are melded. A hybrid vigour of the imagination. The above sounds plausible; even so, I can’t help thinking there may be some other, deeper factor at play. And I wonder if that factor may be intimately linked to pattern recognition.

BOX 2: TCK-type polycultural exposure may favour creativity

“The culmination of evidence seems to indicate that the creative potential of [TCKs] is indeed increased as a result of their multicultural experiences.”15

Bilingual exposure improves aspects of mental function16

“Migrants . . .  actively imagine ways to identify and connect unfamiliar cultures with their past experiences, using a new set of symbols and cultural signifiers to which they do not yet have access . . .According to Arjun Appadurai4, the use of imagination [becomes] central to all forms of agency”2

“People who grew up in an expat community or as military brats all feel the same feeling of loneliness. When you feel lonely, you use what you have around you in a very creative way.”Ahmed Gallab (Sinkane), musician.24

“We lose more people – teachers, coaches, dreams – in five years than most people do in a lifetime. And . . .  that is attached to creativeness . . .  children in these situations cling to art. They read books. They go to museums. They paint.  . . . We don’t learn that there is consistency to things.” Donna Musil, film-maker and founder of Brats Without Borders.24

Quotations from ‘Handbook of Creativity’11:

–“Creative acts arise from dialogical interactions with cultural norms, expectations and artifacts; culture is evolved and transformed in the generative process of creativity.” (Introduction: Leung, Kwan, Liou)

–“We posit that a broader, connected cultural experience provides an impetus to break down cultural confines, to oscillate between a variety of cultural perspectives, or to synthesize a multitude of ideas from different cultures, and these processes in turn bring about discernible enduring benefits to creativity.” (The role of culture in creative cognition: Leung and Koh).

–“ . . . multicultural individuals [have] a broader knowledge base at their disposal to experiment with creative pursuits.” (The role of culture in creative cognition: Leung and Koh).

–“ . . . historiometric investigations of over 300 eminent twentieth-century personalities12, Nobel laureates13 and US scientists14 showed that most creative geniuses appeared to have been either foreign born, lived overseas or studied abroad.” (The role of culture in creative cognition: Leung and Koh).

 (c) Creativity and pattern recognition

This is not the place for a review of the psychology of perception; in brief, it seems that our brains have evolved to detect patterns, and indeed that they ‘want’ to find patterns so much that they will construct spurious patterns if real ones are not available. Hence the phenomena of apophenia (seeing patterns that do not exist, such as faces in flames or clouds, or meaningful shapes in tea-leaves or in Rorschach blots), pareidolia (discerning false patterns in random data) and optical illusions. This predisposition to detect patterns is presumably an evolutionarily-favoured strategy that allows organisms to better detect environmental risks and rewards: to see the pattern of a predator, the pattern of a peach. 

What has this to do with creativity? One possibility is that pattern detection and creativity are intimately linked. When you detect a pattern in background noise – say, a tiger half-obscured in undergrowth – you are constructing a concept from some of its subunits. You are joining up the dots to make a shape; you create a tiger from half a paw, a tail, and a twitching ear. Similarly, under other circumstances the visual system will connect features to make a face, corners to make a box, fingers to make a hand. It seems likely that such neural processes are not limited to vision; similar pattern detection mechanisms may underlie (for example), the appreciation of music (incidentally, it is fascinating to see that the impact of a TCK upbringing is evident in the lyrics of TCK songwriters17). In summary, pattern detection may involve making connections between elements to create something. In this context, a quotation from Steve Jobs18 is of interest: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things . . .” 

So if we are all predisposed to detect patterns, and if pattern-detection is, in some way, involved in creativity, it could be that more creative people have, say, a better ability to detect patterns, or (perhaps more likely) exhibit more intense pattern-seeking behaviour. Might the TCK brain have a particular hunger for pattern? Might TCKs have a higher sensitivity to correlations, to rhythms of perception, to finding links — and then creating things (stories, pictures, music, patents) based on those connections or on the ideas thereby triggered? It’s easy to propose – but why would the TCK brain be especially pattern-hungry? Again, absent evidence, we have to speculate. Let’s return to the definition of a TCK.


(d) Disloculture and the hunger for patterns of home

A key component of the TCK experience, per Pollock and van Reken, is summarised as follows (my italics): “the TCK frequently builds relationships with all of the cultures, without having full ownership of any”. This lack of full ownership, this unbelonging, this ‘apossession’ (not dispossession, for to be dispossessed you must first possess) is something that many TCKs (but, I expect, not all) will recognise19. It may be particularly poignant for those who have entirely broken away from the country of their upbringing; for these TCKs especially, perhaps, a kind of homelessness is at the heart of their identity. Having been transplanted, they are desperate to put down roots; so desperate, some, that they wander forever in search of the right place to establish themselves; in search of a place to cure this unbelonging; in search of home. But home has been fractured; it is split in two, and cannot be mended, for it is not only culture that has been cut away from these TCKs; it is also locus (place). They have been disinherited of both locus and culture; they are dislocultured. This feeling of disarticulation and loss may be more intense for some TCKs than others, depending on the precise circumstances of their upbringing; but I suspect that many TCKs will recognise it. Hence the huge importance to TCKs of documentation, of one form or another; i.e., of objects or accounts that validate their lost existences (Box 3). 

Box 3: The TCK’s chronic feelings of loss may fuel a need for finding, keeping or creating ‘documentation’ – i.e., physical validations of their life trajectories

“TCKs have a greater need for consistent representations to take along with them on each move”2

 “ . . . objects can be employed by TCKs as critical tools to document, preserve and communicate [their] identity and history.”2

“I was making personal films on Super 8 as I was travelling around, leaving home . . . I was just preserving myself. It felt like I was going to disappear and not be around anymore, so it was more like writing a journal than traditional film-making,” Lance Bangs, film-maker24.

 “. . .  people who move often store ‘their precluded social personhood within mementoes of mind and matter, including cherished small objects’20. . .In other words, objects may be invested with personal memories of past experiences and previous homes that may help a TCK re-articulate the shifting boundaries of their socio-cultural identity. This simple act of imbedding objects with intense personal meaning and identification has significant implications, and the inability to do so has equally devastating effects.”2

“For TCKs feeling disconnected, documentation [gives] the opportunity to ground [themselves].”2

“[objects can be] the containers of the [TCK’s] life. They store and safeguard [the TCK’s] personal history, ensuring against the losses of the past, which is a constant reality for TCKs who are chronically symbolically displaced.”2

 “When I [returned] to the States for University, I packed everything precious into a crate – but when the delivery truck arrived at the port of entry in Chicago, it was gone. Everything was gone. I felt as I were stripped bare, as if a whole lifetime had been erased with no proof to validate my differences and who I was. I could point to nothing that made up and defined the fabric of my life . . .  these objects . . . were the external validations for the intangible feelings I could not communicate otherwise. ”2

“This obsession to document and represent oneself is driven by a sense of loss, of being perpetually deracinated – displaced from any context that validates one’s belonging and sense of self.”2

But so what? How could disloculture stimulate pattern-seeking and creativity? I wonder (guess, speculate, hypothesize) if its impact may be as follows. Firstly, to have no natural place in the world is to be always somewhat adrift, and that is unnatural. The psyche rebels; it fights the feeling of displacement, the apossession; it seeks a place that is undeniably its own. It seeks the pattern of home. But there is no such pattern, or perhaps, that particular pattern no longer exists beyond memory, and so the psyche seeks harder, and harder still. And in this doomed seeking, it starts to detect or generate patterns, in all kinds of ways, in all kinds of spheres; patterns which are triggered or informed by apossession , by displacement; patterns which are pieces of an outline of what home once was, but which can never make a new home or replace the old one. They are only broken surrogates, these patterns: stories which capture some part of a lost, distant childhood, music which evokes some feeling that can never be truly recaptured, new businesses and enterprises that provide a seeming security that never quite replaces the safety that was lost so many years ago. And because this TCK pattern-seeking, this joining of dots far removed from each other in space and social context, combines elements or influences from different cultures, the patterns thereby made may be truly novel – that is, creative. 

I should emphasise that I am not suggesting that TCKs are ipso facto creative or ‘special’; I don’t hold with ideas of exceptionalism. I am only saying that, when comparing populations of TCKs and non-TCKs, one might expect the normal distribution of creativity to be pushed a little further to the right in the TCK population. This is not to say that non-TCK artists, scientists (etc) do not feel similar kinds of loss and nostalgia, nor that they are not exploiting the same kinds of pattern-seeking behaviour, nor that they cannot create their own unique pictures and stories, music and philosophies, inventions and patents. The idea is only that – all other things being equal – a TCK background may predispose any given individual to feel a more intense sense of loss, a disloculture, which is less easily addressed, which drives them to exploit the same pattern-seeking neural circuitry more desperately, and finally may lead them to create things that are more different in that they draw on familiarity with two or more cultures, not just one.


(e) Where are the data?

If the above is true, one would expect adult TCKs to be over-represented in fields associated with creativity and innovation, and/or to be particularly associated with creativity and innovation in any field. Is there any evidence for this? I have found no large-scale, publicly available, defensible work on this precise topic. There are, however, some hints and pointers on the internet and in the few published articles I have so far managed to access. 

Firstly, an article24 summarising interviews with displaced children “who turned to art to express their mixed sense of roots” suggests TCK-associated creativity manifests itself in a range of areas including entrepreneurialism, film-making and photography. These are interesting accounts; however, they are subjective reports from the TCKs themselves, not objective data. A better approach would be to identify a large group of creative individuals and quantify the incidence of TCKs in this group (rather than talking to a small group of creative TCKs about why they think they are creative).

Secondly, it seems that many TCKs are drawn to creative writing; it is almost as if they need to validate their lost, broken lives by capturing aspects of their lived experience in written words (Box 4). (In passing, there are intriguing indications that literature written by TCK authors may tend to share key features25 (Box 5)). Note too that Antje Rauwerde has shown26 that there are many TCK authors (this is certainly something I can relate to28). That said, the population of writers is (I imagine) rather large, and therefore, statistically speaking, it might be odd (I assume) if it contained no TCKs. Again, the question that we need to address is whether or not TCKs are over-represented; at present, I have not been able to find an answer for this. 

Box 4: The TCK need for validation (documentation) may feed creativity, particularly creative writing

“A critical consequence of human linguistic powers is our readiness to tell and respond to stories . . . We can use language, and its partner literature, to find our place in the world, to understand our role, to determine our fit. . . . Stories and story-telling are a fundamental tool for people to understand themselves”5

“A big idea in literature is the link between identity and place . . . The hero goes on a journey and then returns home. . . . Home is the intersection between identity and place.”5

“As I read and as I wrote, I began to discover a pattern that seemed to link narratives by TCKs. The pattern is that of a doubleness or dual identity, in which, eventually, one part of the self becomes ‘the stranger’. . . . the ‘stranger’ is . . . often the most familiar self. Only later, when the [TCK] is asked to forget or deny the ‘stranger’, does this identity become troubling.”6

 “ . . . the prospect of death was a great release. I was giddy with the freedoms it offered . . . the opportunity to cast my mind backward was a gift from heaven. I believed I would write my book and die and my story would have that happy ending at least, that the stranger I loved, but who had not been loved, had got out.”6

 “I chose to become a professor, I suppose, because I could continue to recreate myself . . . In many ways, the closest I could get to home was reinvention.”6

“[As I wrote my memoir] . .  the rediscovery of my double history was transformed into wonder and miracle. I understood  myself. No wonder I had felt confused . . . in every part of my . . . life. Half of me had been erased, forgotten, silenced. . . . I wasn’t a failure or a badly adjusted adult or a colleague stubbornly resistant to assimilation. I was fully and completely the offspring of two worlds.”6

“Being a TCK can make one sensitive to everyone else’s needs. Some of us are reticent to dive in with our opinions on anything because we are always readjusting to our surroundings. This can last a lifetime . . . Lately, it is as if years of treading carefully are being overwhelmed by a need to express myself truthfully . . . Hence [my] writing .. .” 8

“ . . . [some] people will probably disagree with, dislike, misunderstand or dismiss [my writing] . . . [but] I am ready.”8

“All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we were, that valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place.” Toni Morrison, author of ‘The Bluest Eye’ and ‘The Song of Solomon’22

“What would have happened if I had been born in Belgium and lived in Belgium? Would I be a writer? I don’t know. This is the billion-dollar question.”23 Belgian novelist Amelie Nothomb, author of works including ‘The Life of Hunger’,who was brought up in countries including Japan, China and Bangladesh.

“I was like a cat taken and left miles from home – I was really trying to find my way back to India.”32 Lawrence Durrell, English author born in Jalandhar, India, and author of books including ‘The Alexandria Quartet.

In addition to the above kinds of approach, it would be interesting to pursue laboratory studies. If TCKs are on average more creative or more inclined to detect patterns, one might expect them to exhibit differences, at the perceptual or neurophysiological level, in measures associated with creativity or pattern detection. For example, perhaps TCKs would be ‘better’ (on some value, at least: speed, or persistence, or accuracy) at detecting patterns in standard psychological tests. Or perhaps they would be ‘worse’ – more prone to dysfunction — than non-TCKs in the sense of having higher rates of apophenia, pareidolia or optical illusions; indeed, perhaps TCKs could be more prone to paranoiac or schizophrenic delusions. Finally, if pattern-seeking can be defined at the level of brain activity, techniques such as functional MRI might show up differences between TCKs and non-TCKs. 

So, at present, all I have is a suspicion, with no hard evidence; it is no more than a subjective, intuitive guess, built on three ideas: (i) that the human brain is predisposed to seek and detect patterns; (ii) that pattern-seeking is linked to creativity; and (iii) that the TCK brain’s pattern-seeking function is comparatively hyperactive. It is only the germ of an embryo of a hypothesis of a pattern. But I believe it is testable, if only we could collect or interrogate the relevant data. Everybody — please feel free to comment on any aspect of this article; you can find a comments box by scrolling down to the very end of this page. Alternatively, DM me via the contact form on this website, or via FB/Twitter.

Box 5: Not your typical ‘diaspora’ or ‘third world cosmopolitan’: Antje Rauwerda on TCK authors

Rauwerda25 suggests that TCK-authored literature – “third culture literature” – may tend to share key features, primarily: internationalism, migration-associated losses (“of friends, family, pets, places and other constituents of ever-elusive ‘home’”), no ownership of place (“not even a passport country”), and a guilty recognition of the potential adverse effects of one’s presence in the host country. Does Rauwerda’s study provide any support for pattern-seeking in TCKs, especially as related to rootlessness or unbelonging? Interesting quotations from her paper include the following:

–“Third culture literature and its authors do not engage with [the] centre-periphery paradigm (instead, everything becomes periphery); its most important feature is its lack of centre.”

–“Replacing a home/away pairing with a more complex web of geographical connections . . . is a key feature of third culture literature”

–“Each year for Alice seemed to dwell in its own house and sometimes in its own country so that you move through space as well as time and then it all evaporated behind you like smoke10.”

–“Kate wants tangible reconstructions of her memories of lost places – ‘Can you give me a back alley, a smoke-filled temple?’31 – and for lost people to be returned to her.”

–“My [Kate’s] mother calls the place we’re going to home. I don’t. [My] blood calls out for the tangled, dripping vines of the jungle, trees, elephant-ear leaves,”31

–“[Alice, of her longing for Ecuador]: “It’s a difficult thing to crave land like this, especially when your body is so small. And a dangerous thing too, when you have no business being there, when it’s not even where you’re from.”30

 To me, there is an underlying sense, in the above quotations, of homelessness and the search for tangible proofs of home, of the search for connections in a centreless world. Not so different, perhaps, from the hypothesis that pattern-seeking is fed by deracination?

 (f) Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Jessica Sanfilippo Schulz for comments on the first draft of this essay and for sharing ideas, articles and publications which informed and improved the second draft.


(g)  Appendix: Other relevant quotations 

  • “You have two choices in a [TCK childhood]. You can become extremely displaced and maybe screwed up or you can adjust and become more outgoing and make sure you are not always the new kid.” Johnny Schilleref, Founder, Elements Skateboards24
  • “The bad part is you don’t have a consistent sense of identity. Who are you? What do you think? What do you feel?  . . . those are things that are difficult for nomadic types of people.” Donna Musil, film-maker and founder of Brats Without Borders. 24
  • “ . .  the [TCK] may grow so used to giving back a different self according to his environment [that] he loses sight of who he is when nobody’s around”29 (quoted in 25) 
  •  “Is the [third culture impact on TCKs] similar to the psychological impact of war on the modern warrior? Existence defined by the horror of combat, punctuated by the tragic beauty of butterflies. And when the soldier returns home . . . he has been altered and can no longer fit in. . . . he longs for the thing that defines him . . .  the place that defines him . . . but these things no longer exist . . . the prodigal soldier returns home and promptly becomes lost. [In] third culture experiences . . . similar things are lost and gained.”5
  •  “Unlike immigrant children who often view their challenge as becoming as assimilated as possible as quickly as possible . . . the TCK is taught to be careful not to feel too much at home in the host culture because their real home is actually elsewhere . . .  [hence the] complicated and contradictory patterns of homing and unhoming experienced by the TCK. Born into their parents’ experience of displacement, they have learnt only how to be ‘at home’ in that place which is not ‘home’.”7
  • “You grow up not being afraid of what’s different, you kind of like it. We also know what it’s like to be outsiders. You see, we don’t really belong anywhere.” Donna Musil, film-maker and founder of Brats Without Borders.24
  •  “ . . . for migrants like TCKs, representations can only be effective when they are preserved in such a way that they may be presented, referenced and used when needed to counter and disprove others at a later date . . .[such objects, particularly documents and photographs] can provide an integral way [of]  . . . preserving traces of old identities, affinities and affiliations while further providing the possibility of a  textual referent that could be read or translated in other places. . . .  the ability to document oneself and one’s past experiences is an aspect of agency . . . that is separate from, albeit connected to, the role of self-representation.”2
  • “When our documents, . . .  help us to reconnect with our diverse and fragmented past, [we can] ‘reclaim and renew life-affirming bonds . . . [connecting] ourselves to a recuperative, redemptive memory that enables us to construct radical identities’”.(21 quoted in 2)
  • “[My] stranger was determined and survived. For the next several years. my wrestling with her often blinded me to dangers in public life . . . Without an imaginable future, I became indifferent to my earlier focus on . . . excellence in the classroom.”6
  • “I am constantly rewriting. . . .  I am coming to terms with my own conflicted feelings. Writing about it is helping me make peace with the hard parts so I can tell all the good parts more freely.”8
  • “I remember one instance when I was a source of aberrant intrigue for a couple of children [due to] my red hair . . . their curiosity [became] physically overwhelming . . . I was only thirteen years old at the time and I was mortified by this experience. I felt like a monster or an alien . . . [it] made me feel like a freak whose qualities, too grotesque to be politely ignored, caused adults and children alike to gawk . . . in that instant . . . I felt my path to . . . assimilation and acceptance widened and became ever more elusive . . . [it] reminded me that I did not belong. Yet I had no other idea of home to fall back on.”2
  • “Here is what I know about identity: it is allowed to be complex.”8



(h) Notes and references

1. I use the term ‘migrant’ to mean (per United Nations) any individual who moves across “an international border or within a State away from his or her habitual place of residence, regardless of (1) the person’s legal status; (2) whether the movement is voluntary or involuntary; (3) what the causes of the movement are; or (4) what the length of the stay is.” Thank you to Jessica Sanfilippo Schulz for alerting me to this definition and to the alternative usage of ‘migrant’ as a term expressly indicating instances of involuntary movement.

2. Burns: Documenting mobility (Bell-Villada, Eidse and Orr, ‘Writing out of limbo: international childhoods, global nomads and third culture kids’, 2011).

3. Barriendos Rodriguez, ‘Global art and politics of mobility’, in ‘Thinking mobility two-ways: on migratory aesthetics’, ed. Mieke Bal, Murcia, 2007.

4. Appadurai, ‘Modernity at large’, Uni Minnesota Press, 2008.

5. Clinton,  ‘Khartoum Romeo, Delhi Juliet’, in Bell-Villada, Eidse and Orr, ‘Writing out of limbo: international childhoods, global nomads and third culture kids’, 2011.

6. Orr, ‘The stranger self: a pattern in narrative’, in Bell-Villada, Eidse and Orr, ‘Writing out of limbo: international childhoods, global nomads and third culture kids’, 2011.

7. Ridout, ‘Colonial mothers and cosmopolitan TCKs’, in Bell-Villada, Eidse and Orr, ‘Writing out of limbo: international childhoods, global nomads and third culture kids’, 2011.

8. Liang, ‘Checked Baggage: Writing Unpacked’, in Bell-Villada, Eidse and Orr, ‘Writing out of limbo: international childhoods, global nomads and third culture kids’, 2011.

9. Pollock and van Reken: ‘Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds’, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2009.

10. In fact, after writing this essay I was informed that a diversity of terms have been proposed or used for transnational children; about 60 are listed by Vellianis and Frenzel, ‘Mixed metaphors: descriptive representations for transnational students’, ISANA International Academy Association Conference, Adelaide, 2014.

11. Leung, Kwan and Liou (Editors): ‘Handbook of Culture and Creativity – Basic Processes and Applied Innovations’, Oxford University Press, 2018.

12. Goertzel, Goertzel and Goertzel: ‘300 eminent personalities – a psychosocial evaluation of the famous,’ Jossey-Bass, Inc., 1978.

13. Moulin, ‘Nobel prizes for the sciences, 1901-1950: An essay in sociological analysis’, Brit J Sociol, 6, 246-263, 1955.

14. Levin and Stephan, ‘Are the foreign born a source of strength for US science?’, Science, 285, 1213-1214, 1999.

15. Murphy, 

16, For example:

17. Sanfilippo-Schulz, ‘Escaping national tags and embracing diversity: third culture kid songwriters’, Open Cultural Studies, 2, 11-24 (2018).


19. In passing, I should note that these feelings may be mixed up with other emotions. Antje Rauwerda27 put it very well, albeit from the perspective of a particular, ‘neocolonially privileged’ kind of TCK: “TCK disconnection, then, stems less from repeated international / intercultural moves and more from a catastrophic rupture between what the child steeped in neocolonial privilege believed they could want and what the adult grown from that child has enough insight now to understand they should never have wanted in the first place. In that rupture is a well of shame.”

20. Parkin, ‘Mementoes as transnational objects in human displacement’, Journal of Material Culture, 4, 303-320 (1999).

21. bell hooks, ‘In Our Glory’, in ‘Picturing Us’, ed Willis, New York Press, 1994



24. Jones 2015, ‘Does a nomadic childhood lead to a more creative life? Uprooted kids.’ 

25. Rauwerda, ‘Not your typical ‘diaspora’ or ‘third world cosmopolitan’, Wasafiri, 25, 16-23 (2010).



28. Biographical note: I am a TCK. I went from England to India when I was two weeks old. On the voyage, I was christened on the SS Oronsay, the ship that, as related by Michael Ondaatje (another TCK author) in ‘Anil’s Ghost’, ended its days as a floating hospital wing in Sri Lanka. I spent the vast majority of my first twelve years, and a number of months per year thereafter until adulthood, in South India. By training, I am a biomedical scientist; by nature, I am a writer. When I write, I write from the position of familiarity with, not ownership of, aspects of places I have lived: India, England, Wales, Switzerland. Perhaps I write from the spaces between these places: from areas of no-man’s land populated by the dislocultured.

29. Pico Iyer, ‘The Global Soul’, Vintage, 2000.

30. Alison, ‘Natives and exotics’, Harcourt 2005.

31. Greenway, ‘White ghost girls’, Black Cat, 2006.

32. This Durrell quotation seems to pop up in various forms, from various sources. The wording I give in the text was from the Twitter account of the Durrell society. Other forms of words include the following: “All his life . . . India . . . would haunt him. ‘I was really trying to find my way back to India’, he said in old age, by way of explaining his intellectual and spiritual odyssey.” (Quoted in ‘Lawrence Durrell: A biography’, by McNiven, Faber & Faber 1998). (Another interesting passage from this source: “When Larry left [India] for England at the age of eleven, many ties were sundered  . . . When called upon to describe his early years, he liked to state the facts simply: ‘I was born in India. Went to school there – under the Himalayas. The most wonderful memories – a brief dream of Tibet until I was eleven.’ That dream was over.” )

33. Braidotti, ‘Nomadic subjects’, Columbia University Press, 1994.




























































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