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Four Continents Too Many: The Tough Reality of Being A TCK

The most unique thing about me is that I have lived on five continents. I was born in Colorado, but have also gone to school in Australia, Thailand, Zambia, and Germany. While I am eternally grateful for my unique upbringing, there are many factors about being a third culture kid (TCK) that are not so glamorous. 

Skydiving in Namibia with my mom

First, I hate being asked where I’m from because I don’t know how to answer. Sometimes I just say “Colorado” if I’m not in the mood to give the same monotone spiel about everywhere I’ve lived, but because most of my foundational years were spent overseas, I struggle to identify as fully American. Saying I’m from Colorado seems like a lie, because with the exception of the last year and a half, I hadn’t even lived in the U.S. since I was in the sixth grade. But on the other hand, there’s nothing I hate more than telling people about my life as a third culture kid. I am so over answering, “where is your favorite place you’ve lived?” and, “you are so lucky to have experienced such a diverse life,” and quite honestly, I wish I could have a conversation with someone about my childhood that doesn’t revolve around my internationalism. Constantly being told how lucky I am, when I have been wishing for a normal American life for years, not only makes me feel spoiled for not being as thankful as I should be but also isolates me from my peers. I feel like a zoo animal when I get pestered with questions about my travels. Many third culture kids struggle with identity because of constantly moving to foreign countries, and in my experience, it has made connecting with other Americans extremely difficult. 

Hiking in Norway with my brother

I also hate using my international upbringing as a crutch, but in some cases it’s unavoidable. When applying to college, the only essay topics that would make me stand out as an applicant were based around my travels. I so badly wanted to write about playing high school sports and surviving breakups, just like any other girl my age, but knew schools wouldn’t recognize me from Jane Doe unless I milked the whole “I went to high school in Africa” concept. I despise the fact that where I live identifies me, and in some cases, I feel like it’s the only thing that makes me special. In my mind, I am so much more than my experiences, but many people only remember me because of them. 

My friend and I outside of Crossfit in Zambia

Being a third culture kid also entails some unrequested privileges. I feel like such a snobby rich kid when I casually mention the ski resorts in France while on the chairlift or add to the class discussion about racism by talking about my experience as one of two white kids in my all-Asian middle school. I guarantee I’m not soaked in cash and explaining my niche adventures is an attempt to connect with others, but many times my sharing is interpreted as bragging or showing off my wealth. This is my normal: just because I have lived all over the world does not mean I am any more privileged than anyone else. 

Touring Chernobyl with my dad

I decided to attend college in Colorado because after nine years of intense cultural immersion on four different continents and traveling to more countries than I can remember, I had no idea who I was. How can one identify as American if they haven’t even lived there since before puberty? I wanted to connect to my roots by seeing my family more often, learning about my own culture, and reestablishing friendships with fellow Americans, all in the desperate attempt to have someplace to call home. It was so so hard to grow up where half the time I was the minority, didn’t speak the same language as the people around me, and also had little to no connection to my own country. Being a third culture kid not only entails being the outsider in your home country, but also feeling isolated elsewhere. So, if you know or meet someone with similar experiences as me, recognize that living internationally, while amazing in so many ways, can also severely damage one’s identity. I am extremely lucky to have parents who moved me all over the world, but it has taken me 20 years to feel like I truly belong. Being a third culture kid is something many envy, but in reality, has created huge identity conflicts for me.

Lanaya Oliver

CU Boulder '24

Lanaya is originally from Colorado but has lived all over the world. She loves to play sports, paint, write, and bake. She is double majoring in Psychology and Spanish and dreams of becoming a sports psychologist!
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