ATCK (Adult Third Culture Kid): Someone who, as a child, spent a significant period of time in one or more culture(s) other than their own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture into a unique third culture.
If, like me, you were brought up outside of your passport country and lived a rather nomadic childhood, you may have found that you struggle with the concept of home and often wonder if the lonely search for that warm, fuzzy place will ever have a happy ending.
TLDR; Stop looking, you’ll never find it — because home for us is a time not a place.
For everyone else, home isn’t an abstract concept at all. It’s really easy. Home is where you were born, where you went to school, where your parents live, where your childhood friends are, where your house is, your job, where your partner and kids are.
No matter where they travel in the world, or even if they end up living abroad as an adult, for them home is a physical, tangible place that they can generally return to whenever they like and blend back in pretty quickly.
For ATCKs, it doesn’t quite work like that — and the problem is, no one tells us this, so we spend a large part of our adult life looking for it, and looking, and looking, and hoping, and mistaking, and pretending, and convincing, and it’s all extremely difficult.
So Where In America Are You From?
I was born in 1980 in Scotland to Scottish parents, and 10 years later moved to Tunisia in North Africa as a result of my dad’s job. My accent changed very quickly from broad Scottish to the universal international school accent, often mistaken for American and horrific to listen to when you hear a recording of yourself. I never quite managed to lose that accent and still speak like that now, almost 30 years on.
4 years later, in 1994, I moved to Malta, a small island between Italy and Libya. I went to an international boarding school there to better prepare for university whilst my parents remained in Tunisia. As far as I was concerned then, Tunis was probably home. It was where my friends were, my parents, my sister, my house, my dog, my Nintendo, all the ‘home’ things.
But then, 2 years later, my dad got a job in Eritrea which was in the midst of a civil war at the time, so he had to move out there alone on rotation. With no reason for anyone to be in Tunis anymore, my mum moved back to Scotland whilst myself and my sister finished the last couple of years of high school in Malta.
My 4 years in Malta were teenager heaven. It’s where I discovered beer and boys and Pizza Hut and independence. All of this I experienced alongside kids who had the same accent as me because they were in the exact same unusual situation as me, so at the time we weren’t really aware that our lives were particularly out of the ordinary. We were normal.
There was sun and sea and BBQs, swimming and laughing, drinking and dancing, teenage romance and music and steep learning curves, tears and harsh lessons, achievements and failures and the creation of unbelievable memories.
I was so caught up in the experience that it hadn’t occurred to me that Tunis was gone forever. At the time I was happy to move on and call Malta home because I really loved it there…but then I graduated high school and everything changed.
As a foreign student, university education was not financially viable for me in Malta. And since the UK was technically home, there was no reason for me to be anywhere else, so back ‘home’ to Scotland I went.
Despite feeling hesitant initially, a big part of me was looking forward to it. During my time overseas, Braveheart had been released and I had really romanticised my home country, so I felt optimistic about going back. And anyway, I was Scottish remember. It was all going to be fine, right?
WTF Just Happened
Within days of arriving in Scotland I realised that I had made a huge mistake. Turns out people there really did not like my accent, and they frowned upon people who’d ever had maids to clean their floors twice a week. I stood out like a sore thumb, literally the most un-Scottish person you’ve ever met.
I didn’t know anything. I didn’t think Trainspotting was actually real, I thought drugs were something Irvine Welsh made up to make his plots more gritty. And don’t get me started on the weather, my god.
I missed my friends, I felt like an outsider, I was scared, it was cold all the time, I missed the beach and the outdoors and the welcome sense of community that international schools have. Everyone in Scotland, although incredibly warm and lovely, had friends that they’d known their whole life, they didn’t really need another one. Especially not one that looked like an extra from Clueless.
I was diagnosed with mild depression for a short while in 2004. Looking back, I now know it was because I was a bit lost, and being around people with such strong national identities made me feel like I was devoid of one. If I didn’t belong here — and I definitely didn’t — then where did I belong? I had to find that place, but I didn’t have a clue where to start.
I began formulating a plan to get out of the country and the first stage involved going to university to study petroleum geology; the only way I knew how to move abroad was through the oil industry like my dad had done.
The Great Escape
It took me 15 years to get out of Scotland. Ironically, I had spent more time there than I had overseas by a huge margin, and yet it still wasn’t home. Why? I was so angry and frustrated with myself, I felt it was my fault for being nostalgic and whimsical and unrealistic and stupid.
I got a job working rotation on an oil rig which allowed me to move whilst keeping my job, so I decided to give London a try. I spent well over a year there, wondering if going from a place of strong national identity to a place of very mixed heritage with a cosmopolitan culture would make me feel more at home.
Still no. It was even more lonely. It gets to the point where too many people can make you feel the same way as no people at all. Don’t get me wrong, I had an obscene amount of fun there, it remains one of my favourite cities in the world, but it wasn’t home.
Then the opportunity to move back to Malta came up and I couldn’t quite believe it. “This is it” I thought. “17 years later, I’m finally going home.” Back to where all my best memories were created, back to the sun and the dancing and the beaches and the BBQs. Back to the place that was pulled out from beneath my feet before I was ready to leave.
It’s been over 3 years since I moved back to Malta. I’m still here and I’m still very happy, but surprisingly not because I feel at home. I probably feel as close to home as I have since childhood, but coming back here didn’t give me the all-consuming sense of belonging that I had hoped for.
When you spend all of your life in one place, change happens gradually so you have time to adjust, and sometimes you don’t even notice the changes at all. That pub that you used to have all those amazing nights out in is closing down, but you’re not too bothered because you’ve been going less and less over the last couple of years anyway, you were getting a bit bored of it.
Malta still had some of my old haunts that I recognised, but some had completely disappeared into thin air, replaced by big, modern, shiny office buildings. But why? Those places were awesome! I had a few crushed memories and a lot of unanswered questions.
On top of this, when I graduated from high school, so did all my friends who were from all over the world, so they had moved back ‘home’ too. None of the people who I had made all of my fondest memories with were here anymore. So, it kind of felt like home, but in shell form. I still wasn’t quite there yet.
When coming back to Malta didn’t fill the void as completely as I’d hoped, that’s when I really had to stop and think hard about what was going on. I knew right then that I would never find home, but I was desperate to know why. I felt that there must be an explanation, and consequently, a way to be able to live with it.
Call Off The Search
During those few weeks of constant self-analysis and insane frustration with myself, I thought as objectively as I could about all the things that constitute home, and then I thought about what I needed to do to have those things. That’s when I finally solved the puzzle that had been keeping me from contentment my whole adult life.
Home for people like us simply does not exist, and it never will, because home for us is a time not a place. My home is spread across three different countries and two decades, so unless someone invents a time machine that can also fuse countries together, home will only ever exist in my mind. I can never, ever touch it. It felt a bit like I’d been punched in the stomach.
People who were brought up in the same place their whole lives have grown with their home, they have seen it change, gone through the bad times and the good times. So, although it may have changed over time just as much as anywhere else in the world, that change feels more like natural progression. They were part of the entire journey and, in turn, are now a strong part of that community. Home is a friend to them, a friend that is still around even if they sometimes leave it for a while.
For us on the other hand, home is a friend that we lost too soon. We remember it fondly, we love it, we miss it, and we think about it every day because we never got to see it grow up and develop. We never got to read the rest of the story because it had no intention of ever being written.
Maybe all this sounds a bit melodramatic, and perhaps it is, but I’m not sure there is much that is more traumatic than the sudden realisation that you can never go home. That said, once I finally understood this, I felt for the first time that I could stop looking for it. This understanding hasn’t entirely eradicated the problem, but it has definitely made me feel so much lighter and free.
Luckily for me, that realisation coincided with meeting my partner — who also happens to be my super best friend and fellow adventurer. Until I met him, it had never occurred to me that home could be found in a person, not a place. My focus has shifted entirely, from restlessness and anxiety to excitement for the future and the ability to finally relish the unknown. I think as long as we’re together I’ll be home now, and that’s all I need.
Despite the downsides to a nomadic childhood, I have yet to meet an ATCK who would have had it any other way. The void that it leaves is remarkable — and permanent — but what I got out of it will always make it worthwhile for me. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that I’m a better, more tolerant person as a result of the experiences I had growing up in different cultures, and I love my eyes for what they have seen.
I know I’m not alone, and there are many others with similar stories who have felt the same things I have. So, if you ever find yourself feeling wistful for a faraway time where you once felt the warm fuzziness of home, enjoy it briefly, then let it go because home isn’t always a place, especially for us. There are people in your life who dedicate theirs to making you feel safe and happy. That’s who your home is. We are the lucky ones.