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Nomadic by Nature: Life as a Third Culture Kid

Rachel Furolo

Fri Dec 20 2013


PICK up Iain Davison’s passport and you’re in for a read. He’s a ‘third culture kid’ – a young adult who’s moved around so much, change has become the norm and ‘home’ means something a little different. Rachel Furolo has more. 

For 22-year-old Iain Davison, ‘home’ is difficult to define.

He has English and Irish parents and was born in England, but has lived in three continents, four countries and six major cities.

Thanks to his Dad’s profession as an engineer, Iain and his family have been catapulted all over the globe. From Kuala Lumpur to Queensland to Qatar, by the age of 12 Iain had more stamps on his passport than most adults.

With such a unique upbringing, Iain exhibits all the traits of a third-culture kid (TCK). The term was coined in the early 1950s by anthropologist Ruth Van Reken to describe “children who accompany their parents into another society”.

More recent investigation by sociologist David C. Pollock has seen the development of the definition so it now describes “a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture”.

The effect that a third culture environment has on developing children can’t be underestimated.  While experiencing life outside their own passport country, a TCK’s sense of identity and belonging is constructed differently to that of a child habitually living in their country of birth.

Iain views his background as a catalyst for the person he is today. He recognizes there are resounding positives and negatives about his third-culture way of life.

He says the most significant benefit he has gained as a TCK is an open mind and broad world view. Having been exposed to a wide spectrum of cultures early in life at school and in his community, he has a strong belief in diversity, as well as a tolerance for others and a confidence when meeting new people.

He believes he has experienced a better quality of life and lived in a bit of a “fairyland”, saying: “Until I moved to Australia when I was 13, I had never even heard of parents splitting up”.

I love telling stories of exotic souks and sand dunes in Doha, and mamak food stalls in central Kuala Lumpur. I can still recall the excitement I would share with my siblings every time a new destination was to be embarked upon and how the friendships I have made continue to exist despite being scattered across the globe.

The challenges Iain recalls about his childhood are small scale as he adapted very early on to his frequently changing surroundings.

He’s been to more than 10 schools and notes one of the major challenges he’s faced is constantly being “the new kid”. Ironically though, the friendships he has made globally are solid.

“You just both accept that you can’t always keep in touch but that doesn’t mean you have to stop being friends.”

Iain says the most difficult aspect of being a TCK is explaining to others where he’s from.

“People find it interesting and want to know my life story, but I find it frustrating because it’s just so complex.

“I usually just pretend to be an international student to avoid it.”

The barrage of questions Iain faces are endless and usually follow the same vein:

So wait, you’re English… and Irish… and Australian?’

‘But how can you have THREE passports?”

‘Where’s home? No really, just seriously think about it for a second. Where. Is. Home?’

The last question is the most commonly asked and strikes the most confusion in Iain. Ask him one day and he’ll say Malaysia, the country where he spent eight years between the ages of 5 and 13. Ask him another day and he’ll say Ireland, his Mum’s birth country and the place he spent his holidays growing up. Sometimes he’ll even say England, the place he was born but spent only a few years in.

‘Home’ to Iain is different to most. To him, home is made real by his parents and siblings, wherever they may be.

Now an Australian citizen, Iain is living with his sister in Melbourne and studying Project Management at RMIT. When asked where he believes he’ll settle in the future, he replies in true nomadic style:

Who knows? This is all I’ve known. The concept of living in one place forever is just not something that registers with me.