Over my years abroad I learned that children who grow up in a culture other than the one of their parents or who move around a lot internationally are called third culture kids. Living abroad is a great privilege and I am lucky to have been granted that. It seems, however, that the privilege aspect is taking center stage in any discussions on this topic.
I am happy with how my life turned out and I would do it all over again if I could but maybe it is about time to talk about the not so shiny side of being a third culture kid from the German perspective.
It’s not always the fancy country
For starters, if your parents are anything other than diplomats, chances are that the countries you will be living in are not necessarily going to be as “fancy” as the United States or Japan or Canada. Sometimes, being a third culture kid means living in a place that is not well known at all or that has a controversial history. Now, I do have very fond memories of Kosovo and Saudi Arabia but this realization took quite some time and maturity on my part. How many people would go live in these places out of sheer curiosity?
Sometimes, being a third culture kid means sitting in a classroom with no heating and a broken window held together by strips of duct tape in the middle of winter. Sometimes it means living in a country whose social norms you don’t agree with.
You have to prove you belong
For me, the actual downside of the international lifestyle began with my return to Berlin and my college applications. Germany is said to be super organized. While the system has its share of serious problems, the institutional framework is, at the first glance, more promising than elsewhere.
Nevertheless, German bureaucracy seems to have no idea how to handle cases that are an exception to the norm. The most difficult part of coming back home and continuing my education was to prove that the schooling I have received abroad was at the very least just as good as the one I could have gotten in Germany. The process of having my American high school diploma recognized took months. Partly because no one was willing to give any correct advise on what to do before we left the country and partly because institutions in charge of educational matters are not the best at communicating among each other and staying up to date on what each of them is actually in charge of. It seemed like they had absolutely no idea what to do with me, especially since I moved countries once more between junior and senior year.
My application for having my diploma recognized was first rejected less than 24 hours before the end of the deadline. Had I not pointed out the mistake they made while looking through my documents the next morning, I would not have been allowed to study in the German system at all. In fact, my international education background has been following me way into my application for a Master’s degree in Germany with all its additional checks and costs. While most of my potential employers were impressed with my resumé, some seemed to be concerned about whether I would be able to re-adjust to German work ethics.
Speaking the language
Once the formal recognition part was over there was still the issue of proving that I actually spoke German. Even though I was raised in Berlin, four years abroad were enough to suspect that I may not be capable of speaking German properly. To my knowledge, even college applicants from Austria are asked to show proof of German proficiency. I spent a year taking a class on German as a foreign language. While that may not have been that difficult for a native speaker, it was still time that could have been spent on better things.
As I am writing this, I am waiting for a visit from a dear friend I have made in Pristina. I am proud to say that I know people all over the world. Yet, moving from one place to another requires a lot of strength to get out there every few years and build a new social circle. While long-distance friendships have always been very rewarding, they seem even more fragile to me. Distance is a constant part of any social interaction. No matter how great the connection was, I always knew that with this lifestyle, saying goodbye was only months away. This constant back and forth has surely not resulted in the best of attachment styles.
In the end, the most important thing about living abroad was knowing what to make of it and how to present it to the outside world. A description of the international experience alone is only half of the story. The other half consists in figuring out how to make this privilege work in your favor rather than against you in a society that appears rather stuck in its own ways.