The Third Culture

by Annamaria Porta, UWCM
19th of October, 2022
Illustration by Sufi Abdellah

The first time I came across the term ‘Third Culture Kids’, about a year ago, I was absolutely bewildered, but that feeling came from a state of shock. My first thought was: So… it’s an actual thing. It’s not just me. 


I grew up speaking Spanish to my Colombian mother, and Italian to my Italian father. Being two similar languages, I would mix up words and verbs since I first learned to talk. I’ve spent a fair share of time in both my home countries, in which my mother had to warn my Kindergarten and Primary school teachers about my languages – making sure that a word I would say in Spanish with an opposite, or negative, meaning in Italian would not offend my teachers and vice versa. What I remember loving the most about coming from two countries, is the amazement that my peers in school would find in me, just because I knew another language! They made me feel different, but never excluded. I would never struggle to express myself – and I thank my mother for always keeping up my knowledge in both languages. Though, a lot changed when I came to the Netherlands. 


To be entirely honest, I wasn’t aware that there were other countries, cultures, languages before UWC. I was accustomed to places in which I could easily understand what was being said to me, or around me. But not here, and I realised how little I liked that. My English was limited to ‘Hello I have 9 years’ and Dutch was an alien language to me. And here began the battle of my name. Since my first day at UWC, no teacher or friend ever got the spelling of my name correct. I was known as Ana-Maria, as it was permanently written on my desk by my Primary teacher (who every-day, had access to the correct spelling on our attendance sheet). In the following years, this never stopped. Consonants were missing, too many vowels were added, spaces and capital letters too. I was too shy to react, or to correct someone – it took me quite some time, specifically years, to feel comfortable expressing my true self in English – I would brush it off and let people spell it or pronounce it the way they wanted. 


As the years passed, I also learned Dutch (doesn’t mean I can pronounce gezellig without sounding like a foreigner). Nonetheless everyone speaks English to me in the shops and my looks give away that I am indeed not from here. I have always felt that way, too. Dutch culture, manners and traditions are very distinct from mine, which I have adjusted to. Even in school, I had felt that they were not able to adjust to me. I would love to hear and learn about my peer’s cultures and backgrounds, and be overwhelmed by an international environment. But when it was my turn, it was up to the ‘listeners’ to decide where I was from. I would confidently list my two home countries, though only one of them, or even none, would stick. I used to feel pleased when for once, curiosity sparked and I was asked: “And how does that work?”. 


Travelling back home was always difficult, and only recently did I understand the reason. In both countries I am treated differently from a native. In one, I appear and act too European, so street vendors would not hesitate to charge me double for their merchandise. But in the other, they’d praise me as a tropical woman. Though these trips, family visits and vacations helped me to identify with my cultures and be able to resonate with them, no matter how others would single me out. I associate my characteristics and personality with one culture, but my passions with another. I’ve learned to appreciate and carry traditions from both cultures to the Netherlands, bringing them to UWC. 

The Third Culture kid is not easy to represent, it is a learning journey about one’s experiences and the adaptation in the host country. I was taken by surprise on UWC day, as a few parents educated our community on Third Culture students and raised awareness with activities. These kids need to know that they are indeed not the only ones, their backgrounds make them unique and it is up to them to choose how they want to represent themselves in our community.