Third Culture Kids in Dubai

Hfu Reisenhofer overcomes his lifelong identity crisis

Last word, The Knowledge

A recent discovery helps Hfu Reisenhofer overcome his lifelong identity crisis.

‘Sorry, what’s your name again?’ Ask my name and chances are you’ll fall into two categories; those curious enough to ask for an explanation (yes, there is one), and those who decide they must have misheard and assume I’m Hugh or Phil.

My name used to frustrate me, so I’d seek ways to avoid it. For two weeks in my gap year, for instance, fellow travellers on an isolated Fijian island knew me as Drew, while takeaways the world over think they’re delivering food to a chap called Brian. Yet over time I’ve learnt to deal with it. Confidence does the trick, saying it like it’s the most banal name in the world. ‘What? Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of it.’

‘Where are you from?’ is trickier though – not good as it’s such a common question, especially in a city like Dubai, with 80-odd percent of the population made up of expats. For most, it prompts a simple enough answer, yet in my case it fills me with dread and uncertainty, makes me fidget and touch my face like an awkward teenager. And the answer very much depends on who’s asking.

You see, for years I didn’t know who or what I am – at least officially. It sounds like an odd thing to say, but it’s the truth. If you were born in Tokyo but brought up in Hong Kong, have an Austrian passport but feel British, have a Japanese first name and a German last name but pronounce them with an English accent, the issue of where you’re from is not as straightforward as it seems.

Is ‘home’ where you were born, where you’ve spent the longest time or where you’re currently residing? What’s more important, your passport, birth certificate or legal domicile? Is it your nationality, blood, race or cultural upbringing that defines you?

A recent share on Facebook has finally put an end to my identity crisis. I am, by all definitions, a Third Culture Kid (TCK). In the past I was the token exotic friend that people liked to introduce and I’d roll my eyes and call myself a ‘citizen of the world’. But now I know there’s an official term – one apparently coined back in the 1950s. You can even look me up on Wikipedia and learn of my ‘general characteristics’.

American sociologists David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken define a TCK as: ‘a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture.

The TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. A sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background. Suddenly it all makes sense – why I’m drawn to those with credentials akin to my own, why I ‘click’ with certain people and struggle to see eye-to-eye with others. The great thing is that TCKs exist everywhere, on every continent and Dubai is no exception. In fact, I suspect there’s a considerably higher concentration of us folk here than in other cities.

We are all one big, happy family, homeless and yet at home wherever we may happen to be.

So, go on, ask me where I’m from. I’ve finally got the answer.

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