Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 January 2019

UAE’s third-culture kids reveal what heritage means to them

They tell us how they have managed to adapt to a new culture and the important lessons they have learnt along the way.
University of Sharjah student Noura Boush recites poems at the Hekaya cultural event in Abu Dhabi. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
University of Sharjah student Noura Boush recites poems at the Hekaya cultural event in Abu Dhabi. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

When you live in the UAE, it is probably the first thing you ask a new acquaintance: “Where are you from?”

For Noura Boush, a Sudanese-born, UAE-raised medical student at the University of Sharjah – and for an increasing number of people around the world – such a question does not always have a straightforward answer.

“It makes me feel uneasy to explain what it means to be born in one country and live somewhere else that has a completely different culture,” says the 23-year-old.

“When I go back to Sudan, I don’t really fit in either. So I live in this place where I don’t really belong anywhere.”

Boush is a typical adult “third-culture kid” (TCK). The term, which was coined by American sociologist Ruth Hill Useem in the 1960s, refers to a child who has spent a significant part of their formative years outside of their parents’ culture, mixing the heritage of their birth with their adopted culture to create a so-called third culture.

For Boush, the advantage of not being completely immersed in a single culture is being able to have the best of both worlds.

“I cannot deny one culture over the other, because they both made me who I am,” she says. “So I grab what I want from each to mould my own culture, which is a mix of both.”

One of the toughest things about being a TCK in a predominantly expat society is the pain of saying goodbye when friends move away, and the struggle of having to make new ones.

“My best friend from kindergarten was a Palestinian who was born here, but her parents emigrated to Australia in eighth grade,” says Boush. “I was heartbroken that this person whom I associated my childhood with just disappeared.

She admits to feeling that had her family stayed in Sudan, “where hardly anyone leaves”, her life might have been much more stable.

Because of the diverse range of cultures experienced by TCKs, they are more likely to grow up to be culturally savvy and tolerant adults, says Dubai career and life coach Zeta Yarwood.

“They’re probably going to be more communicative, too, having had to make new friends often, which means later in life they’re good at building relationships with work colleagues,” she says. Expat parents can rejoice in the fact their TCK offspring are four times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree, according to research by non-profit organisation TCKids.

However, TCKs are also more prone to depression.

“I’ve met a lot of third-culture kids who are so traumatised by the constant moving that they’ve given up on making friends completely,” says Yarwood. “They ask themselves: ‘What’s the point?’ We’re leaving in two years.”

Egyptian expat Ziad Gadou, who lived in Saudi Arabia and Oman before moving to the UAE four years ago, believes his TCK childhood has made him more resilient.

“We third-culture kids get used to adapting very quickly to new places,” says Gadou, the 22-year-old student of politics at the American University of Sharjah.

“I know I could be dropped anywhere in the world and I’d survive. It’s widened my spectrum of what’s possible in life.

“You put global goggles on and see a bigger picture, rather than just your own little cultural bubble.”

A keen guitarist, “home” for Gadou is wherever he takes his constant companion, Angelica: his guitar.

“My guitar has seen more countries than most people do in a lifetime,” he says.

Deepak Unnikrishnan, 35, is a lecturer at New York University Abu Dhabi. His award-winning book Temporary People tells stories about the UAE’s migrant workers.

His own family moved to Abu Dhabi from Kerala more than 40 years ago.

“There’s always a temporariness to everything for third-culture kids, but maybe not how people imagine it,” he says.

“I’m just more precious about people. When I’m with them, I’m more aware that certain things may not last.”

Unnikrishnan still feels uncertain about what third culture really means. “People haven’t exactly figured out a term to define ‘us’, and we aren’t sure exactly what being from a third culture means ourselves,” he says. “For me, Abu Dhabi is the nearest thing to ‘home’ I’ve ever experienced. When I leave here and think of home, I think of this city.”

Gadou describes himself as “100 per cent Egyptian”, even though he hasn’t lived there since the age of 5. “I still have certain Egyptian mannerisms,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like a stranger in Egypt, because I don’t talk like other Egyptians. I don’t get exposed to the same cultural vibes as they do on a daily basis.”

Gadou notices that a “third culture” of expats has formed in the UAE, too.

“As we’re finding our homes here, we’re putting down little cultural roots,” he says. “It’s part of globalisation that’s happening everywhere.”


Updated: December 13, 2016 04:00 AM