Gender & Identity, Life

Falling in love as a Third Culture Kid is complicated – here’s why

If all we know is change, how can we ever settle down?

I am the quintessential Third Culture Kid (TCK).

I have moved 12 times and lived on every continent except Oceania and Antarctica. Like other TCKs, I grew up in between places, and I instinctively seek travel because the constant movement is more comfortable than stability.

My mother used to lament that I wouldn’t have roots, but the fact is what I have is so much more valuable and useful than that. I was built for this age. I see my peers learning to live as digital nomads, taking jobs across the planet because that is the future. But I am pre-programmed for this. It is nothing to me to pack up and leave for someplace new. Not only that, it is my lifeblood. I will never stop, not really.

These days, I am learning what it looks like to be an adult and negotiate the constant pull to find newer, more far-flung places to set up and call home. For people like me whose identity is wrapped up in constant change, it is not easy to settle down. I wish it were.

Now I find myself in my therapist’s office here in the sleepy city of Frankfurt, Germany, shaking in my boots at the possibility of settling down.

I have a job and a comfortable apartment, and I take full advantage of my European life, but still sometimes, the idea of staying makes me feel like my soul is sinking. I have battled a full-on depression spurred by the fear that I’m not living up to what I expect of myself because for the first time I have no plans to leave. I have moments of clarity when I can see just how irrational my fears are, but the anxiety remains.

I don’t know what spending five years in one apartment or one city even feels like. I am a smart woman, but I am falling prey to the most basic of fears – the unknown. If I keep moving, then I don’t have to learn to love people for longer than a couple of years. If I keep changing my identity, I don’t have to work on developing who I am as a grown woman.

It takes strength to stay and show up for your partner, your community and yourself and that’s the hard part of settling down. It would be much easier for me to bail on my life here and move to Beirut or Taipei tomorrow, but for the first time, I have a real reason not to.

They say that love makes you brave, and that must be true because I am slowly flirting with the idea of staying here. I am dipping my toe in the water until I no longer recoil at the very thought of settling in. I look at my partner across from me at the coffee shop, and I don’t know how he fell in love with someone so uninvested in the idea of ever staying still. He did, and he stuck with me through the emotional turbulence that has defined my first years in Europe.

Few people I know understand how I feel. They are puzzled when I lament that my life is too comfortable because stability runs contrary to my identity. Living overseas as an adult, people assume that my identity is first and foremost American. It’s an understandable assumption, and I will always belong to and love my country. It is just a sliver of my story, though.

My identity is that of the visitor above everything else. Sometimes that feels tragic, but mostly it feels like a gift. My home is not tied to one geographic location; it is anywhere I walk in the room and am met by my fellow transients.

I know how fortunate I am. If I never traveled another day in my life, I would have seen more of the world than many people on their deathbeds. I have loved this life, and I think that makes it even harder to own up to the ways it has left me afraid and confused. How do I continue to top the things I have already seen? How do I live up the incredible experiences that have made me who I am? How can I ever be happy if I’m not in a constant state of change?

I feel like I’m looking out into an abyss. I cannot know what it will feel like to stay still, to invest in the community around me. I am terrified, but I reach down and grab my partner’s hand, and I know, somehow, I will be able to do this. I can build myself a family that is spread like a great web across the planet. I cannot go home, so I cannot be torn away from home.

Passing this TCK identity onto my children will mean raising them in circumstances that will be alien to me. Maybe my kids will speak German, Japanese or Dutch the way I spoke Spanish and Portuguese. They will have me and my partner’s green eyes and passports, but they will have identities that are entirely different than ours. They will be all new.

I feel comforted by the knowledge that the adventure of building a home and a family, whether it is transient or stable, will be far more exciting than any adventure I have had so far.