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  • Writer's pictureValérie Besanceney

Third Culture Friendships

“Where are you from?” the girl behind the ‘International Orientation’ desk of the University of Vermont asks as she looks slightly confused when the girl in front of me hands her two passports.

“Eh, Pakistan and Switzerland.”

“But which one is your country of residence?”

“Pakistan, but the nationality I travel on is usually Swiss … sorry, it’s complicated.”

“So what would you like me to put as your country of residence?”

“Pakistan, I guess.” 

I immediately feel an affinity with the girl standing in line. She answers a few more mundane questions before moving away from the desk. The girl behind it looks up at me with a patient smile and starts all over again with her questions. 

When I get asked where I am from, I cannot help but catch the ‘complicated’ Swiss/Pakistani girl’s eye. We exchange a knowing look implying the frustration and quiet amusement of trying to explain where you are from. 

“Well, I am really from the Netherlands, but I live in Switzerland, but I am not Swiss. At least not yet.” As I say that, I realize I shouldn’t have, because the girl behind the counter looks confused and sighs. Her patient smile almost completely disappears as she motions with her hands for me to answer the question clearly. “Eh, a country of residence is Switzerland.” She smiles again and dutifully types in my answer. 

Meanwhile my half-Swiss compatriot, who is now leafing through the information package she was handed, glances at me. When I am done providing all the required information for the necessary paperwork, I walk towards the her. 

Three years later, we shared an apartment off campus. Although our paths started from very different corners of the globe, we had more in common through our sense of belonging as a Third Culture Kid (TCK) than with many of our friends ‘back home’. And yet another wonderful ‘Third Culture Friendship’ evolved in my life.

Although we majored in two completely opposite fields at UVM, fast forward another ten years and, more or less by coincidence, we both graduated with a M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction and teaching degree from George Mason University.

2008 Two ATCKs with our teaching degrees


Today, 14 years since we have met, we are both teachers at international schools (respectively in Pakistan and Switzerland) and we are each raising our own TCKs. We try to catch up at least once every two years in person, and we always pick up right where we left off.

Whenever our students are confused about where they are from, we get it. And although I acknowledge the losses that come with a TCK life, especially those relating to friendships, I hope to encourage my students to celebrate the amazing experiences and opportunities that come with it too.

Through B at Home: Emma Moves Again, I try to encourage children to foster friendships they leave behind. In today’s world, with all the technology at our fingertips, maintaining friendships seems almost easier than ever before. 

Just like my main character, Emma, I always stayed in touch with some childhood friends. In particular, with one friend, we somehow over the past 35 years managed to stay connected via letters and phone calls and by spending holidays together and arranging visits. There were times we were out of touch and there were times when important events in our lives brought us closer together again. Incidentally, she named her own daughter Emma without even knowing I was writing about my character Emma at the same time.

Recently, we enjoyed living in the same area in Switzerland for a little over two years and we had the luxury of enjoying many play-dates with our daughters. Now they are friends and have shared memories that may very well turn into a lifetime of shared memories. Either way, the foundation is there and there is something simply priceless about having friends in your life who have always known you, no matter if you haven’t always shared the same postal code. 

1979 Two TCK girls in the Netherlands

2014 Two TCK girls in Switzerland


At the same time, through the character of Emma, I also hope to encourage children to be open-minded about making new friends along the way. Often, TCKs question the purpose of making new friends when they might be uprooted and moving soon again. However, as soon as they realize how much they have in common because of their transient lives (like my Swiss/Pakistani friend and myself), friendships between TCKs are often thrown into fast forward. 

Needless to say, a quick and intense approach to friendship is not always appreciated by others who do not feel the same pressure to make the most out it ‘because you never know how long it will last’. When a TCK meets someone they connect with, they tend to dive in deep very quickly, because they can never be sure how long that person will stick around. TCKs are acutely aware of the likelihood of needing to say goodbye soon after saying hello. Michèle Phoenix beautifully describes this in her blog MKs & RELATIONSHIPS: The Time/Depth Dilemma.

The time/depth dilemma resonates very much with me. I have often felt an overwhelming need to tell people to whom I truly felt connected very much, very quickly. Tick tock, we don’t have much time here! Phoenix points out how this can often backfire on us when we are trying to form friendships with others who need more time to feel comfortable sharing their most intimate thoughts. As TCKs, we must also appreciate this and should not give up on those around us who may not identify with this time/depth dilemma. Even though they might not understand what it’s like to be a TCK, they usually do have a very good understanding of what it means to be a friend. 

Over the past few months I have happily reconnected with some really good friends, sadly waved ‘see you soons’ to others, and gladly got to meet new people who might become friends. All this to say that, although I still hate saying goodbye to those I love, I feel intensely lucky and thankful for my friends all over the globe and those close by. What a privilege. How amazing to be able to stay in touch with the click of the mouse. 

Once you move away from each other, it is almost impossible to keep the same intensity and frequency of a ‘live’ connection. Then again, when we are all trying to juggle families, jobs, and extra-curricular interests, it’s astonishing how challenging it can be to meet up for a glass of wine with that dear friend seven minutes down the road. 

So, at times, this means you won’t share as much as you are used to or as you would like to. But, that doesn’t always matter. When you meet up, whether online or for real, if you are lucky, you fall straight back into that familiarity of your friendship. Some friends—who are part of who you once were, who you have become, where you have been, and where you hope to go—will still be there no matter what. You might move away from each other, but this doesn’t mean you move out of your friendship. Instead, it may grow its roots even deeper because of shared memories, shared understanding and appreciation of what friendship means, and a shared anticipation of seeing each other again ‘soon’. 

Images courtesy of personal albums of the van Lier, Besanceney, and Clem families. Please do not reproduce any of these images without permission.

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