Examining the Mixed Up Minds and Palates of Third Culture Kids

In her book According to My Passport, I’m Coming Home author Kay Branaman Eakin describes a Third Culture Kid as, “someone who, as a child, has spent a significant period of time in one or more culture(s) other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture.”

Educators and psychologist who study Third Culture Kids (TCKs) have found that, among other things (really I’m only sharing the good stuff), they have a lower divorce rate, communicate well, and tend to be more welcoming and understanding of other cultures. TCKs are more likely to earn a college degree in their 20s, and many go on to earn advanced degrees. However, after graduation it is unlikely that they will enter the same career field of their parents (which tends to be missionary, military, or government).

My siblings and I are all TCKs. We have a Canadian father and a Filipina mother. Two of us were born in the Philippines, one in Macau, five in Japan and two in Taiwan. I’m the only one who speaks Japanese, but two of my brothers can understand a bit. Four of us girls can flip to Chinese if we ever want to gossip about you in front of you. But our youngest sister is the only one who can say anything in Tagalog that isn’t a cuss word.  Only the oldest two (my older brother and I) have ever lived in the Philippines. Interestingly, we are also the only two who have never lived in Canada.

The 3rd culture we’ve created is a mix of Japanese and Chinese culture, with a sprinkling of Canadian-ness here and there. In other words we remove our shoes when we enter the house but there aren’t tiny slippers designated solely for the bathroom (I am not exaggerating here, Japanese really do have a set of slippers used just inside the bathroom). We can’t spend two nights together without pulling out the karaoke machine and belting out cheesy 90s ballads, our song choice reflecting the slightly dated Americanized pop culture we were surrounded by while growing up in Asia. In the late 80s-early 90s the most popular English songs sung in Japanese karaoke bars were the hits of the 70s sibling duo The Carpenters. So the song choices could be worse. Although perhaps I’d prefer my 11-year-old sister know the lyrics to Touch Me When We’re Dancing rather than enthusiastically sing along to the salacious I’ll Make Love to You by Boyz II Men.

As for sports there’s really no debate—here Canadian-ness shifts from a mere sprinkling to a heavy dousing—hockey is king. When hockey season is at its peak my family living room is filled with shouts, squeals, nerves, tears, jubilation and disappointment on par with the backstage of a Baby Beauty Pageant. While my brothers dabble with other sports, true worship takes place at the altars of Mark Messier, Joe Sakic, Jaromir Jagr and Markus Naslund.

Perhaps one day I will pay a shrink thousands of dollars to dig around in my TCK head. No doubt he/she will tell me how my childhood is to blame for my taste in music, my incessant need to de-clutter my apartment and why I struggle to select cheese at Western grocery stores—seriously why does there have to be 150 different types? But that is not now, and definitely not here.

Here, I will focus my linguistically and culturally confused brain on doing a little experiment involving TCKs and food. Specifically, if nostalgia plays a key role in a person’s perception of what constitutes as “comfort food” then did growing up in various countries influence each of my siblings’ tastes differently?

When I feel ill, all I can think about is a big bowl of tonkotsu ramen. Sibling #4 craves Chinese congee. While sibling #3 told me that his idea of comfort food is buttered toast dipped in milk. (I shudder to think how many loaves he’s consumed trying to ease the pain of his beloved Canucks losing the Stanley Cup Final last week.)

I have asked each of my siblings what they crave when they are sad, sick, or just looking for something that reminds them of “home”. Over the coming weeks, I will share their answers on this blog, as well as a recipe for each dish. I fully expect to be cooking up a lot of Taiwanese street food, but I’m also ready for a possible poutine or tuna casserole from the more Canadian among us.

As for the toast and milk request from my younger brother—maybe I’ll write a post on how to milk a cow… ‘cause that’s a hell of a lot more interesting then a piece on how to turn on a toaster.


  1. …. but whatever you do, keep on writing ’cause it’s in you and comes out with a natural air. A pleasure to read and worthy of a time out at work. And someone(s) out there is going to think so too.

  2. Thank you! Always appreciate kind words and encouragement. It’s a pleasure to write about such a wonderful topic.

  3. Kim H

    Sharon, I love your writing.
    Its wild to me that we are so closely related and yet, culturally, so far removed.
    A favourite comfort food for me would have to be apricot pudding. Especially when said apricots are grown on the trees outside my childhood home….oh, and when its made by Nana to boot!
    Cant wait to read the comfort foods of the TCK Stirlings.

  4. Kim, thank you!! It is pretty bizarre huh? That apricot pudding sounds amazing. Maybe one year I’ll have a chance to visit the family over on the other coast and Nana will whip some up for me to try. Fingers crossed.

  5. Mio Yamada

    Even though I’m also a TCK, I never cease to be amazed at other TCKs and their backgrounds and I will say, we’ve got the most interesting identity issues! Another great post and I will definitely be stealing some recipes!

  6. Thank you Mio! I think you are a fascinating TCK esp. when that fabulous Irish accent emerges from your petite Japanese self. Love it!

  7. Sharon: I really enjoy reading your posts but this one has got to be my favorite so far!

  8. Mary, thank you so much! I’m so happy that you enjoy the posts I write on my family, I certainly have fun writing them.

  9. Love it. When I’m sick I crave Coke, because that’s what my extended family in Washington always have. And also toast & tea — the British influence.

  10. It’s nippy this morning and I’ve now got a craving for buttery toast and a hot cup of tea. Christy, do you always crave a particular type of tea or does it vary?

  11. I love Tetley! But any black tea with milk is great. 🙂

  12. maria doehler

    Loved it! You know I can relate! Except that we throw in a European twist with the Canadian and Asian.

Leave a Reply to Sharon Stirling Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s