‘I have three cultures’: How young multicultural Australians are finding their identity

The Feed spoke to some young Australians about how they are navigating their multiple identities. Source: Alexis Desaulniers-Lea/Supplied

The term ‘third culture kid’, used to describe the children of new migrants, has existed for over half a century. The Feed spoke to some young Australians about how they are navigating their multiple identities.

Ishita Mathur thinks of herself as an amalgamation of a number of different things - she was born in India and her family had a detour in the United Arab Emirates for a short time before settling in Perth when she was five.

It's why the term 'third culture kid' is something she feels is an apt description of her experiences.

"I have three cultures; I have my original, I have my found, and I have this third thing that I have created for myself," Ishita told The Feed.

"It's so much better to be a third culture kid than a no culture kid."

Ishita Mathur
Ishita Mathur celebrating Diwali.

It’s a term that’s existed for over half a century. ‘Third culture kid’ was coined in the 1950s by US sociologist Ruth Hill Useem. It was used to describe the waves of migration and the different experiences of the children of new migrants who were responding to both the culture of their parents, the country they now lived in, and the eventual mix those elements created. 

Now, nearly half of Australians are born abroad or have at least one parent born overseas. 

Being a mix of cultures is a reality which many young people from multicultural communities have begun to come to terms with. 

Associate Professor Christina Ho researches migration and identity at the University of Sydney Technology. She believes the term is interesting because it gives a sense there are layers within people’s lives. 

“There's now a lot of research on this kind of phenomenon because we now have had decades and decades of migration,” Professor Ho told The Feed.

“So first-generation, second-generation, third-generation migrants, and there does seem to be a couple of different approaches to looking at young people who are third culture kids if you want to call them that.”

'The first time I went [to Somalia], I felt like I had to prove myself'

*Zakaria is a Somali-Australian and grew up in Melbourne. The tensions surrounding identity have less to do with how he's viewed in Australia and relate more to his ancestral home of Somalia.

"The first time I went [to Somalia], I felt like I had to prove myself," Zakaria told The Feed.

During his first two visits, he made a habit of "ditching" the clothes he'd wear in Melbourne on the layover in Dubai for plain t-shirts, sandals, and macawis (which is similar to a sarong).

Zakaria was afraid to be seen to not understand Somali culture, and accused of being on 'Dhaqan Celis', a Somali term that means a return to culture.

It's a practice that happens when Somali parents believe their children have lost their culture in the West, and need to reconnect with their roots.

"For me, that term was thrown around a lot, so when you talk to people back home in Somalia, and they say, 'oh, where are you from? I'm from Australia'. [The] first thing they say is, "Dhaqan Celis"," he said.

"I really challenged that. Why am I Dhaqan Celis? I can speak the language pretty well. I'm more Somali than you think."

Zakaria says when he hears the term, it's as if he needs to show he has a green card but in this case a "Somali card."

"It's like, hey, you're from the West. So you haven't really got a say, or you haven't really got the power, or you haven't really got the local knowledge to really know what's happening here," he said.

Professor Ho said that experience can be a painful one to undergo.

"The root of all of this is that people have a sense of they know what it is to be a proper Indian or a proper Afghan, or whatever it is. And if you don't fit that mold, then you're seen as inauthentic," she said.

"It's really an impossible situation for children of migrants who cannot be authentically anything. And I think one of the things that research has shown is that we really need to broaden our understanding of what cultural identity is because we live in a globalised society."

'It's really hard to reconcile being from two different cultures or being caught in between that third space'

Professor Ho said there's still a lot of tension between the mainstream Australian culture, which is "very Anglo dominated", and emerging migrant cultures.

"Even though we've now had decades of multiculturalism, that still is people's lived experience that there is this tension, and it's really hard to reconcile being from two different cultures or being caught in between that third space," she said.

The feeling of being caught in between those tensions is something Ishita said she's still trying to understand.

In Australia, Ishita said she’s a minority and has to deal with the stereotypes and lack of access to opportunities because she doesn’t have an anglophone name.

Ishita Mathur
Ishita said the different ways she's viewed in Australia and India has led to a tension within herself.

But in India, she represents the dominant Hindu culture and comes from a middle-upper class background - the roles are reversed.

"I'm not a minority there, I'm actually part of a group that is very, very privileged. So living in the tension between those two is really odd," she said.

"Because I don't know how it feels to be privileged then I go back, and it's like, an ill-fitting suit. I don't actually like the way this feels. Which is awful, because it's like, why do I like feeling oppressed? Because I don't."

Ishita said she isn't used to being in a situation where she's "on top" because that means somebody else is on the bottom.

"It's just a difficult, uncomfortable work of unlearning and doing better."

'There is no yardstick for determining whether you belong to an identity'

Adolfo Aranjuez doesn't believe labels are helpful in finding belonging.

He grew up in the Philippines with his Spanish-Filipino father, and Chinese-Filipino mother - to some extent finding belonging has always been something he's struggled with.

"There were certain things that applied to me that I assumed everyone did like eating at the cemetery, which is a Chinese thing," Adolfo told The Feed.

Adolfo Aranjuez
Adolfo Aranjuez doesn’t believe labels are helpful in finding belonging.
Alexis Desaulniers-Lea

He moved to Melbourne in 2003 to finish secondary school when he was 15 years old. He describes this as another layer that was added to his cultural tapestry.

Adolfo said he's found a sense of belonging in Melbourne, a place he's called home for almost two decades - but that process hasn't always been the easiest.

Adolfo changed his accent to sound more Australian, he altered how he pronounced words and made sure to understand the references his classmates were making.

"If I want to be Australian, then I need to fix these things. Because they're just not what Australians do," he said.

But there was a change that Adolfo said happened in 2011.

"I was dating a really lovely guy who loves food as well. And I think he was like, 'do you ever eat Filipino food?' Or like, 'what is Filipino food?' And I think I couldn't answer the question for him," he said.

After that conversation, Adolfo started looking up recipes and asking his sister for help to cook some Filipino dishes.

"I think eating those foods again, just really activated parts of me that obviously, I could never really erase," he said.

Adolfo Aranjuez
Reconnecting with the food from his childhood in the Phillipines activated parts of Adolfo that he could never really erase.

Now, Adolfo sits comfortably not worrying about what his various identities mean to him, which is a shift he said came from no longer being preoccupied with labels.

"I don't feel anymore that I have to, on one hand, deny myself aspects of my identities. And on the other, I don't feel that I am doing any less than I should be to be those identities," he said.

"There is no yardstick for determining whether you belong to an identity."

*Name has been changed for privacy reasons.