Race and Third Culture Kids

immigration stamp in passportI grappled with belonging in white Australia – naively I didn’t think my kids would too, says Melbourne doctor Mariam Tokhi. We all make assumptions based on our narrow experiences but many of us have parents with vastly different family backgrounds, leading to a confusing experience of racism or labelling as “third culture kids”.

A few weeks ago, I walked my little girls to our local library.

When we arrived, it was just before opening time. Rain had started pelting down, and a small congregation gathered around the unopened doors. The girls were delighted by the new puddles and splashed around in their gumboots.

The girls are pretty cute – I can say this objectively – with their chubby cheeks and brown skin and sparkly eyes. My three-year-old was pretending to be an elephant. She had been to the zoo the day before. She stomped around, trumpeting her excitement, with her baby sister toddling behind her.

The older folk were in stitches at their antics. A jolly grey-haired man chortled happily at her. “Hey, little miss, do they have elephants in your country?” he boomed.

She frowned at him (confused, I think) and kept splashing around. I smiled at her frowniness, then was distracted by the rush towards the suddenly gaping automatic library doors.

Later, I puzzled over his question and wondered where her country was.

As a first-generation immigrant who arrived in Australia as a toddler myself, I’ve spent some time thinking about belonging and fitting in. Perhaps naively, I hadn’t anticipated that my kids would also grapple with the same questions, despite the fact that at least one of them has inherited my brown skin.

But, in modern Australia, despite our First Nations people, and many waves of immigration following British invasion, only white skin gives you a true-blue Australian vibe.

Maybe this isn’t surprising. These days, there’s a lot of chatter about multicultural Australia. Our children celebrate Harmony Day, and slowly we are seeing people from diverse backgrounds on our television screens (hurray for ABC’s Play School!).

But, until the 1960s, the post-colonial Australian government had an official White Australia Policy. It wasn’t until 1967 that Aboriginal people were given constitutional recognition as full citizens. We have to acknowledge that notions of white supremacy have built modern Australia.

A couple of years ago, I came across the term “third culture kids”. These are children who spend their formative years in places that are not their parents’ homeland. Many are children of immigrants, but they can come from international and intercultural marriages.

When I discovered the term, a tiny lightbulb flashed on in my head: that was me and my siblings! We were the kids who didn’t fit neatly fit into any cultural box. The phrase felt strange and beautiful and apt. (There are ruder terms for mixie kids that float about.)

I am asked regularly where I’m from. Every day. I’m a general practitioner so I have conversations with dozens of people daily. My patients are naturally curious. Some want to develop rapport and “get to know” me.

Others are sizing me up: am I a good doctor? Can they trust me? (Am I enough like them?) Is English my first language? Do I speak Arabic or Hindi or Tamil or Farsi or Spanish or Italian or Tagalog? Some want to discuss their experiences of race. Others just want to rant.

I’ll be honest: this conversation is often hard work.

Grappling with race (and racism) can be tricky. It is challenging for individuals – we all make assumptions based on our narrow experiences. And it is a challenge for Australia. We have struggled with these conversations as a nation. In the past two decades, we have again seen politicians stoke fear of new immigrants to make us feel threatened. They promise us the false security of stronger borders, sustainability and Australian identity.

Perhaps the truth is that Australia is a nation of third-culture kids. If we’re really honest with ourselves, all Australians have either First Nations or immigrant ancestry (or both). Many of us have parents with vastly different family backgrounds.

Previous Australian governments’ attempts to create a single, uniform white Australian culture have failed spectacularly. In the shadow of 60,000 years of Aboriginal sovereignty, Australia is a very young concept, and we’re still all muddling through it.

I, too, am muddling through it. I married a Sydney-born, Tasmanian-bred man of Irish/Scottish/English/German heritage. There are still quietly lingering questions about hidden convict and Aboriginal ancestry in his family tree. For our own daughters (of Sri Lankan/Afghani/ Irish/Scottish/English/German heritage – try saying it fast) and for all Australian children, I hope they are proud of their global citizenship, and the cultural traits they have inherited through their diverse ancestries.

I hope this knowledge helps them understand their shared humanity with children living around the world. We can never go back to a silo-ed world where borders defined identity; perhaps we have never really had such a world. For Australians (all of us), I hope that we can recognise our shared Australian-ness with our fellow community members. This begins with the assumption that we all belong in this country. And that we all have interesting backstories, no matter the colour of our skin. Aboriginal folk and immigrants, all of us.


My daughter does have elephants in her country. We love visiting them at the Melbourne Zoo.

Dr Mariam Tokhi is a general practitioner in Melbourne, Australia

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