Were you one?
Third Culture Kids (abbreviated TCKs) is a term for children who have lived a significant portion of their lives in a country that is not their passport country, usually because of parents’ work obligations. A synonym for this is global nomad. Examples include military brats, the children of diplomats, children of business expatriates (“business brats”), international school educators’ kids, and Missionary Kids.
TCKs share some common characteristics amongst the sub categories such as multilingualism, tolerance for other cultures, a never-ending feeling of homesickness for their adopted country (it is very true) and a desire to remain in close contact with friends from their adopted country as well as other TCKs that they have grown up with. (I do still keep in touch with some of them)
Many TCKs take years to readjust to their home countries and often suffer a reverse culture shock on their return to their homeland; and many choose to enter careers that allow them to travel frequently or live overseas. There is a growing number of online resources to help TCKs deal with issues as well as stay in contact with each other. Recently, blogs have become a helpful way for TCKs to interact.
The term third culture kid was coined by Ruth Hill Useem in the early 1960s. She and her husband studied children who grew up in two or more cultures, including their own children, and termed them simply “third culture kids”. Their idea was that children from one culture who live in another culture become part of a “third culture” that is more than simply a blend of home and host cultures.
Children and adults of the third culture share similar identities. Useem defined a third culture kid as
“[A] person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The third culture kid builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the third culture kid’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of the same background.” (Pollock & van Reken, 2001, p. 19)
Two circumstances are key to becoming a third culture kid: growing up in a truly cross-cultural world, and high mobility. By the former, Pollock and van Reken mean that instead of observing cultures, third culture kids actually live in different cultural worlds. By mobility, they mean mobility of both the third culture kid and others in their surrounding. The interplay between the two is what gives rise to common personal characteristics, benefits, and challenges. TCKs are distinguished from other immigrants by the fact that TCKs do not expect to settle down permanently in the places where they live.
Third culture kids grow up in a genuinely cross-cultural world. While expatriates watch and study cultures that they live in, third culture kids actually live in different cultural worlds. Third culture kids have incorporated different cultures on the deepest level, as to have several cultures incorporated into their thought processes. This means that third culture kids not only have deep cultural access to at least two cultures, this also means that thought processes are truly multicultural. That, in turn, influences how third culture kids relate to the world around them, and makes third culture kids’ thought processes different even from members of cultures they have deep-level access to. TCKs also have certain personal characteristics in common. Growing up in the third culture rewards certain behaviors and personality traits in different ways than growing up in a single culture does, which results in common characteristics. Third culture kids are often tolerant cultural chameleons who can choose to what degree they wish to display their background.
As a result, Pollock and van Reken argue, third culture kids develop a sense of belonging everywhere and nowhere. Their experiences among different cultures and various relationships makes it difficult for them to have in-depth communication with those who have not experienced similar conditions. While third culture kids usually grow up to be independent and cosmopolitan, they also often struggle with their identity and with the losses they have suffered in each move. Barbara Schaetti has proposed a developmental model for third culture kid identity development based on earlier identity literature, primarily on nigrescence, in which a number of different mechanisms are explained for the wide range of identity outcomes that third culture kids may have. Some may feel very nationalistic toward one country, while others call themselves global citizens.
Would I consider myself a former TCK? I don’t know but I do admit that I share similar characteristics as mentioned by Useem.
I would consider myself very lucky as I had experienced different cultures since I was a toddler (I was only 2 when dad dragged mom & me to Washington DC to pursue his Master’s Degree. We lived in Arlington for a year and a half). I learnt my first English words there by watching Sesame Street every morning after having my breakfast of milk and cereal. I still have that pic of me sitting on a chair in the kitchen, my hand on the table. By three I could spell sweets etc!
When we returned home, my parents were criticised by my relatives (no, not my uncle and aunts but my distant relatives) for allowing me to call them Mama, Papa, Grandpa & Grandma. They have set in their heads that their children could only call them Ibu, Ayah, Atok, Nenek. My parents couldn’t care less, they ignored those harsh comments. At the mere age of 4 I was sent to Kindergarten as Mom feels that I shouldn’t waste my precious time staying at home playing. I didn’t spend my time there to play, we actually learn arithmetics! Yup, that’s true!
Fast Forward, mid 1985
Dad was posted to Tripoli. Where did you say? Tripoli, no, not Tripoli, Lebanon but Tripoli, Libya. Never heard of that place? Well, too bad for you. It’s a beautiful place to live.
We were there for 3 and a half years. Living by the sea, enjoying the view of ships sailing in and out of the harbour (port actually). That was all I did for a few months while waiting for the new school year to start, which was in early Sept. I tried to occupy my time as I was feeling home sick. I left my heart back home, physically I was there with my parents. This was the first time living with mom & dad (I was brought up by my grandparents, they lived under the same roof, I didn’t have a close relationship with my parents then).
We moved house to an area called Hai Andalus. The villa was spacious, big enough for a small family of three! We could climb the stairs which connects the main floor to the next level which is an open area, Mediterranean style. There is no such thing as tiled roof. I remember having picnics with family and friends during the summer and enjoy the view of the night sky. Stars twinkling bright. From time to time I would wish upon a star and wonder if my wish would come true!
Summer ends and autumn begins, school is open, kids rushing in and out of classrooms. One of them, a girl from a far away land enjoying her lunch with the rest of her friends; Claire that Brit girl, Elena who speaks fluent French, Hana N a Libyan, Christina from Bolivia and Aeysha a Pakistani Brit. That girl is me.
I was introduced to people from all corners of the world, places I have never heard before such as Eritria and Bolivia. I have never known such beautiful people and languages they speak. I was enthralled by them. I was no longer the shy and timid girl. I go to parties and dance with kids that I don’t even know. I played soccer and floor hockey after school and weekends. I enjoyed going to school, enjoyed learning Social Studies – this was when I was first introduced to the world of mythology – Zeus, Pandora’s Box, Thor etc. It also taught me about the Civilizations, about Alexander the Great.
Halloween, Valentine’s Day, St Patrick’s Day etc….would you have known about all these if you were living in your motherland? Nah, I doubt it! Have you taken part in an International Day parade?
3 and half years past quickly, dad was called back to fill a vacant post. I was reluctant to return home to continue my studies in a national school. I hated the syllabus. I now know what it is like to study in an international school, I dread going back home, wearing that blue dress and white blouse again. But I have got no choice, no one will listen to me! You wouldn’t believe how heartbroken I was once again. This time I had to leave Libya. I had to leave my friends. I lost contact with most of them. But I was able to reconnect with some through our Alumni. Thank God for the Internet.
Life wasn’t easy for me when I got home, I had difficulties speaking and understand my national language. Mom did take the initiative teaching me Malay while I was abroad, but we spoke English most of the time at home! Hence, the problem communicating. My new school friends couldn’t understand my simple Malay. Who cares? I hated my life, I hated that I had to return home. I couldn’t master the language even till now. My friends used to tease me for my accent (when I speak in my mother tongue). I can’t help it and I don’t want to change anything! I am what I am and I am happy to be me!
Worth the read: A 3rd Culture Kid’s Story