Third Culture Kids - and what it can mean.

>> Thursday, 15 September 2011

I was at a talk today about Third Culture Kids. For those of you who have never heard the term before, here's a brief explanation:


“A third culture kid is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture. The third culture kid builds relationships to all 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, other TCKs.”

I have to admit to being just a little sceptical about the TCK phenomenon. Surely, we're all Third Culture Kids to a certain extent these days? Most people I know back in London are not living in their town of origin, and a large minority are not even in their country of origin. Life moves so fast these days, and technology has developed at such a rate, that our lives today don't just bear little relation to our parent's at the same age, but have few similarities to that of our own whilst we were growing up, or even 15 years ago.

Having said that, the longer I live in this expat environment, the more I start to see that there is merit in coining a term for the ever-increasing numbers of children who live away from their parent's culture and who experience repeated moves from nation to nation before they even leave the parental home for university. One of the statements I heard today that pulled at the heartstrings was that these 'global nomads' experience more loss and separation (from friends, family, and cultural touch-points) before they're 18 than most people do in their entire lives.

I've seen for myself, twice now, the turnover of families at the end of every school year. The 30% exodus from school as soon as the final term bell rings leaves gaping holes in the lives of those left behind, not only for the children but for their parents too. It's one thing to be the leaver, moving onwards and upwards to new experiences - no matter how unsure you might be about it, no matter how much grief you may have for what you've left behind, it's still exciting and engaging - but it's quite another to be a 10 year old child returning to school knowing that the chances are you're going to have find a new best friend, a new mentor, a new favourite teacher, because all of those you spent time with last year have moved on.

We live in an increasingly mobile world, of course we do, so most of us have to deal with this from time to time, expat or not. But it seems to me - from the sidelines, since I don't really see myself as what I jokingly call 'a serial expat' - that this must be an incredibly hard thing to do time after time after time. Because that's what these families do, many of them every 2 - 3 years. And the children often think of themselves as belonging everywhere - and nowhere.

There are positives, obviously. Third culture kids often grow up extremely sociable. They know how to handle themselves in almost any given situation. They are open to new experiences, thrive on change, are often able to speak multiple languages, and are devoted World Citizens, appreciating and tolerating cultures different to their own in a way it's more difficult to do if you've spent your whole live living next to your grandparents. TCK's have seen some of the best and the worst that the world has to offer, and have opinions on both.

TCK's make friends easily, too, although interestingly once they move 'back home' or attempt to put down roots in an environment that is more settled than the expat one which they've known, this can prove challenging in itself. Why? Well, one of the ways that they make friends easily is to skip the 'getting to know you' stages that most people take for granted. They reveal more about themselves, more quickly, than less-transient people are used to. Between TCK's this is a useful time-saving exercise and helps them learn quickly if the person they're sharing information with is one they something in common with. With those who aren't used to moving around so much however, this can backfire and to them - used to a slower pace of friendship - a TCK can come across as being 'intense', 'full-on' or just plain 'weird'.

Now, as I said earlier, I don't see myself as a serial expat. If anything, I feel as if I'm just taking a sabbatical from my life in London, that's it's always there for me, and that one day the Potski family will be able to drop seamlessly back into the world where we left off. But deep down I know that's impossible. Nothing stands still - for anyone - and even if we went 'home' tomorrow I would be 2 years older and changed by the experiences we've had in Russia. Some of them for the good, some of them not, but I am undoubtedly changed, and perhaps I won't fit back in as seamlessly as I might like.

Much like a Third Culture Kid, now I come to think of it.

Update: I just had to include this fantastic excerpt from one of the comments on this post, from MsCaroline who writes a wonderful blog over at AsiaVu. (Read her post on foot care - it's hilarious). I'll let her have the last word, since she actually is a Third Culture Kid herself:

'I read this book ('When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit') when I was 9 or 10, and this quote has always resonated with me as a TCK. Anna and her family are refugees from Hitler, and have escaped first to Switzerland, then to France, and eventually to England. Anna asks her father, "Do you think we'll ever really belong anywhere?"
“I suppose not,” said Papa. “Not the way people belong who have lived in one place all their lives. But we’ll belong a little in lots of places, and I think that may be just as good.”

3 comments:

Keren David 15 September 2011 at 21:32  

We lived out of the US for eight years, our kids grew up in the Netherlands. The danger is that the easy sociability turns into superficiality - and the the annual goodbyes mean you never invest much in friendships. But they do gain a lot from being third culture kids - they're open-minded and adventurous and take nothing for granted.

MsCaroline 16 September 2011 at 00:16  

I am an 'adult TCK' and I would have to say that we do have a different culture and a different outlook on things. I am certainly adaptable and open-minded, but I am also very sentimental: the way frequent moves affected me is that I cling very tightly to my friendships; I am still in almost daily touch with friends I met as long ago as when I was 10 years old and many, many, many moves ago. I also find that I don't take anything for granted, since I know how quickly people can come and go.
The worst part of being a TCK - at least for me - is not really ever quite belonging anywhere, and not really having a 'home'. My parents moved several more times after I left for university, and the town and state where they retired - and my mother now lives - is a place I have never lived myself, so there is never any 'going back home' to my childhood home or hometown; the same goes for my husband, also a TCK. Even when I go back to places that we lived in the past, I still don't have a place or a home where I specifically belong. I can't imagine what it would be like to always live in one place and be able to come back to it and see it as 'home.' In fact, I still struggle with an answer when people ask me where I come from. We lived for 6 years in Texas and own a house there, but would I say I am a Texan? Not in the least, and I suspect most Texans would agree with me.
I must say, though, after having moved frequently throughout the US, I am really enjoying living in Seoul and being part of the expat community here. I feel much more comfortable meeting people here than I ever did when we moved to new places in the US, where people tended to have lives that were already settled and therefore were not necessarily thinking about adding any newcomers to their roster of friends. The best has been running across people who have lived in countries/cities where I have also lived; I even ran into an alumna from the International School I attended in Taipei.
I'll leave you with this quote from one of my favorite childhood books,
'When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit' (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/When_Hitler_Stole_Pink_Rabbit.) I read this book when I was 9 or 10, and this quote has always resonated with me as a TCK. Anna and her family are refugees from Hitler, and have escaped first to Switzerland, then to France, and eventually to England. Anna asks her father, "Do you think we'll ever really belong anywhere?"
“I suppose not,” said Papa. “Not the way people belong who have lived in one place all their lives. But we’ll belong a little in lots of places, and I think that may be just as good.”

MsCaroline 24 September 2011 at 02:00  

Thanks for the link, Potty! That quote really does sum it up. Probably why I still remember it so many years later....

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