When was the first time you heard about TCKs?
I was 16 when a lecturer spoke at my international high school and said, “Who here HATES being asked ‘Where are you from?'”
We all raised our hands. We laughed collectively.
You are Third Culture Kids, he told us. You will want to date people who have grounded homes. You will meet fellow TCKs across the world and instantly feel at home. You will struggle with your identity, hate explaining your roots, and feel the need to travel.
As he laid out our futures before us, he kept waving a purple and yellow book before our eyes. Since then, every time I’ve written an article or research paper on TCKs, this has become the ‘ultimate’ book, the Bible to understanding who we are.
Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing up Among Worlds by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken. It’s high time I read it.
This is the first in a series called “Denizen Reads: We read TCK literature so that you don’t have to.” These articles will summarize popular TCK literature. Wanna suggest some TCK reads? Send an email to steph -at- denizen-mag.com. Access the Google Books version of this book.
I’ve always believed that TCKs were citizens of the future. The authors confirm it by writing: “The TCK experience is a microcosm of what is fast becoming normal throughout the world.” TCKs are significant because in today’s world, few communities are culturally homogeneous. Being a TCK will become, or already has become, the rule rather than the exception.
The term Third Culture Kids first arose in India, where Drs. John and Ruth Useem went to study expatriate communities. They used the terms “first culture” to describe the home culture, “second culture” to describe the host culture, and “third culture” to describe the interstitial culture, or the expatriate community. They also found that the children of the expatriate families had much more interesting experience than their parents, therefore choosing to study “Third Culture Kids.”
The term has since changed. Expatriate communities are no longer as closed as they used to be. Third culture now refers to the culture the child pieces together from the host and home cultures. I’ve always found it incredibly difficult to find common characteristics among TCKs, but the authors have listed a few: being distinctly different from the host culture, having expected repatriation (not immigrants), living a privileged lifestyle and recognizing system identity (meaning, as a TCK you represent something larger: your country, your company, etc). They also write about two major experiences in every TCK’s life: being raised (not visiting, not studying, but raised) in a foreign culture, and being raised in a highly-mobile world (whether they are constantly moving, or their peers and surrounding community are).
TCKs must live in a “foreign culture” before they are 18 (before their sense of identity is developed) but the amount of time spent there can vary. It is possible for a person to become a TCK without ever leaving their own country; the authors use a girl who grew up on Native American reservation as an example.
One of the best lines from their definition of TCK is this: “Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of a similar background.” This is why Denizen exists.
This chapter explains why the difficulty in answering “Where are you from?” is a common trait among TCKs. A traveler will arrive in a foreign culture knowing who he is, and where he is from. TCKs are still developing their sense of personal and cultural identity when their surroundings change.
The authors go into detail about the significance of culture and how TCKs pick it up: from parents, the community, schools, peers, caregivers (amahs or nannies) and sponsoring agencies. Culture is an unspoken trait and something that most people don’t have to think about. When I walk into a household, I take off my shoes, because that’s just how it is. TCKs constantly worry about picking up cultural cues as they adjust from place to place.
TCKs have different types of relational patterns.
1. Foreigners (look different, think different): a traditional model for TCK.
2. Adopted (look different, think alike): while the TCK feels comfortable in the culture, others treat them as foreigners.
3. Hidden immigrant (look alike, think different): People will assume the TCK is local until they speak to them and hear their accent, or learn about their background.
4. Mirror (look alike, think alike): some TCKs have lived somewhere so long that they are practically members of their host culture, until they show their passports. TCKs who return to their home culture after being away also are “mirrors” – they have been abroad, but on a deeper level identify with their home culture.
This chapter delves into the process of physically moving from one place to another. The stages themselves are pretty simple: Involvement, Leaving, Transition, Entering and Re-involvement. The most interesting stage was the Leaving Stage, where people go into phases like “senioritis” and start the unconscious detachment. This causes all sorts of denials: of sadness or grief, of feelings of rejection (people stop planning events with us), of “unfinished business” (we don’t reconcile conflicts), of expectations (the, oh, I’ll be happy at any university).
“When a tree is transplanted too often, its roots can never grow deep.” TCKs are constantly going through these five stages, and it’s completely normal to them. Mobility is part of a routine.