This was publised in the Maadi Messenger Sept 2017. It gives a little bit of an insight to what our kids experience growing up overseas and the ways that we’re trying to understand and support them.
Are you thinking what’s a TCK? Are you wondering if have one? If you’re a parent and you’re living overseas – you have at least one! And TCKs require some special care…
What is a TCK?
The term Third Culture Kid was first used in the 1950s to describe children who spend a significant period of their formative years outside of their parents’ culture. Ruth Useem and fellow researchers noticed that children raised under these conditions had distinct characteristics when it came to relationships, lifestyles, perspectives, and communication. Ruth E. Van Reken, whose ground-breaking book Third Culture Kids – The Experience of Growing Up Overseas written with Dave Pollock, says that a TCK:
builds a relationship to all the cultures [he or she participates in], while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the third culture kid’s life experience…
Some typical characteristics of a TCK
Mobile – used to having to move around
Flexible/adaptable – adjust to change quickly
Culture/language – bi/multi-lingual and sensitive to other cultures
Quick to relate – connect well with people of all ages, and especially with other TCKs
Broad world view – ‘global citizens’, tend to be quite observant
Rootlessness – where am I from?
Appearance and behaviour
A huge challenge for the TCK is how people perceive them. Think about your kids when they return home for the summer. They look just like their fellow patriates – but then they start running across flower beds, or riding bikes in the house, eating with their fingers, or using a second language. They have a liking for molokhia rather than beans on toast (it’s a British thing). They struggle to comprehend why their peers are in awe of the fact that they can see the pyramids from their bedroom window. The problem is the reverse overseas. They may have much in common with their local friends, acting, speaking, behaving in the same way – but they are always going to look like an outsider. My daughter is constantly frustrated by the fact that her school mates call her beautiful, tweak her cheeks, and say she’s cute. The difficulty for the TCK is that no matter where they are – they never fully fit in.
A different perspective
It is easy to think that we understand our TCKs because we are experiencing life overseas the same as they are. But because life overseas impacts the most influential years of their lives, they are not experiencing it in the same way as us.
Connection – they feel connected to their country of residence much more than we do. We always feel like visitors to the country, whereas they feel like residents. They are more likely to feel like visitors in their passport country – after all, they often only go there in the holidays. They are hidden immigrants – they look like others, but feel different.
Identity – our children’s identities are shaped by life overseas, whereas our identity is merely influenced by it. Because they are still developing, because they are still being moulded, their entire identity is impacted by their experiences. Their worldview is still being formed – and life overseas broadens that world view.
Choice – we chose to be here – our kids did not. On the other hand, no kids don’t choose much when they are still dependents. The key thing for TCK parents to remember is that when their children get older they will make choices different from the ones that we made when we were young. We have opened their eyes to the breadth of the world, and we can’t be surprise when they don’t choose to live a ‘normal’ life when they leave home.
TCKs are made up of different cultures – a bit like a platypus. A platypus has fur like a mammal, but a bill like a duck. It lays eggs and is venomous, like a reptile, but uses electroreception like a fish.
Fears of a TCK
‘Where are you from?’ – TCKs typically fear being asked this question because they don’t know how to answer it simply or comprehensively (especially if they have lived in several different countries). Some work out coping mechanisms for answering briefly, or avoiding the question all together. The downside of these responses is that it can result in a feeling of not being true to oneself.
Feeling alone – Because TCKs often feel alienated from their passport culture and don’t fully belong in their country of residence, they can feel isolated and alone. One of the benefits of research into TCKs is that they no longer need to feel that they are the ‘only one’ in this situation. There is plenty of literature now to help parents, families, schools, and peers understand them better. Indeed to help them understand themselves better. One of the hardest things for older generations of TCKS is that they hit their 30s and 40s and felt at a loss because they struggled with issues of identity, belonging, and commitment without being able to identify the cause.
Dealing with difficult questions – it is often hard for the TCK to deal with ridiculous questions from people who don’t understand. Do you ride a camel to school? Are you pleased to be ‘home’? Is it dangerous where you live? Even the question of “what is life like in…” is challenging, because most people aren’t interested in hearing anything longer than a couple of minutes-worth of an answer.
Supporting your TCK
Try to understand but know that you never will – for most parents of TCKs, we don’t know what it is to be one. We can read books, attend seminars and webinars, and read blogs, but we will never fully understand life from their perspective.
Acknowledge that it is hard – give credibility to their struggles by acknowledging that it isn’t easy. Don’t let them feel alone if they are struggling with some of the issues that we’ve mentioned
Communication and preparation – so much can be achieved by listening and explaining and preparing. Prepare well for periods in your passport country, plan ahead for adjustments back to your country of residence, make sure you grieve well during the ‘goodbyes’, and address the difficulties that come with periods of transition.
Inspire confidence – TCKs may feel self-conscious about their skin colour, the things that make them stand out, the strange experiences they’ve had in their childhood. We need to make them feel proud of these things, to remind them that they are beautiful, unique, and special.
Connect them with other TCKs – TCKs do not completely fit with the culture of their parents, or with the culture of their resident country – but they do fit with the culture of other TCKs. The opportunity to connect with other TCKs, both during their time overseas and when they return to their passport country is vitally important. TCKs bond quickly, understand each another, and can help one another establish a sense of belonging and identity.
Love them – are you familiar with the phrase ‘I love you to the moon’? Well we need to love our kids to Egypt, to America, to Thailand, to Kenya, to England…and back again.
You know you’re a TCK when…
You don’t have your driver’s licence at 18, but you’re on your 3rd passport.
You take your shoes off at the door whenever you go inside.
You can travel around the world and never need to stay in a hotel.
Your parents tell you off in a foreign language.
You slip in foreign words to your mother tongue without realising it.
You flew before you could walk.
You sort your friends by continent.
Your accent changes depending on who you talk to.
You have said too many goodbyes but it never gets easier.
You know that home isn’t a place – it’s people.
Some famous TCKs
Freddie Mercury (from Queen)
Kim Jong Um
Tanya Cross, Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Oversees in the 21st Century. Summertime Publishing, 2016.
Marilyn Gardner, Between Worlds – Essays on Culture and Belonging. Kindle Edition, 2015.
Marion Knell, Families on the Move. Monarch, 2001.
David C. Pollock, Ruth E. Van Reken, Third Culture Kids – The Experience of Growing Up Overseas. Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2010.