Third culture kids
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it solely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one corner of the earth all one's lifetime." Mark Twain
People often forget that my children are half-Colombian. Perhaps this is because with their blond hair and blue eyes, they both look as though they sprang directly from the loins of ABBA. The thing is, that even my older son doesn’t always remember he’s part Colombian. In fact, most of the time he doesn’t know what he is and when someone asks where he’s from, he never has a clue what to say. The truth is, I’m not exactly sure what he should say either! His father is Colombian and his mother is American but he was born in Japan and has lived in Tokyo, Switzerland, Madrid and Barcelona. So where is he from?
Although our family’s geographical history has been a bit more frenetic than most, I know there are many kids in Barcelona who also don’t know how to answer when confronted with the question, “Where are you from?” Recently I did a little research into this and was surprised to find out that there is a name for children like this, as well as a whole field of research dedicated to them. They are called TCKs, which stands for either 'Third Culture Kids' or 'Trans-culture Kids'. They even have their own Wikipedia entry!
A TCK is an individual who, having spent a significant part of their developmental years in a culture other than that of their parents, develops a sense of relationship to both. These children who live abroad, become 'culture-blended' persons who often contribute in unique and creative ways to society as a whole. The term was first coined some half-century ago by researchers who were studying expat children being raised in India.
My six-year-old son speaks English, Castilian and Catalan and his favorite foods are peanut butter, sardines, cheddar cheese, sushi and croquetas. If that’s not a 'culture-blended' person, I don’t know what is! I’ve often wondered though, how the experience of living abroad will affect him as he grows older. According to the book Third Culture Kids (Pollock and Van Reken, 2001), “when a child experiences cross cultural life during the developmental years, it has profound effects on that child's sense of identity, relationships with others, and view of the world.” Here are some of the positive and negative consequences of being a TCK as discussed in the book:
Linguistic Ability: Many TCKs have excellent cross-cultural skills and a high acceptance level of differences. They see other cultures as different, but not necessarily better or worse than their own. Many have the ability to incorporate the best characteristics of the cultures they have experienced.
High Flexibility: TCKs are usually flexible, adapting well to new situations and new environments. They tend to escape cultural single-mindedness and tend to be less dogmatic and authoritarian than their counterparts back home.
Three-dimensional world view: TCKs tend to view the world as a global entity inhabited by 'real' people with the same basic human needs. Their realization provides them with a much greater potential for leadership roles.
Maturity: In some instances, TCKs are more mature than their 'mono-culture' counterparts. For example, TCKs routinely deal with international travel, foreign currency, a variety of food choices and sometimes international crisis/unrest as part of their normal lifestyle. They may actually thrive in their ability to be open and ready for change. They may also be socially mature, being able to interact comfortably with people of all ages and cultures.
Family closeness: Because Third Culture family members have shared the experience of adjusting to a new culture, they usually describe themselves as having close family ties.
International orientation: TCKs often describe themselves as liking to travel, and indicate a preference for a career with an international orientation. All these abilities, properly recognized and nurtured, can open doors to particular career choices that foster the peaceful bridging of cultures.
Sounds pretty good right? Even as far back as 1984, Ted Ward, then a sociologist at Michigan State University said that “third culture kids are the prototype citizens of the future.” According to an article in The Telegraph, many adult TCKs are now in positions of influence and power. Their capacity to often think 'outside the box' can offer new and creative thinking for doing business and living in our globalising world. This makes sense considering that Barack Obama (as well as several members of his cabinet) are TCKs.
But what about the disadvantages of a TCK lifestyle? Unfortunately, according to Pollock and Van Reken, there are some of those as well.
Rootlessness: Because they grow up relating to several different cultures, TCKs often experience a sense of being off-balance, of not belonging or fitting in. Because of this, TCKs as adults may change colleges or jobs more often than their mono-culture counterparts. Part of their rootlessness might also be their need for change. It is important to remember that TCKs have roots in their family, rather than geographical locations.
Insecurity: TCKs may view relationships as short-term, loosening ties after two years or so, due to their internal clock. They sometimes make intense relationships very quickly, but keep a margin of safety.
Unresolved grief or sadness:The frequent breaking-off of relationships due to relocations may often cause sadness and unresolved grief.
Off balance: TCKs may feel lost, not knowing what they need, where to get it, whom to turn to, or why they feel this way. This is part of the process of integrating into a new/different culture which may or may not be welcoming.
Out of phase: TCKs may not be in the same developmental stage as their peers. This may also contribute to their alienation on returning to their 'home country'.
There is also a great deal of talk in the third-culture community regarding the supposed tendency of TCKs to experience a 'delayed adolescence', with decisions about career and marriage coming later than for mono-cultural kids. This may be true, but on the other hand, this seems to a be a phenomena that young adults from many parts of the world are experiencing now anyway, regardless of whether or not they are TCKs. Therefore, I’m not sure how much credence I give to that theory.
What do you all think? Why have you decided to raise your child in a different culture and what are you hoping will be the positive consequences of that experience? What aspects of the experience do you fear may be detrimental? If you were a TCK yourself, do any of the above advantages and disadvantages sound familiar to you? Do you or your kids have any troubles answering the question “Where are you from”? Please leave your comment below!
Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds by David C. Pollack and Ruth Van Reken
Raising Global Nomads: Parenting Abroad in an On-Demand World by Robin Pascoe
Unrooted Childhoods: Memoirs of Growing Up Global by Nina Sichel
Growing Up With Three Languages: Birth to 11 by Xiao-Lei Wang
TC Kid, an online community for TCKs worldwide.