Third Culture Kids
Expat families will hear a lot about Third Culture Kids, or TCKs. But what does it mean, and what is it like to be a TCK in the twenty-first century?
Parents moving abroad will want to understand what it means to be a Third Culture Kid. The most commonly used definition of this is the one coined by David C. Pollock and Ruth Van Reken in their 1999 book on the subject:
“A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, a sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.”
According to Ruth, most adult TCKs say their experience of growing up among different cultural worlds has given them many priceless gifts: “They have seen the world and often learnt several languages. More importantly, through friendships that cross the usual racial, national, or social barriers, they have also learned the very different ways people can see life,” she says.
"...TCKs say their experience of growing up among different cultural worlds has given them many priceless gifts..."
In our globalised world, continues Ruth, “not only is the number of TCKs increasing but the cultural complexity and relevance of their experience and the adult TCKs (ATCKs) they become is also growing.”
The great thing is that, at an international school, the majority of children will identify with the idea of being a Third Culture Kid. Their peers, their teachers, and their mentors will understand the challenges of frequently having to say goodbye to friends who move on, feeling that blood relations live in a far away place, and not having a sense of being ‘from’ the place where you are living, even though you may have a strong attachment to it.
Schools will do their utmost to engage their students with the local culture while also celebrating the heritage and background of all the pupils at the school. One parent, whose children were at the Ecole Mondiale in Mumbai, told Winter’s, “We were so in touch with all the national days and religious or patriotic celebrations which went on throughout the year at the international school. Every day there would be different flags flying outside the school and the boys would come home telling us all about another festival they’d celebrated.”
Staking a claim at school to the country (or countries) that they are ‘from’ can help give children a sense of identity and a shorthand answer to the question, “What nationality are you?” International schools are also geared up to provide the kind of pastoral support required by Third Culture Kids and the particular challenges they face.
The pros and cons
The experience of being a TCK ‘from’ somewhere you may have lived for only a short time, if at all, is of course very different to the experience of being born and growing up in the place both your parents also call ‘home’. Young writer and student Blandine West has written about the most significant struggles for a TCK. These range from the practical matters of grasping the value of different currencies and costs of living, or travelling with assorted passports, to explaining your daily lifestyle, which in one country is perfectly normal and in another may come across as immensely privileged or deprived.
Steph Yiu, founder of Denizen, an online magazine for TCKs, also highlights the difficulty of returning ‘home’ to a place where you’ve never lived before when it comes to higher education. “When TCKs like me went to university back in the US, we left our cushy expat bubble, moved to a foreign country that wasn’t supposed to be foreign, and figured out for the very first time that we were different. We had to explain our backgrounds to people who didn’t quite understand it, adjust to cultural differences as an invisible immigrant and survive homesickness for a place that was too far to visit during Thanksgiving break.”
"...TCKs find it much easier to find jobs all over the world as they usually have a global network of friends..."
However, most Third Culture Kids, Blandine and Yiu included, are immensely proud of their childhoods and all the advantages growing up across and between cultures brings. Ndéla Faye, a Finnish-Senegalese writer, now living in London, has spent some time contemplating whether her international upbringing makes her rootless or free. “Identity is attached to a sense of belonging, usually through family ties or deep emotional connections.” She says, “Being rootless has given me a sense of freedom. I feel grateful for the experiences I’ve had, and I am proud to feel, above all, like a citizen of the world. The possibilities for the future are endless. The sense of being at home anywhere, yet feeling that home is nowhere, is part of who I am. I love being able to choose to be whoever I want, wherever I go. My many masks are a storyboard of all that I am.“
Julian Brandt at the International School of Hamburg agrees that students at his school can turn their experiences of being Third Culture Kids into huge advantages: “They learn to be respectful and open-minded because they constantly meet peers from different cultures, countries and beliefs. As soon as they are adults they also find it much easier to find jobs all over the world as they usually have a global network of friends. They frequently speak more than two languages and develop a high degree of critical thinking and perspective as they move between countries and cultures. Their sensitivity and tolerance makes them true global citizens,” he says.
This global knowledge can be invaluable to young people in the fast-paced world of the twenty-first century. Now that technologies like WhatsApp and Skype mean you never need to feel too far from your relatives back at home, nor that friends you’ve made in one country are lost forever when you move on, being a TCK is increasingly both normal and advantageous. With the support of a school that understands how different experiences can strengthen the abilities and appeal of their students to universities and employers, for TCKs today, the world really is their oyster.
Read interviews with TCKs in the article Meet some Third Culture Kids
Read about the support provided by international schools to TCKs in the article Pastoral Care