Growing up different: life as a Third Culture Kid

family boarding a plane, travelling with small children
The joy of travel with small, demanding passengers

Third Culture or No Culture?

“When I went to uni in the country on my passport I looked and sounded like I belonged there, but I had zero shared reference points. We hadn’t grown up listening to the same music, watching the same cartoons or seeing the same movies.”

One of the biggest fears for parents who live a nomadic lifestyle is the damage they fear causing their children as they hop from country to country. The challenges of leaving new found friends aside, we worry about the long-term effects we’ll have on our sons and daughters whose passports bear witness to a life spent travelling around the world and back again when so many “normal” children barely leave their countries of birth.

Our babysitter Jessica, back in Singapore for the holidays, had just started her first year of university near where she had lived as a baby in south west America. Far from being thrown by the differences between her and the friends she had made, in typical Jess fashion, she had turned these differences to her advantage. Confident and intelligent she was the girl to go to for travel advice, who could guarantee a great holiday in exotic South East Asia and who spoke a handful of languages with practised ease.

Same But Not Same, Same

Third culture kids (TCK) as they’re known are not all the same of course. The third culture reference points to the fact that they are not resident in their own passport country, nor of their parents (if different) but instead live in a third culture. Famous TCKs include Barack Obama (who indeed appointed many other TCKs to positions of authority in his party), Uma Thurman, Kobe Bryant and Freddie Mercury.

But while not all the same, they do tend to share similar personality traits, good and bad, according to Dr Ruth Hill Useem, who first coined the TCK term.

Children raised across cultures gain an exceptionally complex understanding of the world very quickly. They learn the skills necessary to make friends and fit in. They aren’t phased by the unfamiliar or if they are, they quickly learn to adapt to it. They have experiences that other children, living in their birth countries, don’t have such as the chance to learn country-specific sports and a new language.

Later on in life they develop good negotiation skills and are naturally capable of building bridges and relationships. They are far more likely to go into jobs in the public or charitable sector and leave education with a bachelor’s degree at the very least. In short, they become full global citizens in every sense of the expression.

But of course, this is not the end of the story and there are plenty of challenges to go alongside this. Tina L. Quick in her research on international parenting points to several key areas for potential problems.

She highlights the lack of control TCKs can feel over their own destiny and identity. This may not manifest itself until later, when older children can express their emotions with greater sophistication, but an angry pre-schooler is no small thing.

“For most TCKs the collection of significant losses and separations before the end of adolescence is often more than most people experience in a lifetime” — Pollock and Van Reken, Third Culture Kids: Growing up Among Worlds, 2009.

Many parents hate seeing their children so unhappy and carry a sense of shame and guilt when it’s time to say goodbye, pack up and move on. Quick points out that this unhappiness, rather than being covered over with promises of new toys, great experiences and so on, should instead be recognised and sat with. Encouraging children to express their grief, helps them deal with it better and makes them better prepared to move on knowing they’ve been heard, understood and of course, comforted. Failing to do so leaves an angry teen and an adult with a sense of disconnection and loss.

Onwards

And what of the TCK when they become a TC adult? Well the likes of Obama and Thurman haven’t done too badly but fame and fortune aside the life of a TCK, like any child, is full of ups and downs. I’m biased but for me and my children, what they’ve learnt, what we’ve all learnt as a family, has been invaluable. The skills of making new friends, of letting go of things and valuing people so much more are lessons I treasure. The pure joy of old friends and the excitement of the new, are experiences that I, that we, wouldn’t trade for the world.

“It is my conviction that being a TCK is not a disease, something from which to recover. It is a life healthily enriched by this very TCK experience and blessed with significant opportunities for further enrichment.” Dave Pollock from Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing up Among Worlds.