“TCK” is a phrase that will be used a lot in this blog. If you don’t have a clue what that means, this post is for you!
The term “Third Culture Kid” (abbreviated to TCK) is attributed to Ruth Hill Useem, a sociologist who lived in India with her husband and three children in the 1950s. TCKs are people who are raised in more than one culture. They are different to immigrants (and their children) in that a TCK does not have an expectation of permanently settling in the host country. The term “third culture” refers to a blend of a child’s home culture (passport country) and of their host culture – a blend that creates a “third” culture”. Another popular term is “Global Nomads”.
These kids do not fully belong in either their passport country OR their host country. TCKs from two different passport countries living in two different host countries will often have more in common with each other than they will with kids from their home cultures. TCKs experience a lot of change and a lot of loss. Even kids who live in the host culture for a long time will experience loss as friends move away.
“Most TCKs go through more grief experiences by the time they are 20 than monocultural individuals do in a lifetime.” David Pollock
TCKs sometimes struggle to answer questions like “Where are you from?” or “Where is your home?”. While some will have a standard answer they give to people, it probably doesn’t fully represent their experience of growing up. Many TCKs simply don’t have a single place that gives them a true feeling of home. They probably have a “home town” in their passport country, but may have little emotional resonance with it since many of their formative years were spent elsewhere. Home could just be wherever they live currently, or perhaps where their parents or other family members live. Or it might be a nostalgic idea of a place they spent much of their childhood, but which they have few current connections to.
TCKs often live rich and rewarding lives, but they also have struggles and challenges. Their joys and struggles are often very different in nature to those of peers in their host country or their passport country, making it difficult to connect. Re-entry is very painful for many TCKs.
“[TCKs] typically will find that they do not fit into the cultural mainstream of the society that they have been raised to consider their own. They often find themselves to be ‘hidden immigrants’ and experience themselves as ‘terminally unique.'” Barbara F. Schaetti and Sheila J. Ramsey
Many TCKs come from high performing families (most have at least one parent with an advanced degree) and with their overseas experiences can contribute a lot to the global community. Unfortunately, resources for TCKs tend to be somewhat fractured. The parent’s sending organisation may provide support, and there may be some form of community available on re-entry (some universities have programs and organisations specifically aimed at returned TCKs), but all too few receive ongoing support targeted to the unique challenges of the TCK life, especially while in their host culture.
“The great challenge for maturing Third Culture Kids is to forge a sense of personal and cultural identity from the various environments to which they been exposed.” Ruth E. Van Reken
If you want to learn more about TCKs, there are plenty of resources available. Here are some good places to start:
- The wikipedia entry on TCKs.
- “At Home Abroad” is a great article from the New York Times written by a TCK.
- An article from 1999, “The Global Nomad Experience: Living in Liminality” by Barbara F. Schaetti and Sheila J. Ramsey, can be found on the Transition Dynamics website, along with other good resources.
- A short (117 page) book by Kay Branaman Eakin tilted “According To My Passport I’m Coming Home” (1998). It focuses mostly on the children of those employed in American foreign service, but is still full of good information and interesting quotes.
- If you buy one book on TCKs, this is the one to get: “Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds” by David Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken. The updated edition came out in September 2009 but the original has been around for over a decade.