When I was five years old, my mother gifted me a very special book for my birthday. It was a hard-covered illustrated children’s atlas with maps of continents and rivers that darted through the land like snakes, seamlessly flowing into oceans. As I flipped through the pages, they came to life with stories of the many civilisations scattered across our world. I became an explorer travelling to distant lands, having pretend adventures with the colourful characters that lived within my atlas. At the time, this book was my window to the many wonders that lay beyond my homeland. A few years later, I would move to the Middle East and discover for myself the many privileges of living in a multicultural society. Slowly but surely, I became a part of the Third Culture Kid tribe.
The Third Culture Kid: Definition and History
The simplest definition of a Third Culture Kid, courtesy of Merriam Webster, is as follows:
“A child who grows up in a culture different from the one in which his or her parents grew up.”
The first culture is the one the child’s parents hail from. The second culture refers to that of the host nation(s) where the child finds herself. The third is an amalgamation of the first two, whereby the child adopts some traits of each to create her own unique experience.
The above is a very basic definition, because of course, every child has their own story. To borrow a trendy term, TCKs exist on a spectrum. Some spend barely any time in their home countries, hopping from place to place every year. Some have parents who themselves were TCKs, whisking them away to wholly different locations in an attempt to satiate their own wanderlust. Others, like me, come from a homogenous culture and are thrust into a multicultural society at a tender age.
The term itself was coined in the 1950s by anthropologists Ruth Hill Useem and her husband John, who were studying cross-cultural encounters of American communities abroad. According to Useem, the late 40s and early 50s was the first time third culture communities started to form due to scientific and technological advances, as well as the decline of colonialism.
Useem published her findings in the 90s, nearly 30 years ago, so although many of her conclusions hold true today, some may not have aged as well. According to her, TCKs have trouble relating to their own ethnic groups, they experience prolonged adolescence, and maintain global dimensions throughout their lives. I could definitely relate to her points about difficulty relating to one’s own ethnic group and maintaining global dimensions and will explore those further in this article. However, on the subject of the study being a little out of touch with current times, here’s a quote describing TCKs suffering from prolonged adolescence:
“Some young adult TCKs strike their close peers, parents, and counselors as being self-centered adolescents, as having champagne tastes on beer incomes (or no incomes), as not being able to make up their minds about what they want to do with their lives, where they want to live, and whether or not they want to “settle down, get married, and have children. They have what some call “prolonged adolescence.”
You know who else is afflicted with the prolonged adolescence condition? Pretty much every millennial I’ve ever come across. Perhaps mono-cultural society is catching up to us TCKs with our insufferable self-centredness.
Growing up in the Arabian Desert
My own Third Culture Experience began when my father, a landscape architect, landed a job in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. We lived in Bulgaria at the time, and there wasn’t a whole lot to do landscape wise. Certainly not as much as there was in an oil rich desert state which wanted to transform itself into an oasis at any cost! So off he went, and my mother and I soon followed when we realised this would not be a short term gig like we’d previously thought.
I was ten years old at the time and spoke no English whatsoever. Although we studied a second language in primary school, my mother had helpfully enrolled me in German lessons instead of English, possibly because she thought it sounded cool? Thanks very much, mutti!
As I got to Abu Dhabi the summer before school started, my mother decided to correct her past wrongdoings, and dragged me to the British nursery where she briefly worked as a teachers aide. There, she made me sit in a corner and do English exercises all day long. I may have resented her at the time, but I’m grateful now as it allowed me to start school and sort of understand what people were on about when they talked to (at) me.
The International School Experience: from homogenous societies to multi-cultural expat communities
I was enrolled in a Canadian school. That was my first experience in an international school and it was mind blowing. Prior to this, all my classmates were either Bulgarian or of the Turkish or Roma minority. That was it. So to walk into a classroom that first day, where the English teacher was Canadian Lebanese, and my new school friends came from India, Australia, South Africa, Oman, the UAE, the US, just to name a few? That was indescribable and I was so overwhelmed at first. I could not fully comprehend the richness of culture that was in front of me.
International schools are different from most schools. People come and go all the time, so the kids are welcoming and broadly interested in you. It didn’t matter that I was new and barely spoke English. I was immediately adopted by a group of girls who came from literally every corner of the world and made me feel welcome.
One of the most TCK experiences I had in the Canadian school was when in the 6th grade, our English teacher asked for volunteers to sing the Canadian anthem at a talent show. I volunteered along with some of my friends. So, on the day of the talent show, you had me, my Taiwanese American best friend, and a collection of other girls who’d never set foot in Canada, standing proudly on a stage holding up a massive Canadian flag belting out: “O Canada! Our home and native land!”. Oh, the irony.
Four years later, I would move to Dubai where my dad got a better job. I would attend a bigger and better international school with even more nationalities represented. International day was the best – I would wear white, green, and red and eat Danish liquorice, Pakistani biryani, and Belgian chocolate whilst watching Bollywood dancing and Russian ballet. I was sort of jaded at that point though. I was fully integrated into TCK society and authentic cultural experiences were a fact of life.
The TCK as an Adult
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere*. That is if your universe’s reigning deity is Theresa May circa 2016, of course. Her world may be one where nationalism and patriotism are at the forefront of one’s identity, but her world is dying.
Please don’t misunderstand me – one should take pride in their roots, their heritage, their culture. But having a stubborn, almost fanatical attachment to the piece of land where you (or your parents) happened to pop out into the world is an archaic notion, especially if you’ve spent a large portion of your life abroad. Nowadays, we understand that people are so much more complex than their passport country, their parents’ culture, their skin colour, or religion. We are all, to at least some extent, citizens of the world. Society is becoming more globalised, and TCKs are the most stark example of this trend.
This is why I could relate to Useem’s findings relating to feeling alienated from your ethnic group:
Most do not identify with members of their ethnic group, and nearly half do not feel central to any group. For some, especially the recently returned, such feelings are painful and create a profound sense of isolation; Others recognizing their feelings as part of broader more global identities, stress feeling at home everywhere.
This passage reminded me of completing an Intercultural Development Inventory as part of my professional development at my former job. It is meant to test your intercultural competence (i.e. how culturally sensitive you are). My results were somewhat inconclusive partly because, as the invigilator said in our briefing, I was suffering from something called cultural dissociation – essentially I had become detached from my home culture and so my answers were all over the place. Only, I really don’t mind, though it was presented like it was a bad thing. I like being a mix of things, and I like getting along with people from all over the world – yes, I feel at home everywhere as arrogant as that might sound to some.
I know how privileged I am to have had this upbringing and I would not give it up for anything. As Useem said, I continue to maintain global dimensions; I’ve lived in the Netherlands, and now I’m moving to the UK. Who knows what’s next? I only know that I can’t imagine a life without an international aspect of some sort.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened if my life had gone in a different direction and I never had the opportunity to live abroad. Would I be brave enough to overcome cultural and language barriers and explore the world on my own? I like to think that the little girl who first saw the world through an illustrated Atlas would not rest until she went out and saw the real thing for herself.
*This is the first, but not last reference to Pride and Prejudice. Get used to it!
TCKs Experience Prolonged Adolescence, TCK World