Finding Home Between Worlds

Who are third culture kids?

Posted Mar 30, 2016

Marianna Pogosyan
Source: Marianna Pogosyan

“The ache for home lives in all of us,” writes Maya Angelou, “the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” For some, whose childhoods were scattered around the world, home is a tapestry of foreign memories. For some, whose answer to Where are you from? is all but straightforward, home has more than one address. For some who call themselves Third Culture Kids (TCKs), the ache for home is constant and insatiable.

The term TCK was first coined in the 1950s, when two American sociologists Ruth Hill Useem and John Useem traveled to India to research the American families of missionaries, foreign service officers and businessmen living outside the US as expatriates. During their Indian sojourn, the Useems identified three sub-groups (cultures) that these families belonged to. The first culture was that of their parents; the second one was their host culture where they were based; and the third culture was the lifestyle they shared with other expatriates and internationally mobile families (Pollock & Van Reken, 2009).

Marianna Pogosyan
Source: Marianna Pogosyan

Many researchers have called upon the need to study the TCK population, who in 1984 were called the “prototype citizens of the future” by sociologist Ted Ward. As the number of families relocating abroad continues to rise rapidly, this need becomes more critical. (According to UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, there were 232 million people worldwide living abroad in 2003.) However, understanding the TCK experience is important not only because of the increasingly mobile world, but also because it can shed light on the concept of constructive marginality (Bennett, 1993). Notably, the way individuals learn to use their multicultural abilities to fit in different places, to integrate their multiple frames of reference in order to develop wholeness, and to move fluidly between cultures while taking an active role in creating their own identities.

So, who are TCKs? Who are these global nomads? Who are these children who grow up away from home? How does a childhood of copious travel and constant change affect them as adults?

An upbringing with a wealth of international experiences can have many advantages. Proficiency in multiple languages, intercultural sensitivity, expanded worldviews, open-mindedness and cultural empathy are among the frequently reported ones. TCKs enter adulthood armed with skills to handle change and to communicate across cultures. They are usually highly educated, with one survey showing that TCKs are four times more likely to have bachelor’s degrees compared to non-TCKs. Often, they choose careers with international themes (e.g., human service fields, education, medicine, law, self-employment).

However, along with a breadth of opportunities and privileges, growing up between cultures comes with unique challenges. Unlike their peers at home, for instance, TCKs are usually surrounded with multiple cultural cues that influence their self-concepts and identities. As a result, these adolescents often report feeling rootless and restless, as well as different from their peers. They form their sense of belonging around their relationships rather than particular countries.

Furthermore, the centrality of their self-concepts shifts from their collective self to their personal self, as they base their identities on their personal skills and traits (personal self), rather than their variable social roles and memberships (collective self). As recent research in social psychology demonstrates, frequent movers feel more positive affect in interactions where their personal selves were perceived accurately (in contrast with non-movers, whose positive affect was associated with the accurate perception of their collective selves). 

Another common theme in the lives of TCKs is duality - their experience of “belonging everywhere and nowhere”, being “profoundly connected, yet disconnected”, feeling “a part of and apart from” others at the same time. Pollock and Van Reken (2009) outline a list of benefits and challenges of TCKs that demonstrate the often paradoxical nature of their experience.

Marianna Pogosyan
Source: Marianna Pogosyan

An insight into the place where TCKs dwell - between cultures and worldviews, between identities and perspectives - can teach us about understanding ourselves and those around us better, impacting everything from the way we lead to the way we love.  Here are 4 lessons to consider from the TCK experience.

1. Home is more than just a place

There is comfort in the thought that no matter how far our travels take us, the treasures that are most important - our memories, our values, our joys - will not be lost at any airport terminal, because we carry them within us.

2. Build mindful relationships

People go in and out of our lives, enriching our days and changing our ways. Being present, attentive and in-the-moment with our connection to others will help us get the most fulfillment from our relationships. Mindfulness can be a catalyst for the enjoyment of our friendships, as well as an antidote for the grief when they are gone.

3. “Unpack your bags and plant your trees

Ruth Van Reken’s father once gave her sage advice that echoes the wisdom of living in the present: don't be afraid to plant trees because you think you won’t be there to pick the fruits. Unpacking our bags is a good metaphor for the commitment to embrace and enjoy the opportunities that are presented in the now. Besides, planting trees can be as rewarding as eating from them.   

4. Be open

Friendships can be nurtured in foreign languages;

Wisdom can be harvested from differences;

Happiness can be stumbled upon on the roads far from home.

“Every crisis presents both an opportunity for psychological growth and a danger of psychological deterioration,” writes Gerald Caplan (1964) in Principles of Preventative Psychiatry. In the context of the TCK experience, perhaps crisis is a strong word, as is deterioration, despite the continuous opportunities for both in the throes of frequent transitions. Yet, a life lived between cultures permits a few observations on the nature of the human spirit. Notably, its strength. Its remarkable ability to build, adjust, adapt over and over again. Its readiness to come close to the edge of our limits, to engage with an entire spectrum of emotions - some happy, others dreadful - and to come back, if not unscathed, then with more resilience and insight. Then, there is our inherent need to belong. To belong to a group of people who, despite our differences, see and accept us for who we really are. Finally, to know that home, as TCK essayist Pico Iyer observes, “has less to do with a piece of soil, than with a piece of soul.”

References:

Bennett, J.M. (1993). Cultural marginality: Identity issues in intercultural training. In R.M. Paige (ed.) Education for the Intercultural Experience (109-135). Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

Bonebright, D.A. (2010). Adult third culture kids: HRD challenges and opportunities. Human Resource Development International, 13(3), 351-359.

Caplan, G. (1964). Principles of Preventive Psychiatry. New York: Basic Books.

Dewaele, J.M.; van Oudenhoven, P. (2009). The effect of multilingualism/multiculturalism on personality: No gain without pain for third culture kids? International Journal of Multilingualism, 6(4), 443-459.

Fail, H., Thompson, J., & Walker, G. (2004). Belonging, identity and Third Culture Kids: Life histories of former international school students. Journal of Research in International Education, 3(3), 319-338.

Lam, H. & Selmer, J. (2004). Are former “third‐culture kids” the ideal business expatriates?, Career Development International, 9(2), 109 - 122.

McCaig, N.M. (1996). Understanding Global Nomads, in C.D. Smith (ed.) Strangers at Home: Essays on the Effects of Living Overseas and Coming ‘Home’ to a Strange Land, (99-120). New York: Aletheia.

Oishi, S., Lun, J., & Sherman, G.D. (2007). Residential mobility, self-concept, and positive affect in social interactions. Journal of personality and social psychology, 93(1), 131-141.

Peterson, B.E., & Plamondon, L.T. (2009). Third culture kids and the consequences of international sojourns on authoritarianism, acculturative balance, and positive affect. Journal of Research in Personality, 43(5), 755-763.

Pollock, D.C., & Van Reken, R.E. (2009). Third culture kids: The experience of growing up among worlds. Boston: Nicholas Brealy.

Straffon, D.A. (2003). Assessing the intercultural sensitivity of high school students attending an international school. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 27(4), 487-501.

Useem, R.H. and Cottrell, A.B. (1993). TCKs four times more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees. NewsLinks - The newspaper of International Schools Services, May, Vol. XII, No. 5: Princeton, NJ

Useem, J., Useem, R., & Donoghue, J. (1963). Men in the middle of the third culture: The roles of American and non-Western people in cross-cultural administration. Human Organization, 22(3), 169-179.

Walters, K.A., & Auton-Cuff, F.P. (2009). A story to tell: The identity development of women growing up as third culture kids. Mental Health, Religion and Culture, 12(7), 755-772.

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