Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Third Culture Kids

Third Culture Kids (TCKs) are defined as children who spend a part of their formative years in a culture different from their parents'. In their book, Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing up Among Worlds (1999), authors David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken (who was herself a TCK) state that, while TCKs build relationships with all cultures, they tend to be noncommittal to any one culture. They are citizens of the world.

Like everything else, being a TCK has its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, TCKs display cultural awareness and understanding, maturity, and a global perspective. They are able to connect with different peoples, and are flexible, tolerant and accepting, open-minded, resilient, and adaptable to change. They are world travelers and are more likely to be multi-lingual. They are at home everywhere. On the other hand, they tend to feel like outsiders, except with those with similar experiences, and may lack a sense of belonging, identity, and commitment. They experience a sense of restlessness and feelings of loss (because of so many transitions and goodbyes in their lives). Their idea of "home" can be confused. They may be unable to develop deep, intimate relationships.

(Souces: http://whichschooladvisor.com/guides/pros-cons-third-culture-child/; http://denizenmag.com/2009/10/whats-good-about-being-a-tck/; http://www.worldweave.com/procon.htm; http://www.expatinfodesk.com/blog/2013/04/16/the-pros-and-cons-of-raising-a-third-culture-kid/)
A shirt we bought in the U.S. last summer that celebrates another part of my son.
Though I certainly have been able to relate to most of the characteristics attributed to TCKs ever since learning about them, I never thought of myself as a third-culture anything, kid or adult. Part of it may be because I didn't grow up thinking about myself in those terms and descriptions, and part of it was that I've always considered myself "American," having lived in the U.S. for over 30 years. Nevertheless, growing up, I often felt like an outsider that didn't really belong anywhere, both physically and mentally. I could never put my finger on exactly why that was, though, and generally just assumed that I was the one with the "problem."

Then there were all the moves, both in Taiwan and in the U.S. I'm not used to living in any one place for very long, and if do, I feel bored and antsy. The first house that my husband and I bought was the longest I have ever lived in one place my entire life -- just seven years (and I was able to stay that long only because I switched jobs several times and had a baby during those years, so I was too busy and tired to move). While filling out the application for admission to the bar after graduating from law school, I realized for the first time that I had moved five times within the previous ten years. Filling out all the addresses where I had lived since graduating from college was no small feat! As a young adult, I sometimes envied my friends with their long histories with people and places, and fond memories of growing up surrounded by the same people, sharing inside jokes with them, living in the same house in the same town their entire lives, and knowing every nook and cranny of their little corner of the world. I wondered what it was like to be able to go home to the house where I had grown up and be friends with people I knew as a kid.
My son wrote "Sammakorn," the name of the village where we live.
Another "struggle" of TCKs is being asked where they are from. Like many others who have moved a lot, I have always struggled to respond to this question in one simple sentence. For most people, like my husband, he can simply respond with the city and state where he was born and raised (though that's changing for him now as well). But for me, an entire thought process goes through my head before I can answer the question: Does this question mean where I was born? Does it mean where I attended elementary school (four total in three different cities on two different continents), middle school, or high school? Does it mean where I went to college? Does it mean where I lived after college, or where my husband and I lived for over a decade after we married? It's, as they say, complicated, and made even more so by our move to Thailand two years ago. These days, if I tell people that I'm from America, I get remarks such as "But your face doesn't look American!" (or simply, "But your face..." followed by pointing to my face) "How can you be American?" or "But where are you really from?"

It was only in recent adulthood that I came across the term "third culture kid." Learning of the term and reading about TCKs, a light bulb came on -- I was finally able to explain me to myself! There were others like me; I wasn't the "problem" after all. And living here, among people from all over the world, has only brightened that light bulb. I feel at home and comfortable here, despite the questions (which are more amusing than anything else, and it's fun to watch people's facial expressions as I relate my meandering history). I am among people like me -- people who consider their "home" to be nowhere and everywhere, people who understand. It doesn't matter if I don't fit in with any one culture; no one else does either, and everyone is accepted for who they are.
My son's collection of foreign currency from our travels and our friends' travels. He currently has currency from 11 different countries, and loves learning about the people and pictures on the money and converting them to the U.S. dollar and Thai baht.
It wasn't often that I heard the term used while living in the U.S., though I know many adults and children there for whom the term is fitting. Being abroad, however, is a different story. This term is very common amongst the expats and the international school community, for obvious reasons. Since moving to Thailand, I've had multiple, in-depth conversations with other expat parents about the pros and cons of raising TCKs. I've heard students discussing themselves as TCKs, and one student even presented a talk on it at a TED Talk event my school hosted. My friends and I have discussed the many positive aspects of growing up as a TCK, and we've discussed the numerous drawbacks of life as a TCK. We wondered if we were doing right by our children or if we were subjecting them to a life as outsiders, wandering lost and rootless. I thought about adult TCKs that I know and how they seem to be coping with life, having lived as TCKs while growing up. We sought advice from those with more experience.

Despite the difficulties I went through growing up as a TCK, I still wouldn't trade it for the world. I feel that growing up as a TCK has had a positive effect on me as a person and has broadened my mind. And I want my son to grow up with similar values and perspectives. I want him to see that there are people of all shapes, sizes, colors, and blends in this world; that there is not one that is "better" than others; and that there are many, many ways to live life, do things, and think. I want him to be able to see the world from different points of view. I want him to be able to put himself in others' shoes, have compassion and empathy for those who are less fortunate than he is, and be able to relate to those different from him, whether it's ethnically, socioeconomically, or what-have-you. I don't want him to grow up in a bubble, be narrow-minded, and treat others as less than fellow human beings just because of where they come from, how they look or speak, or their differing ideas or opinions.
Some of the places my son has seen.
And living abroad seems to have been a very good experience for him. The reasons listed here are all the reasons I love about being able to give him this experience. Even after just almost two years of living abroad, his perspective and thinking already reflect his experiences: He accepts others as who they are, without judgment, regardless of how they're dressed, their behavior, their sexual orientation, their religion, their socioeconomic class, etc. He looks forward to visiting new places and having new experiences. He is adventurous about trying new foods (one thing I love about living abroad is that there are no separate kids' menus; children are simply expected to eat what everyone else eats, and they do). He is quite aware and respectful of differing cultural values and traditions. He loves learning about other countries, their peoples, and languages, and talks about where we should move to next (after America). He enjoys looking through his passport and reminiscing about all the places he's been to. He no longer bats an eye when hearing other languages spoken (going to birthday parties where the birthday song is sung in at least five languages is the norm for us these days), has developed an ear for picking up languages, and has become very interested in learning languages (his Thai is coming along very well, to the point where he is now reading and writing, and is able to translate for us occasionally when others are speaking to us in Thai!). Most importantly, he has been so happy these last two school years at a school with children who come from different places and accept each other for who they are, and where he feels at home and is accepted.

Of course, I also realize that, as parents, we all bring to the experience of raising children our own childhoods, our own relationships with our parents, our own realized and unrealized hopes and dreams, our own insecurities and baggage, and our own projections of how we want our children's childhoods to be, and we parent accordingly -- a combination of the way we were parented ourselves and the way we would've liked our parents to have raised us. I am quite aware that I am giving him opportunities I had had that I want him to have, as well as parenting him the way I wish I had been parented myself. How our children react to and feel about our parenting is a combination of a number of factors -- environment, personality, and relationships, just to name a few. There is just no telling how he will react to our parenting and our chosen lifestyle. For all I know, my son could grow up to resent having lived this kind of life. He may resent having moved so much, feeling like he doesn't belong anywhere, not having the same childhood as those who have the stability of growing up in one place, or not having friends from his early childhood days like some people do (though with technology, that's now less of a concern as it is very easy to keep in touch with friends). He may grow up never wanting to step inside a bus, train, or plane ever again. So far, his easy-going personality and adventurous spirit tells me he will look back on at least parts of his life with fondness, but who knows, really? Still, in this day and age when many seem to forget their own and others' humanity, and when the world is getting ever smaller and more intertwined, it can't be a bad thing to try to learn more about it and to try to forge connections with each other as fellow human beings.

Photo courtesy of Third Culture Kids (TCKs), a Facebook community.

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