Third Culture Kids

NOTE: A talk given in London this week by Mary Langford is the source almost exclusively for the thoughts below about Third Culture Kids. Her thinking, research and first-hand knowledge on the subject is incomparable.  She is warm and approachable, and hearing from her made me feel not quite so special, which is actually quite comforting when you’re feeling out of place.

When you’re an expat, you think a lot about labels of place. In the United States, I’ve certainly moved more than most Americans, but still labels of place were rare enough that they were always surprising when they were called for. I can’t remember calling myself a “northerner,” a “Michigander,” a “Chicagoan” in any way except to make light of something. (There is still a bit of a North/South divide in the U.S., but that’s for another post perhaps.)

At the end of the day, even though the U.S. is indeed huge and diverse, no one there would ever call me “the Michigan mom.” Place of origin is not my signifier there. I’m defined in the U.S. by what I do. Here though, as an expat, you do become “the American lady,” “the American mum.” You are your homeland.

So I’m an American, living in Britain, and this status labels my daughter too. Being labeled an expat seems to imply a kind of agency on the part of the person labeled, so my daughter is a Third Culture Kid. (Her label even has its own acronym: TCK!) She’s on the periphery of this label’s confines, but still, she counts.

TCK’s are kids who have spent significant time during their developmental years in a country that is neither of their parents’ country/countries of origin. What does  significant mean? It depends. Same for what years count as developmental. But TCK’s sense of the world and their values differ from those who’ve stayed in one general place their whole life.

I went to a talk this week about TCK’s, because once you get a label, there’s a struggle to define and understand it completely. Mary Langford gave the talk, and I summarize it her definition of Third Culture Kids below.

TCK’s have a different sense of time, of geography and of place than most kids. Their sense of present (at the expense if the past) is often hyper-developed. Distance means little when family may be on the other side of the Atlantic and your best friend is from Japan. Home is people, rather than a physical place, which is why the “Where are you from?” question is often a tricky one.

TCK’s tend to make friends from other places, rather than the natives of their current location, and they are often very close to their nuclear family. They tend to be observant, sensitive, flexible, adaptable and compliant. (All of those are good things–mostly. “Compliant” makes me a bit nervous, but ultimately, it’s a logical consequence of adaptable.)

The downsides are that TCK’s tend to have trouble with long-range planning. They get college degrees, but it takes them forever to finish. They move a lot, craving a new place every few years. They enter relationships deeply, but these can be intense and short-lived. They are good at hello’s, terrible at goodbye’s. They have heightened empathy for loss, particularly as they age and the intensity and multiplicity of loss grows.

TCK’s point out the importance of popular culture in building relationships. Our common experiences bind us, and without them, we often end up talking about our differences. (Talk to any expat about the most common conversation they have, and the answer is always the same: How their passport country differs from where they are now living. These conversations are fascinating, but often not friendship building as they focus on the divide, rather than the potential for connections.)

So what I was struck by personally is how this picture of TCK kids so fits my daughter (even at her young age,) and, in many ways, me. I haven’t lived abroad for any extended time (beyond a study abroad term in grad school) until 2012. Until I finished college, I’d spent my whole life in Michigan–moving once in early elementary school, and then doing the typical dorm/early apartment bouncing in college. But perhaps that’s not typical, as that bouncing put me on a path to move regularly from then on. So I’m left to wonder if my daughter is a Third Culture Kid based on her experiences or if I planted those values and ideas without even knowing it.

One simple (but thought-provoking) idea presented in Langford’s talk was the idea of culture as an iceberg. What is visible is what tourists see–art, literature, architecture, food, etc. What lies beneath is vast and often unknowable without deep exploration–concepts of status, time ordering, standards of cleanliness, appropriate subjects for small talk etc. Being an expat allows you to explore what lies beneath, but there’s often no one to guide you when your iceberg lies across an ocean.

Again, thank you for Mary Langford for a thought-provoking morning.

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2 thoughts on “Third Culture Kids

  1. I’m a military brat and I definitely empathize with TCKs. Especially the ‘great at hello’s, terrible at goodbye’s’ part! I think your daughter is very fortunate to be able to grow up in such an environment 🙂

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