Third Culture Kids 50 Years Ago – A Different Story?

Deepesh’s story (read it here) made me think about the whole concept of Third Culture Kids. I had a quick look at the book written by Pollock and van Reken and have a few reflections I would like to share with you.

First of all the term is not very intuitive – rarely does one know what is meant by it upon hearing it for the first time. Yet, if you take a moment to consider the time during which it was created, a lot can be explained. The term was coined in the sixties by American sociologist Ruth Hill Useem who was living abroad with her family in India. After observing her children and those of other expats she came to notice that regardless of what country they were from, they had much more in common with each other than with their peers from their parents’ country or their current country of residence.

Let’s take a closer look at what their life probably looked like. In the sixties, most expats were military employees, diplomats, or missionaries, who shifted from one country to the next every few years. To a large extent their sender organization (nation, state, or church) arranged their stay abroad. These expats usually lived on military bases or in diplomatic districts of the city, while their children attended international schools or national schools abroad, so that their education would not be interrupted by the next move. As a result, they were mostly surrounded by other expats and TCKs and rarely by children from their current country of residence. It was much easier because they all spoke English, had in common the experience of multiple transitions, as well as a similar educational background.

What is more, at least as far as American expats were concerned, their destinations often included American shops, cafés, and clubs. It is no wonder then that growing up in such enclaves did not help TCKs identify themselves with their parents’ home country nor the with that in which they reside. All their memories came from these parallel societies, which were spread out in similar fashion all over the world.
As you are probably well aware, the expat lifestyle has changed a lot since then. As in Deepesh’s case, it is possible to truly participate and identify oneself with both the parents’ culture and the culture of the country one is brought up in. In the contemporary globalized world there are more and more people living abroad, and these need not only be diplomats or military employees, but also professionals, scholars, artists, teachers, etc.

As a result, being a third culture kid is no longer such a unique experience. Today’s third culture kids often attend local schools, have friends there, learn the local language – in short, they are able to take the best out of the two (or sometimes more) cultures they get to experience. Their childhood is no longer spent in a separate society running parallel to the country they live, as has been described above. And also, thanks to the Internet, it has become increasingly easier to stay in touch with friends and family left behind.

Summing up, since it is easier to get the best of the different cultures they are in touch with today, TCKs are no longer forced to create their own “third” culture. Perhaps now, fifty years after the concept of third culture kids was first established, we may need to mull it over. What do you think?

Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

5 Responses to “Third Culture Kids 50 Years Ago – A Different Story?”

  1. The Term TCK doesn

  2. Hi Katrin,
    Many thanks for your comment. You have raised another important question: when should we call somebody TCK? Is everyone

  3. As a TCK and CCK I do get it.

    A TCK understands and can live in more than one culture. Moving seamlessly in and out of different circles/cultures. Sometimes, they don’t always fit in visually, emotionally, etc. However they are connected and often identify their host country’s as home. They can have many homes and feel comfortable in all but not always fully accepted in any.

    So, to try to explain why the term “third”, it also comes from the ability to be able to detach, to separate, one self and give an outside view but still being an insider, i.e., third party view with insider knowledge. Like a man on the moon watching people on Earth and explaining it to another life form from another universe.

    Not every TCK is a full TCK. Living just 6-months or 1-year outside of the home country doesn’t necessarily qualify someone as a “real” TCK. When they were only 3 years old, it has less of an impact too. Those that lived more “sheltered” lives, often also called military brats, mainly US and British, don’t really immerse with the local culture as so much is done for them that they don’t need to. And depending on the country there are those business expat communities too. The longer the stays, the deeper the involvement on the local level and type of schools all make a difference. I would even add the attitude of the parents also make a big difference too, e.g., do they embrace the local culture, mix with the locals, etc.

    Strangely some call themselves a “nationality” from a country that they never lived in, just because their parents were from that country. Saying that they are part “country name” doesn’t really mean anything unless they physically look as such and/or have actually lived there. Being a blond blue eye German who grew-up in Tanzania for 5 years and is fluent in both local languages is totally different than someone who is American and has parents from Tanzania but has only visited the country for 10 day and can barely speak the language, if at all. In this case the German is the real TCK.

    Today with the internet, satellite tv and more and more global brands the experience has changed and is changing. It is much easier to keep in touch, become less detached and to be constantly connected.

    Due to more migration the numbers of TCK and CCK is increasing and often their world views are different in that they are more global of nature, i.e., a man from the moon.

  4. I taught in the International Schools for over 20 yrs, teaching TCKs. My understanding of the term Third Culture is that most often the school where they study is not really a part of the host culture, and they are definitely not living in their birth culture, so the school (or work) culture forms a Third Cutlure. Alas, some of the kids in these schools seldom interact much with young people of the local culture where they are living — but rather stay in the school community”s TCK bubble.

  5. I was born (in 1953) and grew up in a multinational expatriate community in a country which had become a British colony only after the end of WWII. I was looked after by local women while my mother worked, so I picked up a couple of local languages. My classmates spoke a dozen different languages at home and with siblings, though English was the LF. (I knew by age 5 that American, Canadian, British and Australian English are different). My parents had friends in each of the four main local ethnic communities, which meant visiting and connecting with other cultures. I learned how to be a well-behaved child in each context!
    Parents got 3-6 months leave about every 18-24 months. That meant everything went into crates for storage or trunks for transport. Toys and clothes were often disposed of rather than stored. On our return we would be assigned different accommodation.
    The UK was dark, cold and full of bewildering relatives. I remember noticing marked differences in the class-based micro-cultures of my parents’ extended families.
    Settling in the UK was a nightmare: terrible food, being like an alien at school, watching my parents struggle to adjust…. I remember feeling unbearably sad and alone. And cold. So cold.
    Adolescence was painful too. It ended with my parents’ deaths when I had to confront the grief.
    I found my soul mate in someone whose own TCK history was way more difficult than mine. We settled in one place and raised our kids in a middle-class enclave environment. The next generation is already happening on another continent. And so it goes on.
    I agree that the “third” bit is as much about what the experience does to your awareness of culture. We can’t be unconscious of it because we know we can exist outside of what is here. We know that there are other ways to be. I took naturally to Buddhism and joining the Soka Gakkai International because I found its core assumptions of common humanity and human potential are the healthiest/ most life-enhancing way for me to see the world. And I became a psychological therapist, in part because I was forced to explore all those issues of grief, identity, relationship etc which arise from the TCK experience.
    I hope by the time my grandchild is my age, there will be much more understanding and empathy than there was in the 1950s and 60s.

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