From ‘third culture kid’ to parent of ‘cross cultural kids’

Photo by Carlos Quiapo on Unsplash
A Third Culture Kid has grown up and now muses on what it will be like to parent her ‘Cross Cultural Kids’.

Discovering that I was a TCK, or Third Culture Kid, was a breakthrough moment for me. Having grown up shuttling between two countries, I never quite felt like I ‘fit’ any one nationality. But with the word TCK, I finally felt I had a name and a community to which I could claim legitimate citizenship.

What is a TCK?

For those of you who need a refresher, the term ‘Third Culture Kid’ was originally coined by researchers John and Ruth Useem in the 1950s, and is now typically used to define:

[A] person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents' culture. The TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. (Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken. 1999, 2001, 2009, 2017.)

And let me just say that if you’re an expat parent, you need to read this book. If I could, I’d be handing out copies to the unsuspecting on the streets of Bangkok!)

Characteristics of TCKs

As described by Pollock and Van Reken, TCKs commonly show characteristics such as an expanded worldview, adaptability, language and cross-cultural skills. On the not-so-positive side, we also tend to exhibit restlessness and rootlessness, and can suffer from confused loyalties and a lack of a true cultural balance.

With my own experience, it was particularly traumatic to be an outsider after moving for the third time, just as I was entering teenagehood. Adolescence is challenging enough for anyone, as we all struggle to define who we are and where we fit in. Having additionally to deal with a new set of cultural practices and values and to establish new relationships was, to put it mildly, bewildering.

My kids are not TCKs, but cross cultural kids (CCKs)

Now, 30 years after my TCK adolescence, I find myself in Thailand with children of my own. They aren’t quite ‘TCKs’: they were born and bred in Thailand and (at least up to now) never lived anywhere else; neither parent is culturally or linguistically Thai but we’re not short-term expats either. The kids speak fluent Thai, attend Japanese school where they are taught to be ‘Japanese’, and are also learning their father’s language.

They are what Pollock & Van Reken would call ‘cross cultural kids’ (CCK) — “kids who grow up among many cultural environments for any reason.”

It’s a broad definition including TCKs, children of immigrants, minorities, multiracial families, multicultural families, international adoptees, or even children who switch school environments (e.g., public school to private boarding school).

From TCK to CCK: Family is the 'rock'

I take courage from Pollock and Van Reken’s perspective that there’s much that can be learned from the TCK experience and applied to CCKs. One key lesson is that, in the midst of change and fluidity in these children’s lives, the family unit needs to be their ‘rock’, a secure home base.

Their advice: make your kids feel that they are valued by actively listening to them. Comfort them, especially when they may be grieving from moves or loss of friends, etc. — acknowledge their pain, let them know it’s perfectly normal, and give them the space to grieve. Keep family relationships solid, including maintaining ties with extended family. Reserve regular family time, create your own family traditions. Remember that the parents’ home countries are still foreign for your kids, and ‘reentry’ to those countries will not necessarily be easy for them.

My favorite advice from Pollock and Van Reken is: “Unpack your bags and plant your trees”. Become part of a community, and live the present experience to the fullest, as if you were going to be here forever. That way, your children (and you too!) will always have ‘trees’ to come back to when they are older.

I wonder what my children’s journey will be like. I hope that they will come to a place where they feel proud of their unique experience, that this very cross-cultural-ness will become a key pillar of their self-identity. And I very much look forward to see who they will become.

[This article was originally written for and published in Expat Life in Thailand, April/May 2018.]


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