What do Yoko Ono, Carlos Fuente and Barack Obama all have in common? A shared cultural identity based on similar upbringings: they are Third Culture Kids.
Third Culture Kids spend their developmental years in a fusion of multiple cultures, typically growing up in countries different from their parents’ ‘passport country’. Dr. Ruth Hill Useem first coined the phrase in the 1950s when she was conducting primary research on American children in India. Useem recognised that children growing up in this fusion of cultures exhibited elements of their parents’ cultural background as well as facets of their immediate cultural surroundings, thereby creating their own ‘third culture’.
TCKs have an innate open-mindedness and cross-cultural awareness that significantly helps them to cope with their unique cultural make-up and use it to their advantage. They usually come from globally mobile groups such as expatriate communities, the military, governmental bodies or missionaries.
When parents decide to accept an international assignment they must consider the long-term impact that exposure to multiple cultures will have on their children. Unlike adults, children and teenagers can be more deeply affected by their experiences abroad. Why? Because, unlike their parents, they are in a natural process of developing their identity. Exposure to multiple cultures at an early age means that each new experience will be embedded in their identities for life. This is a key characteristic of TCKs and a massively potential tool for their future professional lives. Given the implications that international assignments can have on families, spouse and family training can be worth its weight in gold.
The TCK community is vast. TCKid, a non-profit community supporting TCKs around the world, welcomes over 21,000 website members, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Every TCK possesses a unique multicultural identity but they are all able to lay claim to a common TCK identity. Common behavioural characteristics of TCKs might include the ability to:
- Build cultural bridges easily
- Integrate well into new surroundings
- Adapt well to unfamiliar situations
- Pick up new languages with ease
- Adopt an open-minded and flexible approach with others
- Demonstrate maturity at an earlier age than their non-TCK peers
Although TCKs tend to have a high level of cross-cultural awareness, they also have a concerning identity dilemma. TCKs live in a dichotomy of worlds. They identify with an abundance of cultures but yet they are unable to take full ownership of any. As they get older, questions such as ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Where is home?’ becoming increasingly difficult to answer. For a TCK, home is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
TCKs have little experience in domestic schools where peers do not fully appreciate their multicultural backgrounds. Often on repatriation to their ‘passport countries’, this can sometimes push them to the fringes of social groups where they are misunderstood or simply do not feel like they fit in. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is common to find TCKs who possess a deep-rooted wanderlust.
Third Culture Kids are Third Culture Kids for life. When they can recognise their own TCK behaviours, feelings and identity traits they are more likely to realise that they do in fact share a common ground with others. TCKs of all ages can manage their cross-cultural awareness and unique multicultural identities and use them to their advantage rather than a restraint, throughout life.
Parents and TCKs alike can benefit immensely from spouse and family training programmes before, during and after an international assignment. Culture for relocation programmes like these provide opportunities to discuss the challenges of each international assignment and develop strategies for the whole family to ensure they effectively adjust to their new environment, no matter how many cultures may be present.
© Communicaid Group Ltd. 2011