A couple of months ago I was on a long haul flight between South Africa and the US, and sitting behind me was a family of four including two small children. By their accents, they were most likely all Americans, although the mother had a slightly different slant to her accent and she looked somewhat Asian in appearance. The children were probably around four and six years old and appeared very confident and at home with flying. I wondered if they were heading back to the US for Christmas as it was mid-December and many of my expat friends around the world were heading “home” (where ever that may be), for Christmas that week.
But my husband said that he thought that they could have just been to South Africa on holiday and were heading home, as “they don’t look as though they live here“. But then as one of the children who was getting rather bored asked his sibling if she would like to play “Ching-Chong-Cha” with him, I knew that they were not visitors heading home. Ching-Chong-Cha is a South African term that I have not heard used anywhere else in the world. My assumptions (which I am loathed to base too much on because you know what happens when you assume things!) were that those children had been in South Africa for a while to be learning that level of local wording, and use them as naturally as if he had asked her to play Dominoes. So without drawing any more conclusions, these children may or may not be Third Culture Kids.
I have heard the term TCK explained so many times and in so many ways (mostly well), but it is actually both very simple and quite complicated. It is as much about what it is not, as what it is, and there is a definite blurry middle ground to it. So I will try my best to explain it as simply as I can:
We are all born in a culture. It is less tangible to feel our own culture that we are born into because for each and every one of us it is everything around us and everything that we experience. It always amazes me when people tell me that I “have an accent” … as if they DON’T have an accent. We ALL have an accent, but we don’t hear the way that we speak, we simply think of ourselves as neutral and “normal”. But this applies to everyone in the world, we are all at home (under normal circumstances) in our birth culture. People who are born, grow up, and live in their own culture remain there, even when they travel or experience other cultures and it is hard to see our own. It the first culture that we experience and it is the one most natural to us. It is not referred to as our First Culture as such, but when a lot of “non-TCK” people ask what a Third Culture is, there is the assumption that there is a first and a second culture in order to be a third, as so I will use those terms for that purpose.
Living in your first culture you may have an opportunity to travel, to mix with people around you or far away in very different cultures, and you may even pick up some of their traits or things that you like about the way they talk, eat or dress, but for very much the most part, you still belong, behave, eat and live, in your own First Culture.
e.g.: ” I am Chinese”
(someone who was born and still lives in China)
For many many reasons, some people may decide then or need to move to a new country or culture. (In general, this does not include moving from region to region within a country). For some of those people, especially those who had to move due to circumstances beyond their control (especially in the case of war and poverty, famine and drought etc) it can be vital for them to retain as much of their culture as possible. These people do not want to lose who they feel they are, and they do not want to blend into the new culture. Even worse, many of them have no option but to relinquish not only their passport but their citizenship and take on new lives, citizenship, and passport. They might live in a new culture but they very much belong and even more importantly, IDENTIFY in the culture that they were born into. They may live somewhere else, but they retain in their souls, belonging to their original or First Culture.
e.g.: “I live in Australia but I am Chinese”
(someone who was born in China, moved to Australia,
but has retained their identity with their first culture)
Others who move country want to blend in and become (as much as they can) a part of the second culture that they live in. They have either moved because they want to embrace a different world, it can simply be that this is what they want for themselves and/or their children, or it can be that because there is too much pain, embarrassment or even hatred “back home”, they want to leave their birth culture behind, shake off the old, and take on a brand new skin. For any of these or a myriad of other reasons, these people choose to take on their new or Second Culture. They embrace the new and welcome the changes. Regardless of how well or poorly they manage to do this, they IDENTIFY with the new country that they now live in.
e.g.: “I was born in China but I am Australian.”
(someone who was born in China, moved to Australia,
and has chosen to identify with their new or second culture)
Then there are the people who live in one or many second cultures because they work in the Military, Missions, AID and NGOs, the Diplomatic corps, and now increasingly, for international companies. These adults very much represent the countries that they are from, their passport and citizenship remain the same, they talk about “back home”, and in fact they not only very much retain their first or birth culture, but they often become even more patriotic about it. Because they live for very long periods of time overseas, they often find themselves having to defend their own culture, they miss so many things about it, and they identify even more strongly with it than they otherwise would. They no longer don’t know bout their own accent, they suddenly become very much aware of it.
These people have no intentions of taking on new cultures ( and for good reason, they have not immigrated). They may learn from these experiences and cultures, enjoy them, embrace them and even absorb much that is good and beautiful about them into their own lives, but they still retain who they are, and more often than not, their first culture is where they will return one day. Some of them do a single two to four-year posting, others are gone for decades at a time. Some get to go home regularly, others get that chance only once every four or five years.
e.g.: “I am Chinese.”
(someone who was born in China but lives temporarily in Australia for work,
and therefore they identify as belonging to their own … or first culture only)
It takes a long time, as in years and years, to learn a second culture, and often people who have moved permanently don’t completely assimilate for generations. But they are at least for the most part, able to choose whether they identify with their first country and don’t make that transition at all, or whether they choose their second culture and give it their best shot. Children adapt far quicker than adults and have way less investment in their first culture. Many of them are even born in the “new” country and so have nothing to compare it to. By default, these second generations only really know the “new” culture, and so this IS their first culture (as much as some of their parents don’t want it to be).
But many of the children of the overseas postings people, who were either born on a posting or moved there when they were young, get stuck somewhere in the middle. They assimilate into the new country fast, don’t have their old skin and accent and understanding to hold them firmly back in the “old country”, but because they go “home” regularly (or semi-regularly), often look very different, usually speak very differently, and have parents who are very specifically not locals, they don’t “belong” to the culture that they are living in either. Many of these children see where they currently live as their home and the place that they go to on home leave as completely foreign! The people that are supposed to be their extended family are often strangers and/or foreigners to them, and they don’t understand the life, customs, and culture of their passport nation.
Sadly, it is not nearly as much that they belong in BOTH as they belong in NEITHER. They are often launched into the world with nowhere ever to go “back to“. They are in many ways world citizens and often they live their formative, foundational years in many different cultures and places. They are often launched into the world through foreign universities not only outside of their passport countries, but where neither they nor even their parents have ever lived. They often feel like strangers in their own culture, but strangers everywhere else as well. They basically mostly align themselves less with a country and more with their parents and siblings, and with each other.
Third Culture is neither a place nor a box nor a somewhere. It is an almost abstract concept which is very very real to those who live it, not only when they are children but for the rest of their lives. Interestingly, it doesn’t simply apply to children who lived overseas for a few years and then return to the culture in which they were born. Those children may have all kinds of problems settling back in when they return with their parents to their passport country and so I don’t want to diminish their experiences at all. But Third Culture Kids spend significant parts of their childhood outside of their birth country, often never returning permanently…
Assuming for a moment that the little family who sat behind me on the plane are on a posting in South Africa and that they are going home for much needed real lifetime with family and friends. When this little fellow asked his big sister on the plane if she wanted to play CHing-Chong-Cha with him, she said “Nah” and went back to what she was doing. She may not have wanted to play with him, but her response indicated to me that she knew what he was talking about, but just didn’t want to play. At some point in the coming visit, however, he may ask that exact same very innocent and simple question of his cousin, his grandparent or even a friend, and the likely response will be one of confusion. In all likelihood, they will have never heard of Ching-Chong-Cha and will ask him what he is talking about. He will explain, and at some point depending on how good he is at explaining things (or not), it will dawn on whomever he was talking to that he is referring to what they call Rock-Paper-scissors!
Sadly, it is unlikely that as it dawns on them they will stop and think and then say to him “oh I have never heard that name before, here we call it Rock-Paper-Scissors, isn’t it fun that things have different names all over the world?” Instead, they are more likely to at best look at him blankly and say something more like “Oh, you mean Rock-Paper-scissors” (as if this is the correct name rather than simply a DIFFERENT name), and at worst there is a good chance that they will laugh at him as well as “correct” him. He may not ask them to play this game with him, (although at his age in my experience children often want to play the games that they learn a lot), so it is likely, but even if he doesn’t, there is a good chance that he will ask for some Nik Naks or a Fizz Pop and get the same reaction. He may well wonder why cream comes in a spray can and is sweet instead fresh like he has perhaps got used to in South Africa, or any one (or more) of dozens of other examples. He will likely not know what a Tootsie Roll is, or any number of iconic American brands are. But he might ask for custard or jelly guava juice which will all bring either blank stares or the “wrong” result.
No doubt he has already faced the same thing in South Africa where he would have called nappies “diapers” and jelly “jello” and his friends there not known what he is talking about. In time he has picked up Ching-Chong-Cha and I am sure a number of other things, he probably says “Ja” instead of yes sometimes, and so to an outsider, he may sound a little South African, but to a South African he sounds American. He may identify more with one country or the other depending on how long he has been there and how old he was when he left “home”. But to the locals in both places, he is too different, he does not even sound like he belongs to either of them. Which means he then belongs nowhere.
So it is less about him being more this or more that or a little bit of both. It is about what he is NOT. It is more about what he gets wrong than about what he gets right. TCKs rarely belong anywhere other than with each other, and their conversations often include which airports are the worst than which superstar they admire. They hopefully still learn to read and write, but they more often than not experience first hand, more of the world in their first couple of decades than most people learn in a lifetime. There is a HUGE amount that they gain, but it comes at just as great a cost.
e.g.: “I am … um … born in China but grew up in Australia and the USA, went to Uni in the UK and now I live in Denmark… and I have dual citizenship ….”
(someone who was born in China but grew up living temporarily in Australia and the USA with his parents for their work, but he went to the UK for university because his best friend from Turkey was going there and his parents were working and living in Kenya at the time and this was the closest country with an English speaking university and the time zone is only out by a couple of hours …
and therefore he identifies as … hmm … and he is from …. too hard … and so feels most at home with other TCKs like his friend from Turkey and his other friend from Canada, who are pretty much in the same boat and even though they only met at twenty years old, and are from different cultures and have lived in different places, he never has to explain himself or his international accent to them!)
While that might sound extreme, it is by no means the most diverse end of the spectrum. Many of our friends move every two to three years through work especially with the Diplomatic Corp, the armed forces, or International Companies. That means that assuming that school finishes at age eighteen (not including Tertiary study), it is not unheard of for those children to live in up to six different countries by the time they finish school, and often none of those years are in their passport country.
At the more simple end of the spectrum are children who moved permanently to a second culture with their family and for one reason or another were never accepted there ….sometimes because they simply stand out way too much, other times it is because they have no history there and history is very important to the locals, and other times it is because their parents wanted to retain their first culture and will not allow their children to assimilate. Many years ago my parents moved into a long-standing farming community. They met a lady in her late eighties and they made the mistake of calling her a “local”. Oh no she said, “I am not a local”. Fabulous thought my parents, they had found another “outsider” and so they asked her when she moved there and from where. She had moved there when she was six years old, and she came from ten kilometres down the road!!!! There are simply some communities where you will NEVER belong no matter how long you have been there or how hard you try!
Children who move somewhere and never fit in often want to return to where they belong, and have spent their teens waiting to grow old enough to “go home” but when they got back there, they have changed too much, taken on too much of the second culture, and they are never accepted as belonging there either. Which leaves them stuck in the middle as well. Belonging nowhere.
This is where it gets tricky, I am pretty sure that the eighty-six-year-old lady who moved down the road when she was six is NOT a Third Culture Kid. Not only because she is not stuck in the middle somewhere (she clearly identifies with where she is from), but also she did not go very far… Some people can tick all the boxes and yet somehow manage to totally identify and “belong” in their passport country and would not consider themselves to be TCKs at all, and others only tick a box or too, but find themselves somehow not belonging anywhere, and having more in common with other TCKs than anyone else.
It is part of human nature, in our DNA, for us to belong and be accepted by our own tribes, and for many of these kids they don’t fully belong in the country of their passport, but nor do they belong in the country that they spend much of their childhood. And so they have formed a fabulous community with other Global Citizens. It is bittersweet on many many levels and while there are many sites which I LOVE, that do a fabulous job of unpacking and explaining the life of a TCK both first and generation, this one is the one of the shortest and easiest, (and I often wonder if non-TCKs even get the captions?). So if you want to see what the above looks like played out, check THIS out.
Where I hang out:
“Here she comes, running, out of prison and off the pedestal: chains off, crown off, halo off, just a live woman.” ― Charlotte Perkins Gilman