Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Third Culture Kids

I've been reading a really good book this month called "Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds." What is a Third Culture Kid? 

"A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant portion 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. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK's life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of a similar background." 

To put it simply, Third Culture Kids have trouble answering the following question "Where are you from?"... ! 

The kids in Moscow know that Katya and Natalia are different; to them, my girls are from America. My kids have different customs and traditions, different core values from their peers. For example, in Russia it's considered normal to cheat/bribe -- even necessary -- since everyone does it to function in business and government, or simply drive a car around town.(No one, of course, believes that cheating is good and moral -- but people generally accept that "it's how the system works.") Additionally, imagine what it's like to be the only kid in your elementary school to insist that the tooth fairy does exist -- or even Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, for that matter! 

But the children in America know that my daughters don't quite fit in there, either: their life experiences have been radically different from those of their "regular" American peers for the vast majority of their lives. Their idea of the world is a largely mobile one, where the different continents on a global map aren't simply colorful shapes -- they're actual places where their other expat friends who have left Moscow now live, where those friends speak many other languages. Diversity and multiculturalism are my daughters' basic way of life. Any item on the news or in the paper can be personal to them, since they're keenly aware that people just like them live all around the world. Hearing about a tsunami or terrorist attack can effect Third Culture Kids and Adults* much more deeply. 

Then there's the whole idea of the word "home"... When in Moscow, they hear me talk about how we'll be going "home" for the holidays or summer to America. But when we're in America, we don't have a home... We flit from relative to relative, always in transit, out of suitcases, never settled. When we're in America, we then talk about going back "home" to Moscow. It's quite confusing if you stop to think about it!

Kids tend to crave routines and stability -- and the routine that my kids know is that we're highly mobile, crossing the globe throughout the year. As hectic as that is, to them it actually IS a routine, normal. Neither their American nor Russian peers can quite understand that.

As a result, they most easily relate to other kids who are also Third Culture Kids. Katya has finally made a close friend here, a best friend, whose parents are Russian and American. That girl "gets it," knows what it's like for Katya to be growing between both worlds, as opposed to fully belonging in either. Their very friendship illustrates that "between" space they inhabit -- depending on the situation, they effortlessly switch between Russian and English. 

When we move back to the USA, it won't necessarily be easy for my kids to make friends who can understand who they "really are."

I am devouring this book... It is so interesting, and eye-opening, to me as an expat parent!

Here's the website for Third Culture Kids all over the globe.

*A Third-Culture Adult is one who lived in the "third culture" for a significant period of time during the developmental years -- impacting his or her core identification with one "native" culture. Chris and I wouldn't fit in that category since we didn't move overseas until we were adults.


Tina in CT said...

One of my worries...

Natalie said...

Nice post. Very interesting. I'm the American who doesnt know what state to call home. They will survive!

MamaPoRuski said...

Hubby and I are of this group and are excited to be pushing our kids in this direction too. I knew when I found someone to marry that he had to have a "world view". He lived in Germany as a child in a military family.
I don't think either of us thought it a bad thing, we actually felt sorry for the kids that didn't understand and thought America was all they ever needed to know and understand!

Anonymous said...

mamaporuski, has a good point at the end...and one I agree with. unfortunately, not all of us have the ability to get this for our kids and make due with what we can expose them to in the USA. I am interested in following your once you do return to the US and will it be permanent then? or do you think you will always live abroad? Do you think that you might come back to the US while the girls are still not in High School? I look forward to more writings about that when it happens.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a book I should read.

Annie said...

Flexible....interested...and much more interesting!

I still remember Madeline who came for a semester from England when I was in 8th grade. And Yagoda who came from Yugoslavia (that was) when I was in HS. Of course they both had college-professor fathers, but I was SO impressed with their poise, intelligence and maturity.

My children have a different sort of "third culture" experience. I am so glad that we are able to get them together with other Russian adopted children, because they can share their unique experience.

Reading your post made me realize that my children do gravitate to a great degree to other children who understand some aspect of their "difference". Sergei's best friends include a boy with Polish parents, who speaks Polish at home, and a boy adopted from Paraguay. His very best friend was adopted from Russia a couple of years ago. Anastasia's best friend is a girl from her orphanage. Zhen just came home the other day thrilled to find out that a boy from his class is adopted.

I feel fortunate to live in a place where they have access to other children with "different" backgrounds. I think it would be so difficult to be an older adopted child out in the middle of the midwest or somewhere you'd be completely and strangely unique.

kate said...

I've read this. And, as a teacher,I can tell you that TCK are different. Of course there are positives and negatives about any situation. I can think of lots of good things. But, I think as a future parent that this is not the life that I want for my children. It's a lot more difficult than people imagine--not only the living in a third culture, but also going back to the passport culture. Having attended seminars about this subject, it seems as though this is a future that you're choosing for your child. Most TCK have a hard time establishing roots and being settled later in life. They have itchy feet. It can mean a job with a lot of travel, relationships that are short-lived (Think about how often the ex-pat community changes. Out of 16 students in my class from four years ago, four are left. They're all leaving this year.), or just needing a new house and new furniture every few years.

E-mail if you want to chat about it!