Wednesday, March 11, 2009

"Third Culture Kid" Interview with Katya: Part 1

This post contains video of the interview I taped with Katya about what it means to be a "Third Culture Kid." I did it as part of my 9th grader's project for school, then decided that it might be of interest to others as well.

I'm purposely placing the video first, then the explanations... Why? Because I'm betting that many readers who have never lived overseas will hear what she says and not "get it," thinking some stuff she says sounds odd or even spoiled. She won't come across as she actually is, and I bet she'll be misunderstood... And that's the point. TCK's are often misunderstood!

So, here goes... And then PLEASE read the explanations. I'm curious to hear how many of you will have reactions that then are explained to you below -- perhaps changing your reactions. 

This is only Part 1 of the interview; I'll include Part 2 in a separate post.

The Concept of "Home"

Uncertainty about what the word "home" means. She's not quite sure where her home is, a typical response by TCK's. The confusion comes from hearing us say, "We're going home to the USA in the summer," giving the idea that "home" is the USA -- but when we're there, we don't have an actual "home," a house that's ours... We go from relative to relative...  Then, while in the USA, we get ready to go "home" back to Russia. In Russia we know we're here temporarily, so we don't have "roots" here -- and we rent an apartment that isn't ours in a lasting sense. This leads to a sense of instability -- or you can look at it positively, saying that it leads to great adaptability in TCK's. 

Concept of Future/Future Time and Concept of Travel

Uncertainty about where she'll live when she's a grown-up. This is quite common in TCK's: unlike non TCK's who grow up in one country -- and perhaps in one town -- she has two countries, and the whole world, actually, in front of her as a possibility. By the age of eight she has already formed friendships with kids who are expats from around the world, making those other places "real" to her. Non TCK's tend to imagine their lives in a linear fashion, with natural progressions: grade school, high school, college, first job, marriage... And they usually can imagine the backdrop to such things. TCK's live in the moment, not sure what the background will be for those events in their lives. They know they don't really have any control over where they'll be until they're grown-ups, so those spaces stay nebulous in their minds.

She just assumes that traveling will always be a part of her life, since she has crossed the globe frequently since the age of three. TCK's tend to remain in motion for the rest of their lives -- if not in practice, in mind (through literary interests, friendships, for example). 

She is aware that her non-TCK friends in the USA have never considered the question of where they'd live, since they've always lived in once place their whole lives -- or at least in one country. She doesn't see this as a negative -- but she does realize that it differentiates her from them.


Multilingualism is the norm to her; she has grown up thus far surrounded by people actively speaking a variety of languages from all over the world. Her friends here have been from Sweden, Argentina, Israel and Japan -- in addition to being from English-speaking countries from all over the world and Russia. 

While learning Russian wasn't initially easy for her, she now has confidence that she could learn any language if necessary... It's simply what people do if the occasion arises. Interestingly, she thinks of learning Russian as being "as easy as eating a piece of cake" -- mixing up the English idiom and being unaware of it!

Not Feeling Completely Understood by Peers in Native and Adopted Countries

She knows that her friends back in America can't quite grasp her life here; without actually living it, they can't understand what it's truly like. As a result, she sometimes says she feels a bit more Russian when in America -- and more American when in Moscow. This is also common; TCK's identify with both cultures -- their native one and their adopted one. When in one country they tend to be more aware of the other one -- and how it differentiates them from their peers.

TCS's Identify Most with Other TCK's

TCK's tend to identify most with other TCK's -- even if the other child's native culture and adopted one are different! Studies have shown that the simple awareness of what it's like growing up with that sense of a blended culture creates a very strong bond. Her best friend for two years in Moscow was a Swedish girl living as an expat here. Even though that friend spoke almost no English and only a few words of Russian when they met, they quickly became friends because they both realized that they were in the same boat. They never were able to carry on elaborate conversations, but they understood each other's feelings perfectly.

Her best friend now is Agatha, another TCK, an American girl growing up in Moscow who attends a Russian school. Even though that girl is half Russian, she has lived in America and goes there frequently enough to identify herself as a citizen of both cultures. They have told each other things such as, "You are my friend in my heart because you understand me on the inside." 

Like most TCK's living extensively in their adopted country, Katya can fit in almost unnoticed with her Russian peers -- so she does have many good Russian friends. Those friendships are different than her relationship with Agatha; she knows that her Russian friends don't know all of her, they don't "get" the American side of her.

She's aware that there is a huge part of her life that family and friends in America just can't understand -- and that what those people in America might think of as odd is completely normal here. She knows that there are different cultural practices in each country, and she adapts when in each place. 

Differences in Lifestyle

It's common for lifestyle issues to differentiate TCK's from their peers in their native countries. American kids living overseas are often there because their parents are businessmen or diplomats; as a result, they usually live a lifestyle that is more privileged than that of their peers "back home." Their parents' salaries often include cost of living adjustments, housing in a safe area, travel allowances, some kind of domestic help to aid in adaptation to the new culture, private school tuition in an English-language school. In many countries it is normal to have a driver, maid or nanny. (We're not living a life with all those perks, but some of it applies to us! Even though all of that doesn't describe our life, Katya knows that such perks are normal for many of the other expat kids she knows here -- so she does consider them "normal.")

For example, many expats in Moscow are forbidden by their employers to drive because of their insurance package -- they are required to use local drivers. Life is also so much harder here than in the USA that I really do need someone to help me in the home; otherwise I wouldn't be able to give my kids as much attention as I would were we in the USA. Too much of my time would be taken up by the long, long hours necessary for grocery shopping, traffic jams, and constant house-cleaning due to pollution. Hired help is also much cheaper here than in the USA, so it doesn't mean that you're a really rich family if you have some.

Travel once a year back to their country of origin is the norm, and usually families travel much more than that to get a break from the stresses of living in their foreign country. Many expat families make it a point to travel extensively while overseas, aware that the chance to "hop a train" to a different country as tourists won't be available to them once their time overseas comes to an end.

Even missionary families we know in Moscow travel often to get a break from being in Russia, aware that the stresses of living here are so great that they need to get away a few times a year. Getting away from the pressure of living here is something expat families on a variety of budgets do, so the idea of "needing a vacation" is very real to Katya -- and not a "spoiled" want. 

Travel and Vacations

It's also important to point out that visiting relatives when in America really does not qualify as a vacation. The travel is lengthy, tiring, and then they have to deal with jet lag. There isn't much "down time" when we're in the USA since we're always staying in someone else's home (for the most part) and we need to be careful to follow their rules. They can't just "let go" and relax. There's also the stress of getting everything done that needs to be completed before we return to Moscow -- all the medical visits and shopping for the next half year/year. When we get back from America, they're usually relieved to be back in their own apartment.

TCK's also have more stress because they live with parents who are going through the stress living in a different culture; most expat families realize this and that's why they make an effort to have more vacations for the whole family's health.


Jojo, Julz, Jules said...

Your daughter is just so "grown up" in a sweet darling sort of way. She is a thinker, I can really tell. I liked the tapping on the side of her nose. (Really giving it thought)
I know its hard to be away from the states. We envy your family as we see you through what I have coined "Adoption goggles." During our adoptions we had drivers, translators, coordinators. Everything was taken care of for us, so we see your life and think, "That's what it must be like." Giving it more thought, I think we all realize how tough it must be...I stayed in an apartment in Moscow for 3 days. Did most things alone. Except for adoption stuff. And enjoyed the challenge. But then again, no one was sick. I didn't have to get to work. Didn't have to clean up. So I really do get it...
I had people taking chocolates and flowers to every government worker we met. I never stood in line for anything. But I saw the lines.
I would still trade it all for a year or two so that I can give my girls a taste of their home country. To give them their history back...But a changed history. One with a family and love and support!

I can't wait to see the second post. I want to see that little answer some questions. She's the spitfire, I can just tell!

Jojo, Julz, Jules said...

I meant I want to hear from your little gal...

Tami said...

Katya is SO grown up. I couldn't help but compare her to my 8-yr-old Anya and the difference in langauge is striking. Great job on teaching her both language.
The post was incredibly insightful. I have to say I didn't get a sense of her being spoiled or ungrateful in any way. She has a tough life...a double life. One that I know many of her friends on both sides of the ocean can't understand. As an adult I can only being to understand how difficult and yet rewarding it must be for her.
Thanks for sharing. I'm looking forward to part 2.

Michelle said...

WOW, Katya is very grown up. She speaks so clearly and well thought. I very much enjoyed hearing from her.

I am not an expat kid but I was moved quite a bit until I was 15...I hit three high schools in 1.5 years. I can realte with some of the same things as the expat kids or army brats. I had a very difficult time relating to many of my friends because they have only lived in one city and one house.

What an opportunity for your girls to experience.

Katya said...

It's funny, someone just asked me yesterday where I was from... I was tired and didn't feel like going into the whole long spiel so I answered, "nowhere." Which is how I really feel most of the time...
Most of the time I answer, "Well I was born in Russia but I have lived in... [and then I give the long list] so I am either from everywhere or nowhere depending on how you look at it."

Carolynn and Steve said...

I can't help but think that this is so brave of both of you to share this--I wish that I could add a big "ditto" to Jules' comment. It is so fun to read about what you're doing, and it is easy to be envious, but we don't always realize the day in and day out headaches of what you go through. Thank you for sharing--and I must say that I think you have an amazing daughter!

Rachael said...

She really does have a wisdom beyond her years vibe to her. Not to mention, she's LOOKING so grown up lately! (She had that wisdom beyond her years vibe when I met her 2 years ago, so I think that might just be her personality!)

fedbet said...

Very interesting post. I have followed your blog for some time now as our children (ages 8 and 9) are also in Russian school, and lived in france ufrom birth until 2007 - my husband and I are British. They too are somewhat confused as to "who" they are and consider themselves both french although they are officially british. Now after their 2nd year in Russia english is now their third langauage. They talk in french at home, russian at school yet can happily watch a film in english although they rarely speak it. I can see they are slowly adapting and are now "quite russian". Hopefully this skill of adapting will become very useful as they grow.

Sheryl said...

Thanks for sharing this with us. Your daughter is so sweet and thoughtful. I love her expression of having a friend "in heart". I've always been interested in other cultures. Even though I teach in preschool setting, we still stress multiculturalism, appreceating other cultures, excepting the differences as completely normal.

Annie said...

When I was in 8th grade there was a lovely girl from England, Madeleine, who joined our speech class for the year. Her poise, charm and accent (of course) enchanted me. A couple of years later, Yagoda, from what was then Yugoslavia, joined our Russian class. The fact that she could speak both Russian and English, and do it - again - with charm and poise and confidence...well, those two girls "sold me" on expats. Compared to them I felt boring, dull, stupid and uncultured. (Frankly, I didn't just FEEL it; I was!) I felt it then, I feel it now. (Was then, am now?) Just this afternoon I made a comment about "laughter through tears" a Russian literary device, and had Maxim scoff at me - "You aren't Russian - you can't understand anything about Russian literature!" How depressing. He is probably right, but since I have no heart or understanding for American literature that doesn't leave me in very good stead.

Annie said...

I was listening to this and Anastasia came in at the end. She asked, "What does she mean - family vacation?"

So, tell Katya she is not alone. The only trips Nastya has been on have been the two to Pittsburgh to visit her older brother Aidan. "Always visiting relatives.." even sounds good!

Anonymous said...

Hi, there! I SO enjoyed Katya's facial expressions and manner of speaking. She is delightful to listen to.
Do continue to part 3!
Aunt Doris