Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Expat Experience for Third Culture Kids

I followed a link the other day from an expat community blog site and started reading some stuff about 'Third Culture Kids' or TCK's as they are known. I had heard/read a very little on this subject previously, but not so much that it had really grabbed my attention in any way. I had associated the term with Embassy kids, or Armed Forces kids who spend their childhoods and teenage years moving from country to country every few years, but it would appear that I am incorrect, and in actual fact it seems I have two of the little blighters myself. They don't neccessarily have to have grown up in more than one other culture.

A Third Culture Kid (TCK) can be defined as "... a person who has spent a significant part of [their] developmental years outside the parents' culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK's life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background." - David C. Pollock, (an American Sociologist)

So I read this paper, 'According To My Passport, I'm Coming Home' by Kay Branaman Eakin, which primarily looks at the issues of teenagers returning to their home country. And I found it really interesting reading. From a personal point of view she discusses all the issues that I was worried about for myself in returning home but shows that it's MUCH harder for teenagers returning home. 

"In the 25+ years of working with third culture kids, I don't find cultural identity confusion to be a big issue until the TCKs return to their passport country" - Libby Stephens 

For example, she talks about how when living abroad it's easy to feel like you are a Scot, or an American, or an Australian in a foreign land. You're different to those round about you. You have a different view on things, different cultural rules on how to behave, you might even look different to all the locals round about you. But then when you return home, all of a sudden it turns out that you're perhaps not quite as Scottish, American, or Australian, as the natives of your own country because you have picked up some of the practices, social skills, and customs of the land you had been staying in. For teenagers who traditionally are trying to work out who the hell they are during their teenage years anyway, unless they are saving up to 'find themselves' on a year's backpacking round the globe during their gap year, it can be a tough gig. For starters a lot about being at school is about fitting in, being normal, if not being awesomely cool. Nobody wants to stick out for odd social behaviour at high school. So this can be especially hard if you go back to your passport country and don't know what all the 'norms' are. You might have experienced a completely different way of growing up, have probably done different things, and culturally, you probably won't have seen all the tv shows that your peers have. 

"Brought up in another culture or several cultures, they feel ownership in none. An American TCK may find more in common with an Italian or Indian TCK than she does with a monocultural U.S. teen."

Another interesting aspect discussed is about the unresolved grief many children and teenagers feel as Third Culture Kids. It's a common fact that for many children living abroad their friends are always leaving, or else they themselves are always leaving. I talked a little bit about the nature of expat friendships in one of my earlier posts and I think I hadn't realised how hard it can be on people to have a constant stream of temporary relationships, and friends leaving every year.

Most TCKs go through more grief experiences by the time they are 20 than monocultural individuals do in a lifetime."

- Isn't that something? That's not to say that the experience of a TCK is a negative one. Of course there are massive benefits to living abroad, experiencing different things, and mixing with others from a (or many) different backgrounds. I see it with Orla even. I think there are children at her school from around 50 other countries, and she benefits from learning about their experiences. She has a greater understanding than some of her UK friends about how people come from different places and speak lots of different languages. She's learned that there are different ways of doing things, different customs, and different foods, and while this is only a small amount, I firmly believe that all of this will benefit her. Even Hamish has learned that there are people from different places at his Kita. When it's someone's birthday, they sing Happy Birthday in German, English, Turkish, and sometimes the native language of the birthday boy/girl too. 

Page 59 of the report is the start of the section on the issues that younger children can face. But it's a long report and well, I'm feeling exceptionally tired, so I'll let you go ahead and read it yourself. :-) If you are interested in this topic, have a look at the links below for some more information.

Wikipedia -
'According To My Passport, I'm Coming Home' by Kay Branaman Eakin (a PDF exploring the issues of TCK's)
Libby Stephens - The Evolution of the TCK - Stage 1 The Cultural Sponge
Libby Stephens - The Evolution of the TCK - Stage 2 The Cultural Chameleon
Libby Stephens - The Evolution of the TCK - Stage 3 The Hidden Immigrant
'Coping Strategies for the Hidden Immigrant' -
US Department of State - 'Third Culture Kids: Returning to their Passport Country' (offers guidance for schools on re-integrating TCK's into US schools)
'Shut Up or Go Home' - - I liked this as the author questions at what stage you win the right to criticise the country you are living in, which I talked about (in an earlier blog post) in relation to my life in Derby where I always felt I needed to be careful as technically I am an outsider, being Scottish.


  1. This is great. I've now spent a third of my life as an expat, and I most definitely understand the sensation of not feeling "at home" anywhere. There are both pros and cons of visiting the homeland. One the one hand, it's nice to not me such a conspicuous outsider, but it also means that you're not inherently "special" like you are as an expat.

    I look forward to perusing your bibliography.

    1. I completely agree. It took me a long time to realise that I really quite enjoyed the 'specialness' of even being a Scot living in England. Glad you liked the post :-)

  2. Great find! I've just taken a glance at 'According To My Passport, I'm Coming Home', and found it interesting enough that I printed it out to read at my leisure.

    1. Yes, I wish I had replaced our printer cartridge, cause it's a long read! It's fairly old, but I found it quite insightful and even though it deals with the issues of teenagers primarily, there were certainly aspects that I could relate to, and I could see related to my children. I would be interested in finding out how the rise of social media affects things. It's so much easier to keep up to date with friends and what's happening at 'home' through things like Facebook.

  3. Very interesting. I'll check out the bibliography. I've spent nearly half of my life as an expat in Spain, and I haven't been back to the U.S. in something like 18 years, so I don't know how I would feel. But then again, I never felt entirely at home there anyway, since my parents were both Dutch. My kids, on the other hand, are very Spanish, and they don't really seem to feel different from their friends, except for the fact that their English is better.

    1. I know, I was wondering a bit about the whole Third Culture thing when it talks about kids "growing up in a different culture/country to their parents". My kids were born in England, and though the differences between England and Scotland are relatively small, compared with a move from Scotland to say Germany, there are still cultural differences. My kids seem to have lost any English accent that they had and now, living in Germany, have stronger Scottish accents!

      So do you feel like 'an American' living abroad, or just a mix of cultures? I don't think I have been abroad long enough to feel like I don't belong in the UK, but I do feel like I have a lot less in common with Brits now.

  4. This is utterly fascinating to me. And Fiona, I agree with you- I haven't been abroad long enough to feel like I don't belong, but I do feel like I have less in common with my home country now. There isn't a shred of doubt in my mind that this experience has changed me.

    And that's after *four months* in Germany. I can't even imagine what I'll feel like after two or three years.

    1. It's one of those things you're not warned about before you go on your adventure. We spoke to quite a few people who had lived abroad, and unfortunately none of them said, "Well, you know this will change you and there's a good chance that you might not want to come back!". I think all we heard was "Oh you'll have a great time!" - ha, ha! And I suppose we have!

  5. Really interesting discussion, and I wonder how the differences manifest themselves in kids who go the local school route, as opposed to those that live more of their life in the 'ex-pat bubble'?

    And I have lived in lots of countries, but I did spend all of my childhood in one place. Today I was in the post office chatting away (in English) to Emily, and a woman came over and commented on my lovely English and asked where I was from.
    I hesitated.
    I hesitated long enough to look dumb actually.
    These days I am not sure how to answer that question.

    1. I imagine that for kids who go to the local school it is a bit more as 'Mother Theresa' above describes "my kids... are very Spanish, ... except for the fact that their English is better.". I think my two have more of a identity of being well, probably British, rather than English (which is where they were born/brought up for the first 2 years) or Scottish (where me & S are from and where we tend to go back to for visits) though they do sometimes say they were born in Berlin. Do your kids feel Swiss do you think? Or a combination of that and something else?

      Orla has a desire to see more of the world having heard her classmates stories of where they go back to on their holidays. Her greatest wish at the moment is to go to China and walk the Great Wall, and get a medal at the end of it.

      AND, regarding your post office hesitation, I always say: "Originally, I'm from ....", and then you can give the explanation of where all the other accent twangs come from!

    2. Hmm, lots of interesting questions.

      I asked Sofie (6 but almost 7) if she is Swiss and she laughed.
      'Of course not Mummy. Switzerland is just the country I was born in.'

      So I asked what she was - her nationality - her 'special' country.

      She said she is lucky, becasue she already has 3 special countries - Switzerland (where she has lived her entire life), England (where her Dad is from and we visit regularly) and Australia (where I am from, but we don't visit so often).

      I think my kids are more Swiss than anything right now, and German is rapidly becoming their dominant language, despite only speaking English at home. Not sure how I feel about that! But it does mean that they don't see language as a barrier, and cultural differences are just the norm. When we were in Portugal last year and I had to use a phrase book, Sofie simply said we should 'just learn Portuguese before our next trip'. Infact she was a bit cross it wasn't an option at her school!

      But for now I think they feel comfortable in both England and Switzerland. I guess we will see what happens over time.

    3. I think that's amazing. Doesn't it make you feel proud that they are growing up in this way? She's got the right attitude to learning new languages and to approaching different cultures and people from different cultures. I really hope my two can hold on to these things as they grow up.


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