There are many advantages to a TCK upbringing. Third Culture Kids develop valuable skills, including multilingualism, open-mindednessand adaptability.
US President Barack Obama, who lived in Indonesia as a boy, shone a spotlight on Third Culture Kids during his election campaign. His intercultural childhood instilled in him the aptitude for cultural sensitivity and cautious deliberation that gratifies his supporters and makes his detractors tear their hair out.
Adult Third Culture Kid (ATCK) Norma McCaig, author of “Growing Up with a World View,” writes that “in an era when global vision is imperative, where skills in intercultural communication, linguistic ability, mediation, diplomacy, and the ability to manage diversity are critical, global nomads are probably better equipped than others.” Obama and other successful ATCKs embody the positive aspects of growing up in a foreign environment.
TCKs are highly adaptive
Because they must master a new set of behavioural norms every time they move to a new country, TCKs are keen observers of human nature. Since they understand that there’s a reason driving every attitude and behaviour – no matter how strange it may seem – they tend to be accepting of different perspectives.
Their mobile lifestyle turns them into what Ruth Van Reken and David Pollock call “cultural chameleons.” The authors of Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, write that TCKs easily adapt to new situations. They often take a “fake it till you make it” approach to learning the appropriate ways to act in a new environment. They’re successful at fitting in because they’re able to quickly internalize many of the core values that drive behaviour in that culture.
TCKs cross cultures with ease
The adaptability of Third Culture Kids, combined with their knowledge of other cultures, gives rise to excellent interpersonal and intercultural skills. They are natural mediators whose multi-faceted outlook on the world enables them to span cultural divides.
Most Third Culture Kids learn enough of the local language to get by, and a large percentage go on to become fluent. Fifteen-year-old Bilal, like many TCKs, is multilingual. He’s spent the past nine years on the move, living in Dubai and Canada, with a brief return to his native Pakistan. Despite the numerous benefits of speaking several languages, for Bilal it boils down to one simple fact: “The more languages I know, the more people I can talk to.”
TCKs are generally social creatures. They enjoy meeting new people and tend to quickly move friendships beyond the acquaintance stage. Bilal’s girlfriend Erin, a Canadian repatriate who grew up in Singapore and France, says “I make friends a lot faster – if it’s your first day in an entirely new school, you can’t afford be shy.”
TCKs keep their minds open
Third Culture Kids often experience life at the extremes. It’s not uncommon for TCKs to exchange an unremarkable middle-class lifestyle for a sojourn in a developing country lacking basic amenities. Or for that assignment to be followed by one in a major cosmopolitan city, where they’re chauffeured to private school and live in a gated community.
Being raised in a foreign culture brings them into contact with vastly diverse values, attitudes, behaviours, and expectations. The happy outcome of this exposure is an expanded worldview. “It really opened my eyes,” says Erin, 16, of her expatriate experience. “It made the world feel like a smaller place, but in a good way.”
Expat life affects everyone differently, and some TCKs become more insular and xenophobic after moving abroad. The majority, however, develop into inclusive and open-minded global citizens. “If you have multicultural friends, it’s less likely you’ll be prejudiced,” says Bilal. “You can’t afford to be prejudiced when you’re the only white kid in the class,” laughs Erin. “There’s no room for it in an international school; it’s not tolerated by the kids.”
TCKs live in the moment
When life is unpredictable – as it often is for TCKs, who never know when they’ll be told a new assignment is on the horizon – everyday living takes on a sense of urgency. Many global nomads focus on the here and now, and try to savour each experience as it unfolds. “You have to live in the moment, because it might not last,” Bilal agrees. “I appreciate every day because I don’t know how long I’ll be here.”
For better or worse, President Obama’s overseas childhood helped shape the man he became. He’s not alone in getting mixed reviews as a result. There’s no denying the negative side of TCK life, but growing up as a third culture kid is also deeply rewarding. “I loved it, and I’m so grateful for the experience,” Erin says simply. “It absolutely enriched my life.”