Why being a Third Culture Kid sucks (sometimes)

Why being a Third Culture Kid sucks (sometimes)An international lifestyle involves a balancing act between gains and losses. While Third Culture Kids reap the benefits of expat life — including exotic travel, linguistic competence, and cultural adaptability — these global nomads are also confronted with problems that are unique to the TCK experience.

TCKs ask “where do I belong?”
Immersion in multiple cultures throughout childhood fosters superb cross-cultural skills and an ability to effortlessly adjust to new situations. Unfortunately for some TCKs, these useful traits are acquired at the cost of getting to know their home culture — and in some cases, their native language. This cultural void becomes a problem when TCKs return to their passport country for home leave, and especially when they repatriate. In fact, one of the biggest problems facing TCKs is their nagging sense of rootlessness.

In the book Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds (which you should read immediately if you haven’t already done so), David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken write that “home connotes an emotional place — somewhere you truly belong.” Fifteen-year-old Bilal, a Pakistani TCK who has spent half his life in Dubai and Canada, couldn’t agree more. “It doesn’t matter where you’re living,” he told me. “If you’re with your family, you can call it home.”

Third Culture Kids wonder “who am I?”
The sensation of dread many TCKs experience when asked “where are you from?” stems from their impression that they’re growing up between cultures. While they do feel intensely connected to their host countries, they don’t necessarily feel they belong completely to any single culture.

The flip side of their amazing adaptability, according to Pollock and Van Reken, is their inability to switch off their cultural radar: consciously or not, they’re always checking to make sure their behaviour is culturally appropriate. “In the end,” write the authors, “TCKs may adopt so many personas as cultural chameleons that they don’t know who they really are.”

Searching for a place in the universe is part of the human condition. This particular crisis of identity, however, is especially widespread among Third Culture Kids and Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs). Erin, a 16-year-old Canadian who has lived in Europe and Asia, feels this keenly. “Every time you leave somewhere, you say goodbye to the person you could’ve been,” she explains. “No one knows every part of me, because I show a different side in every place I’ve lived.”

Not only are TCKs confused by what Van Reken and Pollock call “the value dissonances that occur in the cross-cultural experience,” but they’re often forced to deal with conflicting values within their own families. With their seemingly infinite capacity for adjusting to novel environments, children far outpace their parents when it comes to cultural integration.

Bilal’s experience with the clash of generations is familiar to many TCKs: “You move to this country and it’s completely different from the last place [you lived in]. You want to fit in, but as you adapt, your parents have trouble understanding you, because you’ve changed. So the closer you get to your friends, the further you move away from your parents.”

TCKs may have trouble making plans
It’s not unusual for TCKs to feel that their lives are beyond their control. “You’re left feeling utterly powerless about the direction your life is taking,” says Erin. The unpredictability and instability of expatriate life cause many Third Culture Kids to stop looking forward to upcoming events because the announcement of the next move may well upset all their plans. “I do find it hard to make lasting commitments,” Erin confesses. “Every plan I make for the future feels like a promise I’m going to break.”

Unresolved grief is common when TCKs move on
Leaving friends behind is never easy, even in a world where technology and social networking make staying in touch as simple as pointing and clicking. Leaving a beloved place is similarly wrenching. Yet grieving TCKs aren’t necessarily encouraged to express their sorrow. In the chaotic atmosphere of an international move, it may seem there isn’t time to properly deal with children’s emotions. Once in the new country, the process of acculturation takes up all available energy, and the heartache is once again pushed aside.

Children — even those as aware and communicative as TCKs — aren’t always able to articulate their grief. Sometimes they choose to suffer in silence because they recognize their parents are preoccupied with their own issues regarding the move. But often Third Culture Kids simply don’t grasp the fullness of their loss. It might be hard for children to understand that what they’re mourning is the unfulfilled potential of a life that’s no longer theirs.

Relocating every couple of years requires constantly dismantling and rebuilding entire lives. Yes, it sometimes sucks, and few TCKs emerge completely unscathed from the experience. But I’m more convinced than ever that their unique set of skills can make them leaders in our increasingly globalized world.

A longer version of this article appeared on Suite101.com on June 26, 2010 © Maria Foley.

About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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18 Responses to Why being a Third Culture Kid sucks (sometimes)

  1. Lyn says:

    This is hitting a chord today. I’m a TCK/ATCK who just hit 20 years total overseas child and adult – more if you include the years my folks (and home) were in four more countries after I left for uni. I have never lived in one place more than seven years. We have been in AU four years and were just told we are repatriating. I am thrilled because I long to get back to the same continent as my family but expressed to a friend last night that I feel like this hearty desire to ‘go home’ is somehow like losing my expat cred! I’m suddenly no better than that poor whiny woman we’ve all met who never adjusted and couldn’t wait to get back!

    I’d never have believed that one day I’d prefer to go to Houston TX than head off on a new adventure. Friends are incredulous that I’m happy to give up the travel, money, lifestyle but after years of the highs and lows of expat life, I want to be where I know the rules, don’t stand out for my looks or language, and can fade in to quiet, easy, normal anonymity! Truly feel that this is rooted in being a TCK. I’ve had enough. I envy the 20 years that friends have had in one place. I’m jealous of people who don’t hesitate when asked where they are from!

    I’m sure someone will be along to retrieve my official Battle Hardened Expat card directly 😉

    • Maria says:

      Some expats become lifers, while others throw in the towel at some point. I’ve often wondered how people decide that enough is enough. I think 20 years is impressive, and I can understand your longing for something more stable. But maybe that’s because I’ve never been a TCK. It will be interesting to see how you feel after several years back home!

  2. Lyn says:

    Right now my main thought is “Yay! No more international long haul flights or being frisked in the Moscow airport in transit!” 🙂

    As an aside – when my Dad retired after his decades as an international exec he was counting down how many flights he had to take for a year. As in “only 52 more trips and I’m retired”. When he got to the US the first thing he did was get his pilots license and buy a plane. I think he successfully met his goal to never get on a commercial flight again.

    He’s nearly 85 now and tells me he feels they stayed gone too long. The US was a foreign assignment by the time they got back and he never really felt ‘settled’ again. I’m sure their experience is coloring my perception as well. I really want to feel settled.

  3. Sine says:

    This is SO spot-on, Maria! It’s like you are writing about me and my kids specifically, but of course we are all in the same boat. Having just moved, everything is so vivid in my mind. I have four kids, and two of them cried and cried as we left, while the other two seemed to take it all in stride. And yet it is those two I worry about more than the first set. They (the ones who cried so much) already have several new best friends, after just a week. I chuckled as I had to give 6 boys a ride to rugby practice. The notion that my 8th grader already is friends with 5 boys was just hilarious to me. Doesn’t that illustrate the downsides and upsides of TCKs beautifully?

    Incidentally, I just asked him yesterday what he tells other kids who ask where he is from. I was just curious. He says he just answers with the last place he’s been, in this case South Africa. It’s easier that way, he says. Although usually that doesn’t stop the questioning. Then they want to know why he’s not black. Then they want to know where he was born (Asia). Then they want to know why he has an American accent. But not quite an American accent either.

    I loved the part in your article about wanting to fit in and becoming chameleons. You would think it’s the opposite. You would think kids who’ve been all over realize the benefit of cultural differences and that it’s okay to be different. But it’s like almost the opposite occurs. You’re desperate to fit in, and can change so easily that you sometimes don’t know who you really are anymore. I feel that way as an adult, so I can’t imagine how that must be for kids who are much less self-confident.

    Finally, I loved Erin’s comment of “Every time you leave somewhere, you say goodbye to the person you could’ve been.” What poetic language, and how true. I think I know whose kid she is:-)

    I’ve GOT to read that book! But where to find the time with all this moving?

    Ok, I’m done now, sorry for the ramble. I should have written my own blog post…

    • Maria says:

      Epic comment, Sine! I know all of it will make its way into a blog post once things settle down. I think the need to fit in comes from two places: first, we’re talking about teenagers here. They want to be unique, but not too unique. Second, and more to the point, a lot of kids think TCKs are bragging when they talk about their lives. Can you imagine the reaction your son would get if he dropped “that time I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro” into casual conversation? The first time it would be “wow, cool!” and then if he ever mentioned it again they’d think he was stuck up.

      Interesting comment about Erin. I’ve known her for oh, about 19 years now, and even I was surprised with her insights in this interview (most of which didn’t make it into the article due to space constraints.) I asked her afterwards if this was something she thought about a lot and she said “oh yeah.” TCKS, eh?

      Now go unpack another box and get yourself settled. 🙂

      • Sine says:

        Very good point about the bragging, that hadn’t occurred to me. But of course it’s true. I even remember that from being an exchange student. You realize how foreign and alien you sound when you really try to explain what it’s like elsewhere, so you tone it down and stick to what you have in common with everyone else. It’s bad enough you stick out, the last thing you want is to be labeled as a bragger. I absolutely HATED when they told me to “say something in German.”

      • Maria says:

        I hate it when they tell me to say “eh” or “about.”

  4. Marilyn says:

    Great post – I linked it to a post from last week that I had a fellow TCK friend write for me. It touches on the “bragging’ piece. http://communicatingacrossboundariesblog.com/2013/02/19/the-arrogance-of-the-third-culture-kid-part-one-in-a-two-part-post/ I love her analysis in part one: “One side of the story is arrogance. The other side is pain and fear.”

  5. jshewett says:

    I’ve been reading through various posts on your blog on this rainy Sunday morning and I’ve enjoyed them all. I’m not an ExPat…yet. I’m retired military, and that’s pretty close. I moved my kids all over the US, and they experienced many of the things you mentioned in this post without ever having to move abroad. The one thing that used to crack me up when they were younger was, whenever someone asked them where they were from they always replied with pride, “The Airport.” That was their way of saying “Air Force” and when asked today where they come from they still answer that they come from “The Air Force.”

    • Maria says:

      That’s adorable! I know lots of people who would probably answer the question “where do you live?” with “the airport.” Thanks so much for spending your rainy day with me.

  6. Matthew says:

    This article is very accurate. I feel the rift between parent and child, after the child leaves them for university, is more confusing then it seems. I can relate a lot to this and just wanted to show my gratitude for the writing with a comment.

  7. Mark says:

    Thanks for your article Maria, its finally good to see someone that writes an article that actually knows what they are talking about when it comes to what expat kids are thinking.

    I am an expat kid of 23 years (all but 3 years of my life at ‘home’ for part of elementary school, and the final 2 years of high school at a boarding school).

    I am so sick of people thinking that I have been raised as a ‘privileged’ child. I would trade everything to have been raised as many of my friends had been- and have a sense of connection and place that i know i will never have. Sure ive had some experiences my friends havent, but there isnt really any value in an experiences without people to share them with.
    A post-graduate now, i have what most would deem an excellent career and a very high paying job having fallen into the ‘Golden Handshake’ (expat life) myself.

    Now in my mid twenties, single, miserable, feeling very alone and near approaching (another) quarter life crisis which is going to involve having to rebuild my life yet again from the ground up. I have always felt this way, and find it hard to connect with anyone. Ive had several long term relationships, all ending directly (or indirectly) due to my inabilty to settle. Those friends that I had are settled at ‘home’ and now living happy lives with their girlfriends and families in blissful ignorance of all else outside of North America. Yet still, i am seen as the fortunate one- I would give everything to have been raised as a normal kid. My parents have a strong sense of base/home and dont understand.

    The grand question: Where are you from? In North America, that is a particular one to badge yourself as an instant social pariah should you say anything weird, and is usually an instant conversation ender. People think you are being pretentious. I learned that if i want to make friends i need keep it simple and choose the town i spent 1 year of elementary school in, and die a little on the inside. I wasnt raised watching sports teams which if you made it past the first round of generic social questioning this will usually be the second question, and again- another road block.

    I could rant for hours. Parents, dont assume your have done your children some massive favour in dragging them all over the world to fulfill you own career goals. You may aswell not have kids at all if you are going to do that, as its a fine line between a happy expat kid and a disaster later in life.

    • Maria says:

      It really is a fine line, and the problem is it’s not easy to figure out in advance which way it’s going to turn out. Have you checked out groups such as tckid or TCK World? There are lots of communities for Adult Third Culture Kids out there — sometimes just talking to someone who gets it can help you start to heal.

  8. Tanya says:

    Reading this almost made me cry because you said it perfectly. I connect well with other MKs, no matter the age or country, but these issue discussed in the article are just things we know and have in common but don’t ever talk about. I have never had to put these feelings and thoughts and problems into actual words and it was incredible to read this and realize that there are people who understand! I’m 17 and about to go to college in the US, a country I have never lived in, and I’ve been facing a lot lately. This article just made me feel like I wasn’t so alone anymore and that somehow things would work out because they worked out for others just like me. I just wish I could get more people to read this because it gives some deep insight into MKs and TCKs:) Thank you so much for posting this!

  9. K says:

    Also, don’t forget the TCKs who were of minority nationalities in their International schools and had to eat lunch with 5 Korean kids who speak only Korean among themselves day after day after day…. Even when you’re among kids who are supposedly like you, sometimes you’re still too different. And in such a tiny tiny expat bubble too, (from which you can’t get out of if you don’t want to get kidnapped).

  10. Thank you for this great article!
    I’m a Swedish TCK who moved around quite a lot of my life. I didn’t move to my “home country” Sweden until I was 6 and only spent 6 years there. Then when I was 15 we moved back to Sweden. Yet, for some reason, I feel less at home now than I ever have before. I spend every day just wanting to go back “home”, but I don’t even know where home is.
    All my friends are either exchange students at the university or international students from the IB which I went to the first three years after my return to Sweden. Now at university I realized that I don’t fit in with the Swedish people, we think and act differently, and that can make everyday life feel quite lonely sometimes during class.
    I know I won’t end up staying here, I love traveling too much and I want to see the world. Yet due to the majority of my best friends being here, definitely not all of them, and most of my family, it’s actually quite hard to leave. So although I wish to go, I guess I’ve finally realized that home is where my family is.
    I’ll see where life brings me 😉

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