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Third Culture Kids

by Keirsten Clark 1 Nov 2011
Third Culture Kids

A passport country, a residing country and a third culture for the kids who identify more readily with others in similar circumstances.

‘The children who accompany their parents into another society’ - Ruth Hill 1950s.

‘A person who has spent a significant part of [their] developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The Third Culture Kid (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 TCKs life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of a similar background.’ David C Pollock 1999, Third Culture Kids: Growing up Among Worlds.

The very definition of a Third Culture Kid implies that there are many issues surrounding a child in this situation, however, although there are many facets to being a Third Culture Kid, they are both positive and negative, Brian Brewster, Head of Dalat International School (DIS) and himself a TCK believes that the positives must not be overlooked.

“Frankly, once you have lived overseas, for better or for worse, it will shape you for the rest of your life. Parents play a huge role in making the transition a positive or negative experience for their own kids since parents will set the tone for the whole family. This is especially true for younger kids. TCKs as a group tend to have a little bit of wanderlust and a desire to move every few years rather than putting down deep roots in one location, even as adults.

“I think the positives far outweigh the negatives and would prefer that my own kids be TCKs. Statistics show that TCKs tend to be better educated, earn more advanced degrees, have lower divorce rates, adapt better to other cultures, and are more welcoming of others from different cultures. But besides the statistics, talking to a TCK can be a rewarding experience as they have unique perspectives on world events, politics and can often talk far more intelligently than their mono-cultural counterparts about a whole range of topics.”

As with any children starting new schools and moving to new areas, there will be challenges in settling and making friends and this is a challenge shared by TCKs and children who have not lived overseas. The additional challenge that the TCK faces, which sets them aside from the others is one with more of a cultural implication as Brian Brewster explains.

“The [other] challenge comes when they are faced with adapting to people who have not had the exposure to other cultures that they have. For example, they may have grandparents who don’t understand why their grandchild does not show respect in a way that they feel is proper (the kid may not know what is proper). It may be as simple as the frustration that they feel talking to people who don’t care about anything outside of their small town when the Third Culture Kids has such a broad perspective. Or it may be as big as a lifelong feeling that they just don’t really fit in well with any particular culture group.”

Brian’s own experience and understanding of the perspectives of Third Culture Kids is important in his role at Dalat. “However, Brian points out, it is important not to over-generalise. As with most (all) stereotypes, there are exceptions to the rule. As educators and parents we need to treat each kid as an individual and recognise that each one will face their own obstacles to adapting well. Since almost all of our teachers are expats themselves, they know the issues that transition creates and are able to help students adapt well to our school.

“At DIS we work hard to help kids with the move into our school as well as the transition when they leave. This may be the easy transition however since every other kid understands what they are going through and TCKs tend to be friendly and welcoming.

“Our senior class takes time each year in a special ‘Transition Retreat’ where teachers and counseling staff help prepare students for their transition away from our school. This may be a much harder transition. Part of the retreat is preparing them for the cultural shift they will face, but some of it is also preparing them for the sense of isolation they may feel when not surrounded by students who are also TCKs.

We want them to ‘leave well’, both by saying appropriate goodbyes but also being prepared for what they face transitioning back to another culture.

“Being in an international school is a vibrant and enriching experience for kids. They are surrounded by other students who are academically motivated and welcoming. The hard part may be in transitioning to a much more homogenous culture. But I think the vast majority of TCKs will tell you they are richer for the experience of having lived overseas.”

Sam, a Grade 10 student at DIS, was born in Bangkok, a US citizen, and has lived in Asia for most of his life. “[From being a TCK] I feel that I got a whole different view of the world. Having Asian friends has helped me see the world through their eyes and understand their culture better.”

It isn’t only the introduction to differing cultures that Sam has benefitted from, but also from understanding others in similar situations to him and as David Pollock had originally stated, being able to relate to those people much more easily creating a sense of belonging to this ‘third culture’, “I travel around a lot and I have had to switch schools numerous times, so I know what it’s like to be a ‘new kid’ in a school. So, I try to be friends with the new kids too.”

Sam has had his fair share of experiences and this he feels is the hardest for people to relate to who are from a mono-cultural background. Explaining this and his background can be an eye opener for some other students, “some of the reactions I get from people are quite funny. For example, when I was back home a couple of years ago I told another kid I had grown up in another country, he looked at me and laughed and said, ‘If you grew up in a different country you wouldn’t know how to speak English!’ I was deeply surprised by this because I had never heard that before.”

Paul Chmelik Head of ISKL believes that questions such as ‘Where am I from?, ‘Where do I belong?’ ‘What do I say when people ask where I am from?’ may put the child in a ‘limbo’ situation of sorts. “There are many [TCKs] who are literally not in their home country for their entire life so I think for kids to recognise that there may indeed be certain frustrations or questions that simply evolve from who they are, that’s a very important thing, to embrace it, that would be important to read about and ask questions and understand.

“For the most part these days being viewed as an international citizen, or global citizen, and person of the world, largely can be a positive thing, especially in the direction the world is taking in terms of communications and connection with other societies that we just didn’t have frankly even a decade ago. So, on the one hand I think that it takes a little bit of the uniqueness away.”

By taking some of the uniqueness away through the media and the increased exposure that we have to different cultures, countries and backgrounds, the idea of a Third Culture Kid certainly seems to be moving away from something that is seen as being unusual in a negative way and for the Third Culture Kids themselves to start to give them a very positive sense of the modern world, being accepting of different cultures when they are faced with them.

As Paul points out, a part of being a Third Culture Kid is about being flexible and adaptable. ‘They do travel and they are expected to adapt to different circumstances, different places, different countries, they become relatively adaptable people who are used to change, know what it takes to make friends, realise that they have to jump in and get engaged in different activities and so on if they are going to have a life, have a social life and be friends with people.

“You are never going to get past the personality, for example, if one is gregarious by nature and they are outgoing, it is likely that they will be those things wherever they are, if they are shy, then they will be shy when they meet people, although I guess we hope that this kind of experience will help the shy child and over time they will learn that ‘oh gosh, if I want to make friends, I have to jump in and find a way to get involved’ and they come out a bit.”

Something that ISKL has just started this year, is a pilot programme called ‘My Group’. This is where the kids will meet with their teacher before going to their regular classes, a touch point that can lead on to longer sessions, but where the kids can discuss a variety of topics. Paul sees one of these topics as being a Third Culture Kid and coping with transitions.

A majority of international families, Paul points out, do hope that one day their children will return to the country of origin of the parents.

Similarly to Brian Brewster, Paul feels that once the child leaves school and transitions back to their passport country this is an area where there is potential for problems. “If they have this travelling kind of life and they leave school and they go back to their passport country, and maybe they have never been back other than to visit for a few weeks, they will sometimes find it difficult because they don’t have a lot in common, so they look out international type students when they go to college and they find some comfort there.”

For parents it seems, the most important thing is to be aware that there may be some issues surrounding the Third Culture Kids’ adjustment but understanding and embracing look to be a good step towards a solution for this, along with communication and talking.
 

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