When my own twin kids left home 2 ⅟2 years ago, I was of course not sure whether they were ready to face the challenges away from their protected little world, which was greatly defined by their school and family. Today, I know they have both managed the transition well in their own way.
Recently, my daughter came to Holland together with two other international students from Bristol University for the Families in Global Transition (FiGT) conference to introduce their Third Culture Kid Society—a society at their university that addresses the needs of kids with a similar background. The goals are to provide a community, expand the group to other universities, work towards accepting their diverse identity and, rather than “assimilating” in a culture, to simply come together and get to know one another.
Third Culture Kids (TCK) is a term that describes people who spend a substantial part of their formative years in cultures different from the one of their passport or parents’ home country. It applies to a substantial number of international-school students.
During the stay of my daughter and her friends, I had the opportunity to observe a new generation of TCKs. Something that all three students shared, despite their completely different roots and upbringing, was an awareness of their situation, being very realistic about its benefits, but also their struggles.
Although they do not feel completely comfortable with the label TCK, they use the term TCK because of lack of a better one to describe their very unique experience. As one of the girls mentioned, the focus on labelling them as TCKs during school felt uncomfortable and elitist to her; she was dismissive towards this term and at the beginning also towards the Third Culture Kid Society.
What is common among Daria (born to a Polish mother and Lebanese father, growing up in Kuwait and attending the international school there), Charlotte (born to a Thai mother and English father, growing up in Thailand and attending the international school there) and Anna (born to Greek parents, growing up in Holland and attending the American school in The Hague)? The answer is that when they meet and introduce themselves, they do not need much to explain to each other.
Since Ruth van Reken and David Pollock published their book “Third Culture Kids: Growing up Among Worlds,” a lot has changed for this group of kids. Schools have picked up the subject and have raised awareness among parents, teachers and students. I personally have benefited from such a program at the American School of The Hague, where I have learned to better understand my own expatriate experience. I studied in Germany, and one of my struggles was that I suppressed many aspects of my personality in order to fit in. Thanks to the transition program of the international school, my daughter did not need to hide herself; on the contrary, she was able to go out there together with her friends, create a place for them and others in a similar situation, without getting isolated from their environment. This shows the self-confidence of this generation TCKs.
During breakfast time (in the aftermath of the conference), I wanted to explore how they view their future. I was wondering, if they had the choice, would they choose to move around the world or to settle down?
All three of them seem to consider some moving around because of feelings of restlessness, exploring themselves and the world, as well as work opportunities. Yet in the end, they would like to settle down.
Most telling of how they feel about their situation was when I surprised them with a direct question: do you like being a TCK? The silence that followed showed how emotional they became. Their answers revealed their dilemma: appreciation of the opportunities they have had and a longing for a place to put down their own roots.
Being TCK you have an inherit open-mindedness to go out, see, do things rather than assume things. It is a privilege because we can get exposure to the world around us and be adaptable. What I don’t like about being TCK is the sense of “Who am I?” It is difficult to connect with people that have no idea of what TCK is.
A TCK can be a lot more open to arguments, cultures, differences, looking critically and objectively at how people deal with their emotions. There is a feeling of not fitting in, which can bring anxiety. No country feels completely like home, which is fine, yet confusing, since Western values are very different from the Eastern culture.
We can empathize with everyone in different environments. Nevertheless I have felt completely alienated and left out in certain situations.
I am sharing this experience without the intention to give specific advice on how to help your child to manage the next step after graduation. I just wanted to document my experience because in the face of those three girls I saw a very promising future for the next generation of TCKs. The progress of the last decades in raising awareness among parents, students and teachers starts meeting the needs of the coming generations. They seem to be better equipped with self-confidence and resilience to manage their experiences in different cultures. This does not mean that individual students won’t experience difficulties in managing their process of change. However, imagine if more and more of these kinds of initiatives were developing among students themselves, how much they would be benefited.
My last thought however was that it will remain an individual challenge: how to resolve the dilemma of embracing change and creating a feeling of belonging.