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As old as the hills

Along with globalisation has come greater mobility,  with millions of people crossing borders annually to work or migrate. They adapt new languages and customs but bring with them cultural influences from where they were raised. When children live overseas during their formative years in a country other than their own, they are tagged with a new label – “Third Culture Kids” (TCKs). While this is a fairly recent sociological term, TCKs have been around since Moses. By definition a TCK is any child who spends a significant amount of his/her life in a country other than that of his parents’ citizenship, so not his/her own culture thereby creating a third culture. This definition could easily apply to such greats as Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun and other notables in history.

Does the cap fit?

“Global Nomad” is another term coined for describing those who have lived overseas for a significant part of their childhoods and who don’t identify totally with any one culture or nationality but feel some sense of belonging to several. Children from military and diplomatic families, some of whom have moved so many times they can’t remember how many schools they have attended, are often cited as examples. When children move between countries, they become chameleons; they learn to fit in and conform to the behaviour expectations where they are living; when they move, they have to adjust and learn new values and behaviours and sometimes feel that they never totally fit in any place.               

While it is said that children adjust to their environment better than adults, it is none the less important to address the issue of becoming a member of this elite group of people who are constantly living as global nomads in someone else’s country.               

Much of a child’s personality and behaviour patterns are developed as a direct result of his/her family and social relationships. Included in these socialisation processes are influences from members of the extended family such as grandparents. For a TCK, this influence is minimal, if any. Grandma, grandpa and the rest of the tribe become abstract figures that write or e-mail back and forth or send occasional presents. To substitute for their absence overseas, many expatriates create an artificial extended family. Within the local overseas community, there are many subcultures consisting of potential grandparents, aunts and uncles who can become significant and positive influences in a child’s life and offer parental support.               

How to spot a TCK

Exactly what does a TCK look like? Most TCKs are normal, average children who walk upright, display good manners and who blend nicely into their surroundings. Because school is the primary social centre for TCKs, each respective national/ethnic group will gravitate toward their compatriots. While most TCKs have their own private cultural group, most have a healthy relationship with members of other nationalities, cultures and races. In international groups, the level of tolerance is generally quite high. You will find your kids wanting to sleepover at a friend’s house from the other end of the social/political scale for example.               

Although TCKs develop many strong skills such as linguistic talents, confidence, self-reliance and adaptability, they can also feel a sense of rootlessness and a lack of identity without a permanent place to call “home.” As adults, some may wonder where they really belong, and restlessness manifests itself with an urge for frequent change when it comes to jobs and relationships. They acquire another label: adult third culture kids (ATCKs). Many go on to succeed in life and become high achievers having successfully navigated their way through the quagmire of conflicting lifestyles and cultures, come to grips with inherent losses of relationships, and created a positive sense of identity. Others continue to struggle.

Home is where the heart is...

Returning home: Upon returning to their home country, TCKs can be disoriented in many respects. During their time overseas, they have developed an idealised picture of “home.” Too, their feelings about extended family members are distorted because of distance. Their sense of patriotism is usually much stronger than their home country counterparts, due in part to having to “defend their flag” when it comes under attack from others. Their concept of normalcy in their home country is often distorted because of infrequent and brief visits where they are treated like visiting celebrities.                   

However, friends and family at home often don’t understand what the returning child is talking about and cannot relate to his overseas experiences. Returning permanently “home” is like being in a foreign country all over again and there is usually a period of mourning for the last location. To children who are used to being in multicultural environments where so many different people have their own unique beliefs, attitudes and experiences, homogeneous groups can be a shock to the system.            

So long, farewell... 

While there are problems related to TCKs, with the right support, they do survive and usually thrive. Within the expatriate community abroad, where children will experience a high turnover of friends, it is important to encourage them to be part of a group rather than become joined at the hip to one individual. When friends leave, make a point of having your children express appropriate farewells and encourage them to keep in contact. Discuss any feelings of grief they have at parting and help them express it. Friends from past postings are important as they have shared memories and experiences, and they help validate the TCK experience.               

As adults, many TCKs put their skills and experience to good use and if they don’t become expatriates themselves, may even put down roots in one place that they never want to leave again.


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