Today the Painting Pictures series officially launches with the wise and gracious and focusing words of Ruth E. Van Reken, co-author with David Pollock of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, Revised Edition. If you are a TCK, are raising a TCK, or grandparenting one, if you are in any way interested in TCKs, you need this book. You need to buy it because you’ll refer to it often over the years. She is also the author of Letters Never Sent and the co-founder of Families in Global Transition. I am thrilled that Ruth graciously agreed to participate and with the way her words set up the series.
Ruth grew up in Nigeria as a USA citizen with an American dad who was born and raised in Persia (now Iran), she raised her own children in Liberia and her first grandchild was born in Ghana.
She says, “This topic is obviously important to me. However, because the term itself often seems to lead to confusion, I thought it might be good to set a clear foundation on who and what we are or are not talking about to hopefully expedite the important discussions that will follow.”
Who are third culture kids?
In the late 1950s, Ruth Hill Useem, originator of the third culture kid term, simply called them “children who accompany parents into another culture.” While she did not specifically say so, all those she originally studied were in another culture due to a parent’s career choice, not as immigrants or refugees. Dave Pollock later defined TCKs as those who have “spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture(s).” He then went on to describe them by adding “Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.”
This descriptive phrase seems to be part of where some confusion rests. It is absolutely true that any given TCK or by now adult TCK (ATCK) often personally incorporates various aspects of his or her life experiences into a personal world view, food preferences, or cultural expectations. That’s why many TCKs and ATCKs relate to the metaphor of “being green” that Whitni Thomas describes in her lovely poem “Colors.” There she writes how she feels both yellow and blue in her different worlds but wishes there was a place to “just be green.” Ironically, many TCKs do feel “green” when with others of like experience, as Pollock describes. This is where they don’t have to explain this desire to be both/and rather than being forced to choose an either/or identity. Other TCKs easily understand because many feel the same way, no matter which country their passport says is “home” or which countries they have lived in. But putting various pieces of different cultures together is not the third culture itself, although it is a very common (and wrong) way many describe it.
What is the “third culture”?
If the third culture isn’t a mixing and matching of various cultural pieces, what is it? Another common misconception is that somehow it means something related to the “third world.” Or that it measures the number of countries or cultures someone has lived in. Many have said to me, “Well, I must be a third, fourth, or even fifth culture kid because I’ve lived in…” and they list the extraordinary number of places they have lived or the cultural complexities within their family structure.
Perhaps having a simple definition of the original concept of the third culture itself would be helpful. A starting point is remembering that culture is something shared, not an individualistic experience. So how does that relate? Easily! In the late 1950s, two social scientists from Michigan State University, Drs. John and Ruth Hill Useem, originally defined the third culture as a way of life shared by those who were internationally mobile because of their career such as international business, military, foreign service, or missionary work. The Useems noted those we now call “expatriates” had left the country their passport declared as “home” (the first culture) and moved to host country (the second culture). They noted that this community formed a way of life that was common to them but was unlike either the way they would have lived in their home cultures or how the locals were living in this host land. They called this an ‘interstitial” or third culture. Those who lived in this community may not have shared nationalities or ultimately, the same host cultures but there is much they share. Then, as now, all who live this globally mobile lifestyle for reasons related to career choices live in a world of truly cross-cultural interactions. Entire worlds and cultural mores and expectations can change overnight with one airplane ride. High mobility – personal and within the community – is the name of the game. There is some level of expected repatriation as compared to a true immigrant who plans to stay. Often there is a strong sense of identity with the sponsoring organization. In time, Dr. Ruth Hill Useem because particularly fascinated with studying the children who grew up in this particular cultural milieu and named them third culture kids or TCKs.
So why do these distinctions make a difference to anyone but a high powered academician? Because it helps us normalize the results of a globally mobile experience for all. In particular, if we understand the difference between the TCK and the third culture itself, we can see more clearly how and why the typical characteristics of the TCK profile emerge. They do not form in a vacuum. For example, if TCKs are chronically negotiating various cultural worlds in their formative years, no wonder they often become cultural bridges in later life and careers. Interacting with others from various cultures and world views hopefully develops an understanding that there are reasons and values behind how others live and hopefully helps TCKs and ATCKs clarify the reasons they hold the values and practices they do.
On the other hand, if the normal process of identity development occurs in conjunction with how our community sees and defines us as well as our inner perceptions, we can understand why frequent changes of our cultural mirrors can complicate the process of defining “who am I, anyway?” If relationships and the normal attachments that come with them are chronically disrupted by high mobility, no wonder there are often issues of loss and grief to attend to. We can also understand the isolation some TCKs ultimately feel as it seems pointless to start one more relationship if it will only end in another separation.
Better yet, once we have understood the “why” of our common characteristics, we can figure out the “what” we need to do to help deal effectively with the challenges so the many gifts of this experience are being maximized. And then we have to see how we will do those things. That’s the stage we are at now. I call it TCK Phase 2. All over the place, new books are coming out telling us how to do better school transition programs, how therapists can work more effectively with this population, how parents and educators can work well with adolescents TCKs. I’m sure you will be hearing from many of these emerging experts in the coming blogs.
Personally, however, the reason I feel so passionately about keeping our terms clear is so that as we understand the “why” of the TCK story, we can begin to apply some of these insights and lessons learned to others in our globalizing world who are also living and growing up cross-culturally and with high mobility for countless reasons now than simply a parent’s career choice. But I’ll save those thoughts for another blog when I can hopefully share how lessons learned in the TCK experience relate to other cross-cultural kid (CCK) childhoods as well.
How does this important understanding of TCKs will help you?
Ruth’s desire, and mine, for this series, is “the normalizing of experiences and then the empowering of TCKs and ATCKs to live life to the fullest potential.” Follow Ruth on Facebook and keep up-to-date on her writing, speaking, and other offerings of wisdom on her blog Cross Cultural Kids.
Letters Never Sent, a global nomad’s journey from hurt to healing updated, 2012, by Summertime Publishing