Sunday, April 15, 2007

TCKs--Third Culture Kids

Several years ago, David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken wrote a seminal book called Third Culture Kids. It describes and offers wonderful, practical, helpful advice to those who grew up in--or are now growing up in--a cross-cultural environment . . . and to the parents and others who associate with and may be able to influence these special people.

While in Iraq, I've had the opportunity to associate with some TCKs--and TCK parents.

I think of D. Born in Thailand of American parents. She lived four years in Thailand/one year in the U.S. all through her growing up years. When it came time for college, she headed off to Boston, then taught third grade for two years in an American school, and is now finishing a six-month term in northern Iraq.

"What do you plan to do when you leave Iraq?" I asked her.

"I look forward to going home to visit my parents for a few months," she said.

"Home?" I asked, unsure whether she was saying her parents happened to be in the U.S. at the moment or whether they were in Thailand.

"Thailand," she said. And then, more philosophically, "Home is . . . wherever I am or wherever I have been. Chengmai (Thailand) is home. Boston is home. Sulaimanya is now home. The house where I live is home. Our office is home. In fact, one time my colleagues laughed when I said, 'It's so good that our house is so close to our home'--meaning our house is so close to our office!"

After D, there was H. H is closer to my age. He was born in the U.S. of Southern Baptist missionary parents. After birth, however, he spent almost his entire life in Tel Aviv, Israel. That's where he grew up.

Now he lives in Beirut, glad for the fact that he wasn’t born in Israel. Otherwise he would be a hot target for the Hezbollah marauders in his area.

Of all the TCKs or close relatives, I spent the most time with M, a guy who grew up in the U.S., but went to Iraq in the early '90s. Since then, he and his family have lived in Iraq (3 years), Turkey (5 years), Germany (5 years), and the U.S. (2 years).

He said his son, now a sophomore in college, has had a hardest time adjusting to life in America. In fact, he seriously considered moving back to Germany. The American kids he bumped into just seemed so . . . narrow or . . . parochial or . . . unaware or something. . . .

"Give it time," counseled M. "This is your opportunity to help expand their worldview."

M's son illustrates the kinds of problems TCKs face and why Pollock and Van Reken wrote their book. Many years before Pollock and Van Reken wrote Third Culture Kids, several researchers had noticed and begun to write about the unique characteristics of children who grow up in countries and cultures that their parents don't call home.

If your parents have immigrated to the country where you live, you may face discrimination and the taunts of longer-term inhabitants. But you still know where you belong.

When your parents, however, keep talking about "home 'back in [the United States, Britain, South Africa, or wherever],'" then your identity is not so clear. You realize your "main" culture (where D spent four of every five years) isn't home; but when you go "home," that's not home, really, either. You don't quite "fit" the way the other kids do. Your interests are different. Your values, too. You look at the world differently.

So you're not a first-culture kid. You're not a second-culture kid. You're from a third culture. And strangely, noted the researchers, that "third culture" was similar for all kids no matter what they or their parents identified as their first and second cultures. Your parents are from Britain and you live in Papua New Guinea? You will find more in common with kids whose parents are from the United States and are spending most of their time in the Philippines than you will with either other Britons or natives of Papua New Guinea! --Same thing with the American kid growing up in the Philippines--he'll feel far more at ease with you than either other Americans or Filipinos. . . .
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