Frederic Braun, a Third Culture Kid
Frederic Braun, a Third Culture Kid

The term “Third Culture Kids (TKCs)” or “global nomads” describes children who spend a significant amount of their developmental years in a foreign country (or several foreign countries), and as a result integrate “elements of those cultures and their own birth culture into a third culture”.1 The term was first coined in the fifties by the sociologist Ruth Hill Useem, after spending several years in India with her three children.

In Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, Pollock and Van Reken claim that “the TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. 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.”2

The experience of growing up in a range of cultures brings with it a variety of aspects, both positive and negative. Beginning with the obvious, Third Culture Kids tend to be multilingual and are used to an intercultural lifestyle. Moving from country to country becomes routine and is usually accomplished with ease. Third Culture Kids tend to grow up within a globalized culture (a blend of various cultures), marked by well-traveled parents and friends, international schools and vast future opportunities. For instance, statistics show that 40 percent of Third Culture Kids earn an advanced degree (compared to 5 percent of the non-TCK population) and 45 percent of TCKs attended three universities before earning said degree.3

However, the nomad lifestyle is not only accompanied by advantages. Eva Matussek, daughter of the current German Ambassador to the United Nations in New York, is no stranger to the Third Culture Kids lifestyle herself. Having lived in London, New Delhi, Washington, D.C. and Lisbon (just to name a few), Matussek has experienced all the ups and downs of continuous upheaval. She has recently received her MSc in Counselling Psychology at the University of East London and has completed her dissertation, titled Attachment and Mental Health in Adult Third Culture Kids. Matussek writes,

TCKs differ from adults who move on a regular basis as most of their relocation takes place from the age of 0 to 18, when their sense of identity, relationships and their view of self, others and the world is formed. As their entire surroundings and social circle can literally change overnight, TCKs often feel chronically uprooted and are confronted with much more experience of loss than the average person. Non-TCKs also experience losses but their surroundings remain intact during their developmental years.4

This perfectly summarizes the dilemma some Third Culture Kids have to face as a result of their ever-changing surroundings: a loss of security due to a lack of roots and the absence of one single hometown.

While Third Culture Kids are privy to opportunities most Non-TCKs are not, many – at some point in their lives – face a sort of identity crisis. The simple question, “Where are you from?”  to a TKC can sound like a sphinx-like riddle. Statistics show that TCKs often come from successful, educated and intact families5 who typically try to make the transition between homes as seamless as possible for their children. Even so, many TCKs feel that while they are familiar with various aspects of several cultures, they have never experienced one single culture to the fullest extent.

Because of this lack of a single home environment, TCKs tend to place a larger emphasis on interpersonal relationships. Pollock and Van Reken argue that “because TCKs often cope with high mobility by defining their sense of rootedness in terms of relationships rather than geography, many TCKs will go to greater lengths than some people might consider normal to nurture relational ties with others.”

Typically, children of highly mobile families attend international schools where they interact with other TCKs. These social networks are often formed on the basis of a common upbringing and understanding of what it means to be a “global nomad”. In her weblog Countries Beginning with I: Living in Italy, and Elsewhere, self-proclaimed TCK Deirdré Straughan explains,

As outsiders in every culture, we TCKs see things with a more objective eye than insiders who are familiar only with their own culture. This doesn’t mean that we despise every culture we encounter, or have nothing but criticism to offer. But it’s common for a TCK to think: “In country X they do this differently, and it seems to have certain advantages. Why couldn’t it be done that way here?” 7

Deirdré Straughan makes a valid point – this distance and objectivity acquired through travel is another factor serving as “glue” when TCK friendships are formed. More often than not, the occasional criticism, inevitably resulting from a somewhat unattached position, is unappreciated by the country-in-question’s inhabitants. While it is true that TCKs tend to have little patience for a romanticized view of one’s “home country”, they also tend to criticize their own “home” culture more than any other.

Even though this nomad lifestyle has its fair share of previously mentioned downsides, the majority of TCKs adapt to the fast-paced, ever-changing backdrop and, ultimately, are grateful for the opportunities available to them.

As I am about to enter my third year of studies at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, I find myself looking back on the different chapters of my life. I was born in Lebanon in 1986, a time when the Lebanese Civil War was once again flaring up. At the time, my dad worked at the German embassy in Beirut, though not for much longer. According to my parents, we could consider ourselves lucky that we even made it to the airport unharmed.

Next stop: London – I don’t remember much of England, seeing as I was baby and we didn’t stay long before moving to Bonn, which served as the capital of Germany until the reunification. In 1989, my sister was born and in 1991 my sister, my parents and I moved from Germany to Burundi, a small country in Eastern Africa. My memory of the time in Burundi is very fragmented – I remember learning how to speak French, I remember the geckos on the ceilings and the occasional poisonous snake that had to be removed from the house, I remember our cook, Atanas, who would always let me lick the whisk after preparing dessert, and I also remember my mom lying in bed with malaria. Thankfully she fully recovered, and in 1992 we moved back to Bonn where we lived for six years. During this time, my other sister was born.

In 1998, it was time to say goodbye to Germany and fly across the Atlantic – our new home would be Potomac, Maryland, about 20 minutes outside of Washington, D.C. While the transition this time wasn’t easy for me (I missed my friends back in Germany), I quickly fell in love with our new home. It wasn’t difficult getting used to the beautiful neighborhood, the friendly people, the great weather. I loved everything about this new life, and I soon considered myself to be more of an American than anything else. In retrospect, the time we spent in the States provided me with the richest and most vivid memories – it’s possible that this has something to do with my age at the time. Washington was, more or less, where I grew up.

In 2002, another chapter was coming to an end and it was time to move back to Germany; this time to Berlin, the ‘new’ capital of Germany. After having gotten used to the quiet, comfortable life in the suburbs, the transfer to a big, loud, often unfriendly city resulted in culture shock. The fact that I attended the German-American John-F-Kennedy School and was surrounded by many other TCKs in a similar position softened the blow considerably. Also, it seemed everyone was somehow interconnected. Suddenly, I’d run into people that used to live 2 doors down from us in a “past life”, and their friends knew someone else close to me, and so on. Eventually, familiarity set in and Berlin became my new home. This move to Berlin would be the last one we took on as a family – the next one I would tackle myself.

In 2006, wanting to explore new horizons, I began studying Psychology as a “first year” in Aberdeen, Scotland. I have now completed the first half of my undergraduate studies in Aberdeen and am looking forward to the second half. However, even now, I already know that after having received my BSc at the University of Aberdeen, I will want to find a new corner of the world to begin writing a new chapter of my life.

Transitioning isn’t always easy, as any TCK will tell you, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything else in the world.


http://www.state.gov/documents/ organization/2065.pdf

2  Pollock, D., Van Reken, R. (2001). Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds.

http://www.tckworld.com/useem/art5.html

4  Eva Matussek, “Attachment and Mental Health in Adult Third Culture Kids” (MSc dissertation, University of East London)

5  Ender, M.G. (2002). Military Brats and Other Global Nomads. Praeger Publishers.

6  Pollock, D., Van Reken, R. (2001). Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds.

http://www.beginningwithi.com

Image Credits: “Third Culture Kids” – http://books.google.com

“Passport”, “Brandenburg Gate” – http://commons.wikimedia.org

 

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