It's a World of TCKs

Features Issue 95 Jul, 2010
Text by Amendra Pokharel / Photo: ECS Media

Miranda, 12, speaks fluent Nepali and she’ll tell you that one of her best childhood memories is the elephant bathing and jungle safari she did in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park. Nothing startling, except, that she is an American living in another culture and speaking Nepali like a native. Ask her who her best friends are and she says “we are four, each one from a totally different continent!’ No, she is not talking about her e-mail acquaintances. These friends all go to the same international school in Kathmandu. “My grandfather calls us ‘four corners of the world’,” she says.

The stories of her other friends in the school who, according to Miranda, come from some 40 different countries would be no different. Though they are from different countries and belong to totally different cultures, they get along with each other better than they would with the children from their native culture.

Bound up with kids from so many cultures, away from their home society in a culture they can vaguely claim to be their own, these children view the world from a very different perspective and create a new sub-culture. They are known to educationists as ‘Third Culture Kids’ or TCKs.

For most TCKs home is where they go, not where their heart is, for they feel at home everywhere. “I have lived in so many places that I feel like I am from everywhere,” says Miranda.

Growing up in a truly cross-cultural world and high mobility are two key aspects of becoming a Third Culture Kid.

Travelling around the world and living in different cultures is both adventurous and fascinating at the same time, but only as far as you do it as a tourist. A third culture family, however, has to assimilate into this new culture not just by observing it, but by being a part of it, living it, all the while knowing that they have to move on again. Though a TC family does not enter a new culture with a plan to stay in it forever like immigrants, they spend significant number of years abroad, sometime spanning decades.
And they have to be prepared.

The extended stay necessitates a transition, sometimes so full of ordeals that it takes the steam out of the fun. Then, all that a TC family worries about is how to stay as one.

The most vulnerable in a TC family situation are the children, those TC ‘Kids’.

The riddle of identity and relationship
A teacher who works at an international school in Nepal says that some of her American students like to call themselves Nepali. Heather, an American married to a Swiss, adopted two Nepali children. The family lived in Geneva for some time and now in Nepal. “When you ask my kids what they are, they usually say Swiss, and sometimes Nepali,” says Heather, with a confused laugh.

Funny as it may sound with the kids, the riddle of one’s identity and relationships becomes a pain in the neck for many adolescents TCK.

As their children grow up, most TCK parents, more so from the developed Western countries, begin to worry about the education and career prospects of their children. Lower education standards, perceived or real, and less opportunity forces them to repatriate or pack their kids off to the home country for a good number of years. No matter how long they live on foreign soil, the parents of TCKs and at some point the kids themselves typically want to go back ‘home’.

And that’s when the problems begin. Matters are further complicated if that urge to repatriate surfaces when the kids have already become ATCKs, that is, Adolescent Third Culture Kids.

The experts say that TCKs have more trouble re-entering home culture than entering a foreign culture. TCKs build relationships with children of all cultures, but they do not have full ownership of any. Their experiences among different cultures and various relationships make it difficult for them to have in-depth communication with those who have not experienced similar conditions.

“When you talk about your experiences with the kids from the home culture, who have never set foot outside the country, they give you an awkward look and say something funny about you. In the end it is likely that you will be singled out and picked on by other kids in the class,” says one TCK who vividly remembers ‘going home’ after living abroad for several years.

But the difference is not just limited to what you have seen and done. Often TCKs, more so as ATCKs, find that their values and ideals are in conflict with the kids back home.

Even after he has lived in the US for more than 10 years since his repatriation from Nepal, one former TCK still feels like he is in the back seat of someone else’s car. “Though now I am the driver it is still not my car,” he says , explaining that he uses this figure of speech to represent the feeling of not quite fitting in. “Even today having found a home and my place, I do not watch American TV shows or ridiculous sports or engage in conversations about nothing-ness,” he says. “One could say that is because I must have missed them growing up abroad, but – did I?”

A female TCK who graduated from Lincoln School just over a decade ago had, likewise, spent many years in Nepal as a child and then as an adult when she came here again to work on development projects, after finishing her college in the US. One of the most difficult phases in her life as a TCK was leaving Nepal to return to the states to enter college. She met girls her age in college who had never traveled very far, had never known foreign students, and had ever seen poverty. Many of the girls she met as a freshman in college astounded her by their immaturity and self-centered behaviors. Their personal values, naturally, were at odds with her’s – greatly at odds. As a consequence, she found herself making friendships with older, more mature female students in the university.

“We lived in Nepal several times during their school years; each time was a ‘shock’,” says her father. “Going abroad to live reveals one kind of culture shock, whereas, returning home brings on what is sometimes called ‘reverse culture shock’.”

“Once when we returned home and our daughter was in 7th grade, any time she talked about trekking, or seeing Mount Everest, or riding elephants, or spotting rhinos at Chitwan, the other kids teased her,” he says. “She soon stopped talking about Nepal altogether. It was only about a year and a half later when her English teacher got her to write an essay about Nepal did she mention it. By then, she was more mature and able to deal with it. But, for 18 months she said absolutely nothing to her friends about Nepal.”

The behavior of the classmates can be shocking to the kids, resulting in the loss of confidence and confusion about one’s own identity and the way they view relationships.

“Sometimes the kids are just jealous because you have seen things and been to different places, and then they try to beat you down.” says one TCK currently enrolled at Lincoln School in Kathmandu. “But then there are some people who are really interested to hear your experiences. Those would mostly be TCKs with similar experiences in other countries,” she says.

As some sociologists put it, TCKs assimilate elements from each culture into their life experiences. The sense of belonging, however, is in relationship to others of a similar background.

Third Country Adults also say that other kids, and sometimes even adults, don’t believe TCK stories. They didn’t know, and don’t want to know.

“You have a lot to share, while others have very little patience, tolerance or interest,” says the father of two TCKs who has lived abroad several times. “You’ve had this incredible experience. You have done this and that, so no matter where you are, back in your home town you want to share. However, everywhere you turn you are likely to get the cold shrug or a weird response. You can’t connect with them.”

He goes down memory lane to narrate a funny incident that happened after returning to the college town in the US, where he taught in a university. “We were interviewed for a short story in a local newspaper. The newspaper printed a picture of the elephant from the Jawalakhel zoo. We had hired it for (in those days) 100 rupees to give the children rides around the neighborhood during a birthday party. After the people in our town saw the picture in the newspaper, some of them came up to my children and said, ‘You can’t tell me that you had an elephant come to your birthday party!’”

It was too exotic; people couldn’t believe it. They thought it was a wild tale told to gain attention.

So it is very natural that TCKs connect better with other TCKs, though it is not a hard and fast rule. With a little bit of mentoring and care they can integrate well with others.

Teachers and parents have a very important role to play in the integration process of the TC Kids back into the home culture. First, however, they themselves have to be aware of the problems of TCKs.

One TCK parent narrated an interesting example how parent-teacher involvement is necessary to help TCKs cope. “It had hardly been six weeks into the school term in the US, when our son’s teacher called us in (as his parents) to the school to talk,” he remembers. “Our son was in second grade, having attended only Lincoln School in Nepal up to that point. “‘We have to put your boy back a year,’ the teacher announced.  That startled us. ‘Why? we asked. ‘Because he can’t do the most simple thing – count change’.’’

“’Aha! But give him rupees, mohars, sukkas, and paisa (all Nepalese money) and he’ll count them very well,’ we told the teacher.”  The boy had never seen American coins – dollars, quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies. At that realization, the teacher withdrew her opinion of the boy abilities. “In fact, one of his best subjects in school was math,” says his father.

Involvement and care are two most important things that parents and teacher have to bear in mind while raising and dealing with a TCK.

Transitions

Transition for a TC family is not just venturing from one exotic location to the other for another round of adventuresome experience. For them it also means loss.

Loss of familiarity, certainty, opportunities, of personal history and what used to be. Some difficult transitions bring the loss of a sense of self, of perspective, of hope.

There is a sense of security and comfort in familiarity. Familiar situations, familiar people and even familiar problems are a relief. The unknown always has the stigma of insecurity attached with it. And that is what stalks TCKs all the time.

Which country? Which friends? What culture? And the big question “for how long?”

Relationships and situations are so variable that even a whole life might not be enough to get used to them. It is a severe challenge, therefore, to keep up when one is continuously put through such uncertainties. Some TCKs say they have stayed in more countries than the number of years they have lived.

Quick transition and adaptability, therefore, are key to the survival of TCKs on unfamiliar turf.

In a TCK situation there is not always time for development of relationships under normal conditions. Often relationships skip the slow development stages, and jump immediately to the level of more intimacy. That is why TCKs may have trouble making friendships.

“I never really had lasting friends,” says one, thinking back on it. “I was always considered an outsider until I was in high school when it was considered ‘cool’ to have been to places far and wide. My lasting friends were always those in Nepal. Even to this day I have some sort of connection with them.”

Since separation is inevitable and very difficult, for TCKs it is hard to have long term intimate relationships. The potential loss is so great that kids have difficulty figuring out how to handle close friendships that break every few years.

There are, however, several ways to keep in touch with acquaintances and let the bond remain intact. The Internet is a great place to keep linked. Some surf social networking sites like Facebook to re-connect and keep in touch with people with shared history over the years, through several transitions. Others visit Internet groups, forums and websites designed for TCKs to stay in touch, exchange information and share photographs.

Yet there are others who write letters. As cumbersome as it may sound in the age of cell phones and email, nothing can match the level of intimacy that hand-written letters communicate. “I regularly write letters to my friends and relatives in US,” says Miranda

Also, whenever time and circumstance permit, many TC families revisit the former host countries to catch up with acquaintances and relive the culture.

If repatriation is inevitable, it is better for a TC family to bring the children back to their birth culture before adolescence. If they get enough of that piece of identity to remember, they can carry it on into their lives through other cultures. After reaching adolescence, repatriation is much harder!

Many American and European families with TCKs living in Nepal visit home every summer to retain their identity and catch up with the friends and relative.

Ellen Coon, herself a TCK and now raising TCKs, a son in third grade and a daughter in fifth, says, “I never got over being in Nepal. I don’t anticipate living in any another country, but it could happen.” And as a way of preparing the kids and herself to face the unforeseen she keeps going back to the states during summers, to stay connected with relatives. Though her fondness for Nepal is evident, as she says: “It is very difficult to drag family around and I am always very relieved to come back here (Nepal).”

David, an American, wanted to give his children overseas exposure and international education. The family, with three kids, lived in Geneva for two years and is currently based in Nepal. David says, “Nepal is a very different experience,” and, as an afterthought, adds, “for better or for worse!” Unlike Ellen, David says that his family plans ultimately to move to the states. They, too, make it a point to join in a summer camp in West Virginia every year to retain identity as Americans and connect with friends from home.

The transition, however, is difficult for TCKs who come from a non-English speaking country. “One of my three Korean sons had a tough time adjusting in a school in Korea where the mode of instruction and communication is in Korean language,” says Karen, a Korean Christian worker. She also pointed out other challenges of going back to the non-English speaking less developed Asian countries where competitiveness is severe. “For Korean children, sharing was not in; survival in the Korean situation was more critical due to severe competition,” she says.

The transition, though, is not always a cake-walk even for a TC family from the developed countries. Moving out from a less developed country into a developed one necessitates major changes in the lifestyle. “Helping our kids ‘fit in’ to our home culture on return to the states was always a challenge,” says one father of TCKs. “Life in Kathmandu (or anywhere overseas) is quite different than that at home in the states. For one, we had help working for us in our house in Kathmandu (a maid, gardener and gate guard) which most Americans do not have, except the very rich.” He says the family was always in the throes of reverse culture shock on return to the states, especially because of the incredible lack of knowledge among US children and adults about the rest of the world, and because of the materialistic life-style in the states. “In Nepal, we didn’t have to bother about a lot of things that stateside kids take for granted like the latest pop music, the latest movies, visits to the ‘mall’, the ability to buy new clothes anytime, etc.,” he says.

Sometimes living in a different country and then moving into others can be more than the bargained for deal. Take Lennette’s case. Her family has lived in several countries and had to be evacuated from two because of worsening political and social situations. Then she stayed in Zimbabwe for five years before that country, too, was mired in political crisis. “The hardest transition we have had was going back to the US for two years after Zimbabwe, because the kids had grown up overseas all their school years,” says Lennette. “The family, now five years in Nepal, wants to stay in the country for some time.”

If the parents are not well adjusted, that’s got to have some negative impact on the kids, even though they get positive influence from friends, schools, etc. One parent might be embedded in the country, while the other not happy about it. There can be various reasons. Some parents simply do not adjust well and that reflects on how the kids cope.

The children and the parents need to have patience as any major transition can take a year or more to adjust to. Moving into a new country can be a huge transition and the family has to understand that culture shock and stress are normal. All TCKs go through this phase. Parents and teachers alike should be aware of this and let the children have their attention, and time and space to share their experiences. Parents have to be flexible and tolerant.

Several parents raising TCKs say that one of the draws for being overseas was to bring their family closer together; more time with each other, more cohesiveness, and learning another culture together. Many parents agree that the needs of TCKs are such that parents must play a supportive role for their children, who may go through some pretty intense culture shock as students in a foreign setting.

Cultural chameleons

“I got a month off each year for ‘home leave’, and we would all go home – in part to catch up with family affairs, and to shop for the next year’s needs,” says Don, reminiscing on the TCK experience with his children. “We often took advantage of the travel to see new places like Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Europe. We considered this part of our children’s education while growing up, that is seeing the world, learning geography lessons first-hand.”

A TCK’s life is a fascinating one full of adventure and exciting discoveries, and above all an opportunity to see the world and more importantly one’s self, from a perspective that only a thoroughbred TCK is endowed with.

Cross-cultural skills, flexibility, tolerance, strong observational skills and awareness of the world around them are some of the good qualities TCKs inculcate in their habit. As a result they also grow up to become more independent and cosmopolitan. They do not have a skewed view of the world because they usually do not see other people and culture through the limited lens of nationality, ethnocentrism or patriotism.

TCKs incorporate several cultures at the deepest level of their thought processes. The third culture kids not only have access to two or more cultures, but their thought processes are truly multicultural.

Third culture kids are often tolerant cultural chameleons who can choose to what degree they wish to display their background.

Hans makes an observation of his life as a TCK and later as an ATCK on a bit of a critical note. What he says gives us an idea how a kid raised in a culture away from his own sees the world around him. “Being a Third Culture Kid is both the gift and curse,” he says. “Living amongst many nationalities over the course of schooling and seeing how we all get along before politics and money corrupt us seemed very interesting, like an experiment.”

Telling the stories of Nepal, travel or even the experience of life, he says, seemed to annoy people addicted to their prolonged stories of football or TV shows with no moral meanings, advertisements for products they could only dream to afford, or whatever other material influence seems to steer their lifestyles.

In the developed world, as someone has said: “Life often gets in the way of living.”

“So the gift and the curse are seeing the world as it is, but not being able to explain this to others because they have not walked the trails, driven the roads or seen anything outside of what the TV shows them of reality .”

His father sums it up: “Living and studying in a foreign environment gives young students opportunities, and vision and world view that is not always available at schools in the USA. It certainly broadens their view of the world: geographically, politically, culturally and socially.”

Amendra Pokharel is a freelance writer and can be contacted at amendrapokharel@gmail.com

 

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