Who are Adult Third Culture Kids?
We are the adults who used to be TCKs, adults whose entire lives have been informed by the effects of having lived as children or teenagers in more than one country, straddling cultures, at home in all and in none, the geography of our lives creating our own unique, melded third culture. We spent critical years of our childhood moving and sliding and ebbing and flowing around the globe.
There have been entire sociological studies on, and books written about, us as multicultural children and the rootless adults we become. We have our own Facebook pages and websites. We have conventions.
We have grown up and lived a good part of our lives—and had a chance to observe and reflect on how our time spent in a culture or cultures other than our parents’ (or other than that of at least one parent) has shaped us, how it has determined our choices, our needs and wants, successes and failures, fears and neuroses, weaknesses and strengths. Our very character. And–of course—our world view.
As our numbers have grown exponentially with globalization, we are garnering an ever-increasing amount of interest and even scrutiny.
The seminal book on TCKs is Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken (rev. ed. 2009). The authors define the TCK in part as one “who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.”
The studies conclude that TCKs generally share unresolved grief over the repetitive loss of friends, place and identity, and the closeness and safety these things provide. Because we must, we develop self-reliance and adaptability. We are also alienated. We tend to be more educated and go on to receive more advanced degrees.
Our most personal and consequential struggles often come down to the search for home. I’ll be devoting a good number of posts to this topic with its myriad layers and nuances. For now I’ll just say that from a personal standpoint I could write a tome on this conundrum. Is home where I am at any given moment, adapting and even blending in, chameleon-like, to the culture around me? Is home Caracas, where I was born, and where I lived twice? Istanbul or San Juan, whose emotional imprints are surely seared into my DNA?
The States, where my parents were from and of which I am a citizen—and if so, which of the six American cities where I’ve lived? Or is it France, Italy or England, where I feel so at home today? When I first landed in Hong Kong as an adult I was shocked and even intoxicated to feel that this, finally, was home. In Kenya, that feeling was instantly displaced by the clichéd but real sense of cellular recognition, a connection borne of the truest spiritual homecoming.
The answer is, none of the above and all of the above, sort of. Place is just part of it. As Pico Iyer says, “For more and more of us, home has less to do with a piece of soil than a piece of soul.”
And doesn’t a sense of belonging begin in one’s birth family, especially for a Third Culture Kid whose family anchors that child’s ever-changing physical place in the world? I’ll be writing more—a lot more—about this.
Before I get too far afield—
Other labels are attached to us as well. Global nomads and others.
But ATCKs are so much more than the attempts to capture us in a snapshot. Armed with those labels and definitions, we move through the world searching for others who have, in some measure, shared our experience.
Like everyone, we want to be witnessed.
I was, and always will be, a Third Culture Kid. For me, moving between Latin America and Europe every couple of years was an immeasurable gift and privilege. So were, and are, the decades of adulthood that continue to give me the chance to live the consequences, explore, thank the stars and my parents, and bow to the hardships and struggles those years have caused.
To the richness of life, and this life, this ATCK pays homage.
We all need to be seen. We all need home.