Growing up in a world where you don’t quite fit in: the phenomenon of being a “third culture kid”.

A kaleidoscope of perspectives

Being the daughter of a former diplomat, I am under no illusion about what it feels like to grow up in the diaspora. From the tender age of four, I got quite accustomed to moving from one country to another. We never stayed in one place for too long, due to the demands of my father’s job. From Hong Kong, to Angola, we were always on the move like a bouncing ball, not sure when we would come to a stop or what we would meet once we stopped. What I hated the most about moving so much, was leaving my friends, not sure if we would part to ever meet again and having to be the new girl at school, rolling in at the middle of the term, when all the others had found their clique of friends and comfy seating spots for the year. Another thing I hated was having to adjust to new curriculums, teaching styles and even discipline methods. For one, in Hong Kong we were allowed to wear red nail polish to primary school, but in Nigeria this was frowned upon and attracted strict disciplinary measures. Each time we moved, I was faced with these challenges. Admirers may coin this phenomenon as First World problems because travelling the world could not be short of an exhilarating experience. An exhilarating experience it most definitely is, but this doesn’t come without its unique set of challenges and cultural shocks.

A few years ago, my dad narrated an experience a friend of his had after returning from international posting. His friend, who had returned to Nigeria, took his children straight to their village or rural area to visit their grandparents, without a pit stop in Lagos or Abuja, as a way to ease them into the realities of Third World living. And for those of us who have lived in Africa and its visited rural areas, I must say it is a stark contrast to the streets of Oxford, London or the bright lights of Times Square, New York city. His children, who were shocked at the state of their new reality in the village, asked their dad if he was demoted at work. To say that this was a culture shock is an understatement at best. But this is the reality that children who grow up in the diaspora face. Our parents also face challenges of their own as they battle to help us adjust to different types of food, lifestyles, discipline, and accents. They are always on their toes in their home country, constantly making excuses for why we don’t understand the culture, like the food or speak the native tongue. It’s definitely a struggle on both sides.

The Phenomenon of the “Third Culture Kid”.

united in experience

I once heard a professor at my university refer to children that grew up in the diaspora as “Third Culture Kids” also known as TCKs, due to the “removed” relationship they have from their country of origin, which comes from being surrounded by a host of other cultures. With globalisation, inter-racial marriages and the demands of a diplomatic or international career, children of these set-ups, now find themselves confronted with this third culture phenomenon; which is often developed through the interaction of a primary (first) and secondary (host) culture. The first culture often refers to the culture of origin (where the parents come from) and the second culture refers to the host culture or that which the family lives in. The third culture is normally a fusion of the two. A succinct understanding of the term, simply refers to TCKs as “someone who, as a child has spent a significant period of time in one or more cultures other than his/her own and incorporates elements of those cultures and their own culture” says Kay Branaman Eakin, a former Education Counsellor for the US Department of State.

How do you know if you are a Third Culture Kid?

Third Culture Kids very often move from one culture to the next even before they have had the opportunity to fully and wholly develop their personal and cultural identity, and this, is what accounts for their uniqueness in the societies that they find themselves. An example of a typical third culture kid is a child of Zambian descent, who resides in Ecuador. Such a child automatically, becomes a third culture kid, due to the influences of various cultures. Having said this, TCKs are often bilingual, and sometimes even multilingual because they are exposed to a second (or third, fourth, etc.) language while living in their host country. In university I had many friends who spoke English as a fourth or fifth language and had learned the language during their stay in an Anglo-phone host country. Some famous TCKs include Lupita Nyong’o,(Kenyan native who grew up in Mexico and moved to the United States) and Barack Obama, (ethnicity bi-racial, white American mother and black Kenyan father, who spent his formative years in Indonesia).

The Perks of being a Third Culture Kid.

From a vantage perspective, being a TCK definitely comes with its perks. For one, it gives them an international exposure and expands their view of the world at a very early age, such that they are not myopic or one sided in their worldview but can see the world through different lenses.

Second, they are usually more socially tolerant, due to exposure to different people and lifestyles, and have a higher sensitivity towards different cultures. In a situation where a non-TCK may find non-mainstream ideas offensive, a TCK may be more tolerant.

Third, many TCK enjoy cross-cultural enrichment, that comes with being immersed in various cultures during their formative years. They seek to learn more about other cultures, even those they haven’t been previously exposed to. Often TCKs enjoy the sights, sounds and cuisines of faraway places and aren’t afraid to try out new adventures, whatever they are.

And four, TCKs tend to adjust to new surroundings rather quickly compared to their non-TCKs counterparts. This is because constant migration prepares them for what to expect, be it “strange” cultures, bizarre cuisines or variant societal norms.

Being a Third Culture Kid is not all fun and games.

Being a TCK also has its unique set of challenges. First, many TCKs struggle to “find” their place in the world. They almost feel like they are “floating” because they don’t quite fit into their traditional home-country setting and cannot fully relate with the values of their host country. This feeling is often strengthened by a sense of social alienation emanating from peers in their home-country, be them critics or admirers. Critics often see TCKs as “socially awkward” because they have different life experiences from them, so there is a constant battle to connect on a social level. This often gives rise to social exclusion through various means. For one, many TCKs are well accustomed to being teased for having a different accent and using variant diction from their home-country peers. Terms such as “coconuts”, “oreo”(particularly used when referring to TCKs from an African background) or “snubs” are frequent feature descriptions of TCKs, because home-country critics feel that TCKs are not true to their heritage and embody a sense of superiority towards their non-TCKs counterparts. On the flip side of things, some home-country admirers revel in the experiences of TCKs and seek friendship based on this, which can seem insincere at best. This is because, admittance into the social circle of admiring peers may be based on lofty social ideals, which makes many TCKs feel like they are not truly accepted. To say that many TCKs are stuck between a rock and a hard place in social terms is probably the best way to describe this phenomenon. Because of these conflicting social forces, many TCKs are drawn towards fellow TCKs as a way of affirming their identity and finding shared commonality not present in the broader society.

Second, some TCKs from conservative home countries tend to be labelled by those from, or in their country of origin as “spoilt brats”, rude, “not properly trained”. This is because they are considered too liberal, due to perceived ideas of social privileges that locals believe have been afforded to TCKs at an early age. Within this context, many locals argue that TCKs are nonconformist and are prone to ill behaviour. By becoming accustomed to variant social norms, they frequently question traditional values and cultural norms, so as to understand their practicality within modern day settings.

Third, many TCKs have what I call, “an itch to move” brought about by constant travel and migration during their formative years. This makes TCKs feel the need to travel or relocate every so often. I once met a girl who had a “five year stint”. I called it this because she could never stay in a country for more than five years, without feeling the need to change base. Those that don’t relocate or change home base regularly, often feel the need to take frequent vacations or holidays which helps alleviate and calm “the itch to move”.

Four, TCKs tend to take a little longer to settle down in life than their non-TCK counterparts. The reason for this is due to constant migration which makes it difficult for TCKs to establish strong relational bonds at any particular place or time.

And five, many TCKs experience culture shocks when they return to their country of origin. This is mainly because their romanticised or childhood imagery of the country is dashed by new realities. They find that a lot of their childhood friends have moved on. They may also find the physical, economic and financial infrastructural systems function different from what they are used too, or people simply view them as “foreigners” because they don’t know much about the politics or way of life.

A few last words

People always ask me, how it feels, to have travelled the world and lived in different countries. In answering this, I acknowledge the social privileges I have been afforded with from an early stage in life but I also recognise some of the constraints I have had to deal with along the way. But when it’s all said and done, I wouldn’t change a thing, not one bit, because it’s made me who I am today.

Remember to comment or share your thoughts on the topic by clicking the comment link.

Want to know if you are a third culture kid? Check out 31 signs you’re a third culture kid

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