In most of the books and articles about TCKs I miss the comparative approach between globally living TCKs and continental living TCKs.
Most of the studies focus on children who spend a significant part of their developmental years outside their parents’ culture, i.e. overseas, mainly on different continents. But what about those who, like me, did “only” live in different countries on one continent?
During gatherings among TCKs and ATCKs in the last years here in Europe, I noticed that those who did lead a global life, having experienced life on different continents and those who did “only” live in different countries but on the same continent didn’t really have that much in common. Often those who didn’t live globally were intimidated by the exuberant and exotic life of the other group. – Many expat families raising TCKs here in Europe have a completely different lifestyle than the ones described in the mainly US literature about this topic.
Let’s start with the definition Pollock and Van Reken gave about this group and which forms the base for many studies about the topic:
“A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. 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” (Pollock & Van Reken, 2009, p.13).
Pollock & Van Reken point out four main aspects which characterize Third Culture Kids:
a) their upgrowing outside of the parents’ culture
b) the fact that they build relationships to all of the cultures
c) the fact that this kind of children would “not have full ownership” in any of the cultures, “although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience” and, last but not least,
d) that “the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background”.
Relationship with all the cultures
I think this is the main aspect of the definition of Third Culture Kids: that we build relationships to all the cultures we grow up in.
This also is fundamental for every Third Culture Adult (cfr. someone who did start the global or international life after age 18, i.e. left his or her passport country in adult life): wherever they end up living, they’ll pick up something from their host-countries and take it with them on their international journey. They will adopt certain values and habits that will form their “third” culture.
This is the part that intrigues me in the definition. How can you measure ownership in a culture? Does this mean that you know all (?!) about values, habits, language(s) with all the dialects, regional variants, the history etc. and that you can identify with everything (?) or most of the aspects related with that country, ethnicities if you grow up in your passport country? Honestly, I don’t think that anyone can say that he has “full ownership” of his culture. This is simply impossible. Even people who grew up in one country, in the same city their parents, grandparents etc. grew up in would not consider themselves having “full ownership” in their culture (i.e. of the region they grew up in).
The sense of belonging for a TCK
I strongly agree that TCKs and ATCKs (as much as global nomads, expats etc.) discover the sense of belonging when they encounter others of a similar background. It is a huge relief, when we realize that there are others that don’t want to know where we come from, which language we like the most or what kind of cuisine we consider “the best” or where “the weather/job/healthcare system is the best”. When we don’t have to explain every step of our journey and still feel comfortable in a conversation about our life and ourselves.
All these aspects mentioned in the definition do apply to all sorts of TCKs, no matter if their international journey is global or continental.
Why do some TCKs feel different?
Many expats here in Europe don’t consider themselves or their children who grow up abroad as Third Culture Kids. Even those who know the term and the concept behind it don’t feel that they “belong” to this group. Mostly due to the literature about this topic which is mainly from an American and strongly global point of view.
This made me realize that with this term people associate exclusively globally living families. I’ve heard comments like “I think I’m a TCK but I didn’t live in Africa or Asia… I only lived in Europe”. I did hesitate myself, when I first read about TCKs, saw infographics about this or tried to do tests called “You know you’re a TCK when…”.
Here are some typical questions of this kind of tests, which I consider really inaccurate (I only chose some of the assumptions, but there is a vaste number online about this topic):
|“You know you’re a TCK when…”||European TCKs||Global (US) TCKs|
|You speak two (or more) languages but can’t spell in any of them||No, usually we are proficient in several languages||Yes?*|
|You flew before you could walk||Yes, but more since the last few generations.||Yes?|
|You have a passport, but no drivers’ license||No (this is for young adults going to college: In Europe the age of these young adults coincides with the age they usually leave for college: and they don’t necessarily go to study abroad)||Applies for young adults repatriating to the US (abroad, the average age to get a d.l. is 18, in US 16)|
|You watch National Geographic specials and recognize someone||No…||Sometimes (depends on where you’ve lived)|
|You run into someone you know at every airport||Not so often||Yes?|
|Your life story uses the phrase “Then we went to…” five times (or six, or seven times…)||Yes (maybe less times?)||Yes?|
|You speak with authority on the quality of airline travel||Yes (but the same about train travel, and viability by bike or car)||Yes|
|National Geographic makes you homesick||No||Yes|
|You read the international section before the comics||Yes||Yes|
|You live at school, work in the tropics, go home for vacation||No, no, yes||Yes, yes/no, yes|
|You don’t know where home is||Yes||Yes|
|You sort your friends by continent||No, by country||Yes|
|You feel that multiple passports would be appropriate||Yes (a European one would be handy!)||Yes|
|You watch a movie set in a foreign country, and you know what the nationals are really saying into the camera||Yes||Yes|
|You automatically take off your shoes as soon as you get home||Most times, yes. It depends on the country||Yes|
|You have the urge to move to a new country every couple of years||Yes||Yes|
|Half of your phone calls are unintelligible to those around you||Yes||Yes|
|You have best friends in 5 different countries||Yes||Yes|
|You own personal appliances with 3 types of plugs||Yes||Yes|
|You know how to pack||Yes||Yes|
|You cruise the Internet looking for fonts that can support foreign alphabets||Not necessarily||Yes|
|You have frequent flyer accounts on multiple airlines||Not necessarily||Yes?|
|You consider a city 500 miles away very close||Not always||Yes|
* I add a "?" when I'm not sure every globally living TCK would agree (or disagree).
Some assumptions are very country specific: “You know there is no such thing as an international language”: in most countries English is the international language. It depends very much on which countries you live in and in which context. If sent by an international company, the chances are big that you’ll stay in an international environment and English will be the main language. “Rain on a tile patio – or a corrugated metal roof – is one of the most wonderful sounds in the world”, “You haggle with the checkout clerk for a lower price”, ” Your wardrobe can only handle two seasons: wet and dry” and “Your high school memories include those days that school was cancelled due to tear gas, riots” really only apply to very specific countries.
Many assumptions are very American: “You go to Taco Bell and have to put five packets of hot sauce on your taco”, “You go to Pizza Hut or Wendy’s and you wonder why there’s no chili sauce”, “You won’t eat Uncle Ben’s rice because it doesn’t stick together”: these are examples of food preferences from an American point of view, an European would not consider. “You know the geography of the rest of the world, but you don’t know the geography of your own country” depends from the school you’re attending abroad. If it is an International school, chances are high that you’ll know more about your own country. “You don’t know whether to write the date as day/month/year, month/day/year, or some variation thereof” is something very American. In Europe, this is much more unified. “You believe vehemently that football is played with a round, spotted ball” this doesn’t seem strange to a European and we would never put this on this kind of list. There were also some assumptions which I don’t consider TCK specific, like “You wince when people mispronounce foreign words”, this is something every multilingual does (but you don’t necessarily need to be a TCK for this!), “You have a time zone map next to your telephone” and “Your dorm room/apartment/living room looks like a museum with all the “exotic” things you have around”. This last one can happen also to people who travel a lot.
What are the main differences between traditional TCKs and European TCKs?
First, European TCKs did not leave the continent. Their conception of the world is still “huge”, they travel a lot too, but they’re not really considering an airport their home. Why? Because European TCKs or expats often take other means of transportation: the train, the car, the boat. Of course, the plane is a great solution for fast travels (business or emergencies) from one city to another. But when travelling to a countryside, the car is often more convenient.
Also, many European TCKs are simply European citizens who change country because of relocation by a European company or because of a new job in another EU country. Their motivation to lead an international life is different from the one of traditional TCKs.
European TCKs are very aware of the differences between the European cultures, even though they mainly share the same history, Europeans have a very diverse background. Moving from Portugal to Sweden can have a similar culture-shock effect like moving from Rio de Janeiro to Montréal.
I’m writing a study about European TCKs or expats who never lived outside of Europe and am collecting data about personal experiences, therefore this is also an invitation to send me your European TCK or expat stories. I will soon publish another post about more specific characteristics of European TCKs and you’re kindly invited to let me know your thoughts about this in the comments.