Third Culture Kids

I am a “Third Culture Kid” (TCK) who attempts to push existing definitions of what that means. The term was originally coined by sociologist and anthropologist Ruth Hill Useem, based on her experiences with American expatriates in India during the early 1950s. It was meant to refer to expat children who accompany their parents into a new society, and thus must adjust their identities to reflect that. Recently, sociologist David C. Pollock developed a more substantial definition, classifying a TCK as:

“A person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of 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.”

I am a TCK because I grew up in the United Arab Emirates, Canada, and the United States. While living in the UAE, I was part of the South Asian middle class. We were able to rely on my father’s income to fund relocations to Saskatoon, London, Ontario, and North Brunswick, New Jersey. There are some differences, such as the fact that most TCKs are raised with consistent family life, which was not the case for me. However, I fulfill the most important requirement for the identity: I have spent most of my childhood outside Pakistani monoculture, and continue to mature in a cosmopolitan, multicultural environment.

This said, I find popular discussions of TCKs to be lacking. Many of the identity issues that affect TCKs are indistinguishable from those that affect non-TCKs with cross-cultural experiences. Why is it worth using a separate umbrella classification, then? Why should anyone assign “TCK” to a diverse population of people, such as military brats, foreign service children, missionary kids, and people who grew up in expatriate contexts?

As a Third Culture Kid, I don’t believe that the answer is in puffy existential inquiries of “What’s my real identity?” The answer is more about class, and the global economy.

Most analyses of TCKs discuss a synthesis of the original culture and the foreign culture in which a child resides. This equation gives birth to a personal third culture that both fuses the two and also surpasses them. The problem is that refugees and immigrants have similar experiences. TCKs only really become distinct when we start discussing their privilege, which is often glossed over. Refugees are primarily destitute, and income amongst minorities can be intensely uneven. TCKs, however, almost always come from comfortably middle class households. They are also very likely to become professionals that can continue to propagate such wealth.

This leads to a number of other distinctions, such as comfort with travel, sudden relocation, and so on. You get the idea. TCKs are often praised for characteristics such as adaptability, which are easiest to exhibit in situations where physical relocation, and confusions of identity, can be navigated with reliable financial security. Most of us were able to adjust to changing and diverse cultural circumstances without significant economic pressure, which helped turn our fluid circumstances into tangible assets.

Graffiti, Kuwait, 2009.
Jahra wall. Kuwait, 2009.

But TCKs are more than just rich kids. The sociologist Ted Ward once hailed us for being the “prototype citizens of the future.” It is not a coincidence that statements like this have a patronizing tinge to them.

Zygmunt Bauman calls the most recent phases of modernization “liquid modernity,” and explores the corresponding ascendancy of a new “liquid modern man.” Bauman’s ideas about this are clearly indebted to Marx’s nineteenth century observation that in market-driven societies, “all that is solid melts into air.” As the system moves away from its previous solidity, new forms of identity are needed to better navigate the new amorphousness of global exchange. Sounds like a TCK to me.

Hence, the praise often heaped upon expat kids like myself by scholars like Ward. Our worldliness and flexibility makes us ideal citizens for today’s perennially at risk, highly international economy. Our identity reflects a stability secured in spite of our being subject  to constant geographic movement, and financial crisis.

It’s important to remember, though, that many TCKs identify as such because of factors outside of their control. Most commonly, their parents had professions that led to constant relocation. The crucial underpinning of their identity is therefore financial. For me, this meant a setting that could not have existed without globalization: the Gulf monarchies. As they are oil-selling states propped up by migratory labor, seemingly mystical banking activities, and luxurious lifestyles for their semi-permanent residents, it is difficult to imagine my childhood there, without having benefited from such circumstances. I was shaped by the same settings of the global economy for which I am considered well-suited.

To make all this happen, my parents took the opportunities that were available to them. As a result, they bought their way into one of one of globalization’s most iconographic hubs. Their presence there, and the affluence it afforded them, would give us the identity we have today, as a Third Culture Family, so to speak. As far as us kids are concerned, our values are direct reflections of this situation: We love flexibility, not predictability. We love relocation, not rootedness. Not exactly family values material, in a Reagan-era sense, but a new norm that doesn’t necessarily challenge its ascribed ‘values’ either. Solidness becomes held in contempt, with liquidity becoming an end to itself.

While, for someone from a highly traditional background, such circumstances can allow for a certain degree of freedom, that’s no guarantee that it will inspire liberalism, or social heterodoxy, either. Far from it. Standards for personal happiness, for social life, for setting personal and professional goals, can seem quite arbitrary, to the point that what appears to be ‘Western’ can be something one feels obligate to reject for its chaos. In the end, one has to rely on their family for personal grounding, in some way more intensely than if they’d stayed at home. This can be positive in circumstances where the family structure is healthy, however when this is not the case, it may further lock the TCK into patterns of abuse that corrupt the “freedom” they purportedly experience.

Ultimately, according to the logic of its theorists, Third Culture Kids are only able to find happiness if they actively demand new conceptions of identity and self-hood. That’s a tall order, despite the fact that external circumstances ideally merit such responses. Still, despite the academic-sounding nature of these ideas, there’s some truth to their idealization, which I subscribe to. TCK’s are something new, and as a result, they need to invent new standards for how their lives are going to be led. Otherwise, the directionless can start to become a prison, and life loses the benchmarks necessary for us to gauge whether or not we have found happiness.


Photographs courtesy of  Flygstoen and  Nibaq. Published under a Creative Commons License.

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