What is a Third Culture Kid?
“A third culture kid is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture. The third culture kid builds relationships to all the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the third culture kid’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of the same background, other TCKs.”... (more)
Insights from a Military Brat, who became a Mother of Corporate Kids
An interview with Lynda Hamby by Samuel L. Britten, M.S.
August 2, 1998
As a military brat, Lynda Hamby lived overseas in the Philippine Islands for four years. Later, as the wife of an American oil company executive, she lived in Cairo, Egypt for three years (1984-87) with her husband Kent, and their two sons Kyle and Denton. While there, she taught at Cairo American College, a K-12 international American school.
SB: Lynda, as we begin would you tell us a little bit about yourself?
LH: Thanks, Sam. And thank you for the opportunity to share some of my thoughts about TCK's, a topic about which I've had a life long interest.
I was 9 when we moved to the Philippines. We came back to the States in 1959 when I was 13 and beginning the 8th grade. We relocated to San Antonio, Texas, which I really thought was another international assignment. It was the antithesis of New England, the place I considered "home."
SB: What ages were your children when you and your family moved to and from Cairo?
LH: In 1984, when my husband and I moved from Houston, Texas to Cairo, our sons, Kyle and Denton, were 13 and 9; they were in the 8th and 4th grades.
SB: When did you experience your first "aha" moment, when you realized that TCK's were a separate "breed" of kids?
LH: That's such an interesting question. The first "aha" came when I was in Cairo. While teaching at Cairo American College (K-12 American school) the faculty was invited to attend a seminar about TCK's - Third Culture Kids. I thought the title sounded interesting and attended. The presenter had worked with, and was expanding the work of Drs. Ruth and John Useem from Michigan State. I wish I could remember who the presenter was. The information she introduced named what I had experienced my entire life. She was also talking about my children! It was that moment when feelings, experiences, intuitions were named for me -- "TCK's."
The definition of the term Third Culture Kids seemed to explain so much about me, and others who like me, had an international living experience during their growing up years. The term comes from a blending of two cultures, the child's culture of origin and the host culture. This combination of experiences creates a third culture reality for children who have grown up abroad.
Another way to explain the TCK experience would be to call the child's culture of origin the "culture of the round heads" and their host culture the "culture of the square heads." The blending of these two experiences would create a third culture we could call the "culture of the hexheads." Usually when I explain TCK's using this example, people both laugh and understand the concept. Of course, since I am a "hexhead," I go on to say that being a "hexhead" is great.
You can see, these children don't have a life experience during their development that is 100% from the "culture of the round heads" or their culture of origin. Nor is it 100% from the "culture of the square heads," their host culture. This experience during their development creates what the Useems in their work named a Third Culture. It's a combination of both cultures.
SB: How has this made a difference in your own life?
LH: I believe being a TCK has made a tremendous difference in my life. I think it influenced my career choices and other life choices. I have always felt different and have given this a great deal of thought. I remember learning English when I was 5. (French was the language spoken at home.) I remember being different then. I suppose that I was the only one in my class that was dealing with language acquisition. I think I was a little different when we were in the Philippines because there wasn't anyone that I knew that was from Vermont or New England.
Another differences was that my parents established strong relationships with the local Filipinos. As a matter of fact, I remember playing with Filipino children and going to a Filipino dentist. I was also aware of being different in junior and senior high school in San Antonio. Although there were a significant number of military bases in the area, we lived in a part of town with few military brats. I remember just seeing things differently from the way my peers saw things. Today, I often continue to see things differently -- gray seems to be bigger, broader and more complex, as opposed to seeing life and life's events as black or white. For me global events are what's most interesting rather than local events including sports.
SB: I know the "global view" you're referring to -- it's something that I've been grappling with for a number of years. But I think you're also talking about the "disconnectedness" which results from being in another culture.
LH: "Disconnectedness," or "a lack of connectedness" are good words to describe this phenomenon. Growing up overseas, sports weren't that big a thing. I missed that part of "Americana" conditioning. Because I was overseas in the mid to late fifties, I missed some important technological events - the growing impact of television. Consequently I missed things like the Mouseketeers. When my husband and I were dating, I remember having a serious discussion with him about Annette Funicello. My only recollection of her was in those "Beach Party" movies. He couldn't believe I didn't know that she'd been a Mouseketeer -- and I wasn't even sure what that was. Even today, every once in a while something will come up about that era and I don't have a clue. I call those events "black holes" for me.
Fortunately, this is less likely to happen today. However, it may happen on an emotional level. Let me explain this a little. Even though modern technologies have provided instantanious news, a person still experiences an event differently when abroad. The emotional impact is different. I remember when the Challenger exploded. We were living in Cairo at the time. It was some time before we learned of the explosion -- it was later that same day, but still well after the fact. I remember feeling emotionally disconnected from my country.
SB: You missed out on the opportunity to grieve collectively with your own countrymen.
LH: Sam, you're absolutely correct. I remember feeling like I really wanted to be in the US during that time. I wanted to be surrounded by fellow Americans. In a way for me the experience was incomplete. Strangely enough, the Challenger issue surfaced much later in a surprising way. In the early nineties, I was working in the Orlando, Florida area on an anniversary of the Challenger disaster. Someone in the training mentioned it and everyone in the room became quiet -- remembering. At that moment much to my surprise, I was overwhelmed with a flood of emotions, much more so than anyone else present. Reflecting back on the impact of that experience, it was the first time I had connected in a deeply emotional way about the event with other Americans in the US and Florida, at that. I'm sure my children have a "black hole" about the Challenger disaster. Theirs probably consists of a very different range of emotions. In fact it could be more like my Mouseketeer experience.
For most of us, experiencing any significant event, the Gulf War, the loss of family members and significant people in our lives, separated from our family, friends, country can have a similar impact. The whole grief process is different for those of us who experience it from abroad. It's an odd, disconnected, lonely feeling. The "closure" is different - often incomplete.
These feelings can be similar when missing happy and joyful occasions as well, but the disconnectedness may not be as great because grief and loss are not involved. With email and satellite television, some of this has changed; however, I believe the process for experiencing home country events from afar will continue to be different than for those who experience the event "at home."
SB: Lynda, what specific blessings and difficulties do you recall having as a child which were the result of being a TCK?
LH: There have been many of both. In our situation, the blessings are more numerous than the difficulties. Our children have a very broad world view. They are knowledgeable about world events and global issues. They've seen extraordinary things. They're comfortable with people who look and act differently.
And as we all know there aren't blessings without challenges or difficulties. It's easier for me to address some of the difficulties in the context of children and their developmental process.
Generally, children in their maturation process experience several stages that are more significant than others. The first significant stage is from birth to age 5. We understand that this is the time when a child's values are shaped. I often call this period our cultural conditioning - when we learn the "rules" about being a member in our group - family and societal norms. Usually for TCK's, corporate and military, an international experience during this stage has some impact but not a huge impact, unless of course, the child is living completely within the context of the host culture - like missionary kids might. Children this age are more impacted by their family, those they spend the most time with.
The second significant stage is just prior to the onset of puberty and early adolescence. This is a time when children begin checking out what they've been taught about family and those societal norms. Our sexual identify is defined. Often one's environment at this time has tremendous impact on the definition of identify. At about this age most children begin to identify what pretty looks like. I sometimes wonder if this is one reason I (with red hair, blue eyes, and a fair complexion) think that Asian women are so beautiful. Additionally at this age children begin to recognize attractions to the opposite sex.
This is also a time when children begin to need the affirmation of their peers in a much stronger way. Generally, during this stage, children are about two things: independence from family and the need to be like or being the same as their peers. On this point, corporate TCK's may have a somewhat different experience from military TCK. Military children usually attend schools made up primarily of US students and American teachers; the dominant culture is that of the US, albeit abroad. Most of these children usually live on a base - a more insular environment. After school, off the military base, these students are often exposed to a very different environment. However, most of their exposure is within a pseudo-American context.
Corporate children on the other hand often attend international schools where there are students and teachers from all over the world. Even though the curriculum may be an American one, Americans may not be the dominant group. Consequently, these students are exposed more to their host culture. Corporate TCK's who experience compound living would have an experience more similar to that of a military brat.
Having said all this, "We are what we were when....," as the saying goes. So to answer your question, it's difficult to fit in. From a corporate perspective, it might be easier for children to fit in abroad because there doesn't seem to a strict norm within the expatriate community. There are so many differences. These kids have seen and gone to school with other students who dress differently and have different dietary restrictions. They have also all out grown their jeans so most are wearing "high waters." As a result, what they wear often is of little or no consequence. These children become comfortable with differences when they would typically shun being different. Difference is okay.
I actually believe the biggest challenge for children who have lived abroad is returning home. For missionary, military, and corporate kids, fitting in continues to be the biggest challenge. They have had experiences that most of their peers haven't had. They have seen and done things that most of their teachers haven't, let alone their peers and peers parents.
This raises issues centering around reentry. Like most children who move around alot, TCK's learn to adapt quickly to their new surroundings. They learn to observe first, getting the lay of the land so to speak. They learn to drop old accents and pick up new ones quickly.
SB: You know, I can't help but think of the fun my friends and I had playing "chameleon." We'd get on a Italian train and try to pass ourselves off as Germans or Brits. We were pretty good at it, and I've played the same game traveling around the U.S. And just as you've mentioned, a recent thread on the Military Brats discussion group centered on our ability to quickly learn new accents.
LH: Yes, they do and children also learn what to discuss or not discuss about their past experiences. Consequently, they may not talk about their international living experience with their friends. It is just less complicated to omit that experience. These children probably make "friends" quickly and at the same time remain slightly aloof - not completely giving all to that friendship relationship because they know from experience that they'll probably be saying "good bye" soon. It's important to be aware that for a student in junior or senior high, fitting in is what it's all about. And on that note, being/feeling different can be what causes kids to gravitate toward each other - difference is what's the same the common denominator.
As parents we want our children to fit in as well and as quickly as possible. And we may have an idea what the group we'd like them to belong to looks like. This is usually based on our own growing up experience. Unless we've had an international experience growing up, for most of us, our experience and that of our child has been significantly different.
SB: So there may be a greater tendency for returning kids to associate with others who feel disenfranchised. I think my parents would agree with you, and I'm sure it caused them a great deal of concern when I was an adolescent. Can you suggest anything for parents to do or to watch out for if this occurs?
LH: Yes, you're right, Sam. First let me say that speaking about this is so difficult. There are so many things to consider as we discuss this. Speaking in gross generalities is challenging, especially when speaking about people/children in development. We should think about each child as a tapestry and we're taking out one thread at a time. This is only a piece of the fabric. In addition to the individuality of each child, the impact upon each child is different. Personality, family situation and other life experiences need to be considered.
It's important for parents to understand what it is about their child's friends that has drawn them together. Listening to them with an open mind is important. It's also helpful to work diligently upon re-entry to provide children with a vast menu of activities and resource pools from which the child can establish relationships.
SB: Lynda, as an adult TCK (ATCK) you have an advantage over many parents, in that you know from your own childhood how TCKs experience culture shock and reentry. How did this help you, and how did you apply your own experience to help your children?
LH: The single, biggest advantage I had is that I had been through the process. I had a frame of reference for what my children would go through. Being able to identify their process as normal was a tremendous advantage. As a parent, we only know the way we were parented and how we might have parented older children. We don't understand the impact of the international experience on our kids because most of us haven't had it. Obviously it helped me to be able to differentiate between normal reentry challenges, normal teenage behavior and signals that there were real and serious problems.
On the other hand, parents who have had international living experiences as children may tend to minimize the impact the transition and adjustment may have on their children. As children it's normal for us to block out unpleasant experiences and often reinterpret them. We might have forgotten how difficult it was for us to make these moves as kids.
SB: That's an interesting point. In retrospect, is there anything you wish you had done differently?
LH: Actually, there are quite a few things. However one of the most significant things I'd do differently is to have been better prepared for reentry myself. That might have made it easier for my children. The saying about the mother being the heartbeat of the home was certainly true in this instance. I could have been better prepared -- I could have had more realistic expectations about repatriation. I believe that would have helped all of us.
SB: Expectations play a large role in this. Certainly the children have expectations of their parents: to provide a safe, secure and loving home environment. but there are also the demands which parents place on their children.
LB: Absolutely. I'd encourage parents to think about what we as parents require of our children. Without seeking their input, we move them, basically turn their world upside down and require them to start over again, and frequently again and again. Often this is happening at some of their most vulnerable moments.
SB: Yes, I remember many sad goodbyes with sweethearts.
LH: Yes, saying "good bye" and recreating a network of friends is difficult. All the suggestions I'd make for helping our children manage these challenges fall in the category of good parenting. They are things we all know. So let me state them as reminders rather than suggestions. Additionally, as parents relocate children from abroad and back, the one suggestion I would make is for parents to be more aware of, and proactive with good parenting strategies.
The first reminder to parents is to listen to what your children are feeling. It's helpful to be aware of how relocating feels to our children. They don't really have a voice, and much work is required of them to readjust. It's important for them to know you hear, really understand, what they are feeling. They need to be heard. Children don't necessarily want solutions. They're smart enough to know that the solutions they'd really like or prefer aren't possible. Be with your child emotionally. Let them know you hear what they're feeling. This reduces some of the helplessness they may be feeling.
Secondly, do your homework about the new location. If the child is old enough, (almost all are) engage them in the process. One of the things our sons wanted upon returning to the States was to go to a public school. We honored that by enrolling them in a public school.
Unfortunately, however, the quality of the schooling system in the state we returned to was far below the academic standards our sons had been used to. Consequently, we changed schools. They understood our logic and rational; they knew we had given their request our best shot. They also knew that what they had requested wasn't working for them.
SB: And this showed them that their opinions were not only being heard, but were also being taken into account in the decision-making process.
LH: Yes, it did, Sam. I'd also encourage parents to seek out a support network for the family. Helping children have a menu of networking opportunities for making friends is essential. This could be neighborhood and or church groups, after school programs, and so on. Basically, identify ways for children to become involved in their new community.
Additionally, observe the new surroundings. What obvious things will the child need to have to fit in? A certain kind of bike, a driver's license, clothes, etc. These may be just the things to help them feel more a part of the new community.
Next, keep in mind that international relocations are a big change for every member of the family unit. Readjustment is a process for everyone; a process that will be experienced uniquely, individually and differently by each family member. Discuss the emotional readjustment that will be experienced. Plan for bumps along the way -- stress. Talk about how stress is expressed and managed by each family member. Also identify and speak about those things that would help each member. What would each family member like more of, and less of, from other family members when they're stressed. Begin a dialogue and a "listening for feelings," as well as a problem solving communication pattern for effective management of stress.
SB: The group dynamic within the family really is important, and I know that a part of stress management is learning and applying the rules of effective communication. Ive heard so many harsh battles in repatriating families, and this just adds to the stress level in a very destructive way instead of providing a framework for mutual support.
LH: I've heard the same thing, Sam. It is valuable for families to set ground rules for expressing themselves in emotionally charged situations. Some ground rules for a more effective communication during these times include discussing only one topic or situation during the exchange. In other words, discussing past or unrelated topics, or "emptying all the baggage" that's been collecting, would be out-of-bounds.
Using "I" statements is another important ground rule. "I" statements introducing the emotional impact of a situation are an effective way to get to the heart-of-the-matter. For example, if I said, "Every time we move, I feel like Im a pawn, some inanimate object, just being moved from one square to another ," I'm telling you about how I feel and the impact of those moves on me. The listener is less likely to become defensive, and can more easily empathize with me because I've said how it makes me feel.
The opposite might sound something like, "You treat me like a pawn. You move me from square to square...." You can hear that this statement might make the listener feel defensive and reactive. "I" statements are less likely to be attacking statements.
Summarizing what has been said, the resolution, or whats to be decided at the end of the exchange is also a good ground rule. It's an opportunity for everyone to understand and agree to the results. Along with this ground rule I'd add that when it's over, it should be over unless agreement has been reached that the issue is still open. The resurfacing of issues already discussed and concluded is like "beating a dead horse" -- there's no point. However, the emotional impact of the issues should continue to be discussed. Those emotions are real and it's appropriate to validate them, especially if the resolution may not be favorable for everyone.
SB: You've mentioned a number of things which parents can do to ease the cross-cultural transition for their children. Are there any other strategies you would like to recommend?
LH: Another strategy is to help children set realistic expectations about relocation - both expatriation and reentry -- and the overall process. It will take some time for them to feel comfortable in their new environment. Appreciate this as a process. Discuss the process. Allow each family member the freedom to express their ups and downs about the process. This can provide validation and camaraderie.
SB: You've really stressed the process. For the sake of those who might not be familiar with them, allow me to briefly mention the stages to which we're referring.
When one first arrives overseas, there is an initial period of exhilaration which we call the "Honeymoon Phase." The expat sees that new, host culture essentially through the eyes of a child new foods, exotic sights, sounds, and smells all these things are being experienced for the very first time, and they are exciting.
As the novelty begins to wear off, the expat begins to notice more of the subtleties which make that culture "different." This is the beginning of culture-shock. As this phase progresses, the expat may develop feelings of intense irritation, sadness, frustration and even anger.
Fortunately, many expats eventually progress beyond this phase to the third stage of adaptation. As one learns more about that culture and begins to understand it, the frustrations lessen as the expat acquires coping skills and develops an appreciation for that new culture.
Interestingly, weve learned that this process is repeated when he or she returns home or "repatriates," but for several reasons, this is frequently even more difficult than the culture shock of going abroad. If you graph these stages -- the emotional high of the honeymoon, the low of culture shock, and then the high of adaptation -- then repeat this same sequence to represent reentry shock (repatriation), youll see a "W" shaped line. This is why we refer to the process as "The W-Curve Hypothesis."
Now returning to strategies, how can parents and teachers work together?
LH: I'd encourage parents of children who are returning to the US to be sure to have conversations with their child's teachers. Let the teacher know about the experiences of the child. Don't assume the child will tell the teacher that he or she lived internationally; that might make them feel too different. Don't expect the teacher to automatically understand that the reason the child doesn't know the "US interpretation" of US history or all 50 states and capitals is because they lived internationally, where even a US curriculum can be somewhat non-US traditional.
Additionally, let the teacher know if the child is comfortable or uncomfortable talking about the international living experience. Some children prefer to keep the experience private. Spend time with the school counselor and a teacher in the grade the child will be entering. This is a great way to find out what's really important to the peers a child will have. It's also an opportunity to find out what challenges most children might be encountering. They may have suggestions for managing them effectively as well. Learn what kind of expectations each teacher has. Stay informed about things that are happening at school. I'd also suggest that this be done in the most natural of ways. Otherwise, it could look too intrusive to the child. Become active in the PTA, support the programs in which the child participates, etc.
Another reminder is for parents to know and establish some kind of relationship with the parents of their children's friends.
Lastly, parent with your heart. Listen to your intuition. Parents know their own children better than anyone else does. As with your child, be aware of feelings -- yours and your child's. As a parent it's important to separate your feelings from real issues. Have confidence in what you know about your child, yourself, family norms and values, and parenting.
SB: Thank you, Lynda. In closing, Id like to thank you for taking the time to work with me, and for your willingness to share your insights. I know you share my desire to help others work through the process in more productive and effective ways.
LH: Thank you again, Sam. It was great to be able to discuss TCK's and other related issues with you. Families and their international experiences are such important and complex topics. In my work, family related issues are taking on more and more importance within organizations that are expatriating and repatriating families. Organizations are becoming more aware that the effectiveness of an employee is affected by the adjustment of the family. Consequently conducting international business effectively and the impact of an international relocation on the family are both key concerns for global organizations.
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