Who and what is a TCK?
“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 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 belonging.” – David Pollock in his book “Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds”
TCK is becoming a social phenomenon due to increased globalization, though because of the regular mobility (moving from one country to another), TCK parents, like myself, face difficulties and challenges as often as advantages and opportunities in raising a TCK. My daughter is half Indonesian and half Australian, she barely speaks bahasa Indonesia and refers herself as Singaporean. One day, I heard her singing in French (she is learning French as a second language at school). Yes, I am very proud of her being able to explore her potentials, but a small part of my heart sinks, have I not taught enough Indonesian language to her? Would she appreciate her own cultures? How do I minimize the possibilities of her have the identity crisis or feeling rootless or homeless? So I did a research, asked questions, and here is what I found;
First, I learn about some of the Characteristics of a TCK;
- Make great culture bridges. They have multiple frames of reference.
- Excellent observers of other people. They can be very observant and sensitive.
- Speak more than one language often 3 or 4. English may be one language they function in, but they can think and feel in several.
- Establish relationships quickly. They cut through many of the initial levels of diffidence when forming relationships.
- Open-minded and less prejudiced.
- Adapt quickly to unfamiliar countries and people, culturally astute, cross-culturally enriched.
- More welcoming of newcomers into a community.
- Educational achievers - a high percentage will attend university and obtain advanced degrees.
- Live more in the present and for the moment. (Pollock, 1999)
Source: TCKID – A Home of Third Culture Kids
Alongside the advantages and potentials as described above, TCKs may face some Challenges as well, such as:
- Belonging everywhere and nowhere. The elusive concept of "Where is home?"
- Difficulty with commitment to people, places, schools, or school systems as these constantly change.
- Uncertain cultural identity.
- Problems with decision-making.
- Loss of relationships, community, school is a loss of their world.
- Feeling different from others, difficult in forming peer relationships; occurs more often at university level or when returning to "passport" country, where they are misunderstood by their peers.
- Rootlessness and restlessness. The frequent need to change countries and homes.
- Feeling "Out of Control" and Powerless. A feeling that they have no control over events and that these are often taken out of their hands anyway by the inevitability of the move. Source: TCKID – A Home of Third Culture Kids
So, are TCKs a Privileged or Rootless Global Citizen?
At an early stage of a TCK’s life, many TCK parents including myself, consider TCKs as privileged global citizens; have the opportunity to learn more than one language, have early exposure to different cultures and languages thereby learning skills to adapt faster and better to their new environment than a non-TCK. But do they feel different? Do they know where “home” is?
I consider myself lucky, having had the opportunity to live in a melting-pot country like Singapore. I’ve made many friends who are TCK parents themselves. We often discuss, share our views, tips, experiences in raising a third culture kids. Sun Yuan and Leticia are both devoted and loving TCK parents. They will now share their own experience in nurturing their own culture in their children’s life as a TCK.
- In which country were your children born? And how many times have you and your family (including your children) moved from one country to another? And what countries are they?
Yuan: My son Nick was born in Singapore, and we are currently living in Singapore, before his existence we (me and my husband) have lived in China and Finland.
Leticia: Our 1st child was born in CA, USA (Silicon Valley area, to be precise), and our 2nd child was born in Singapore. I was born and raised in Indonesia, and later on moved to the US to earn my degree. My husband is a French who moved to Silicon Valley in his 20's to do his internship, but later on decided to work there, instead of returning to his home country. After we tied the knot, we lived in the US until end of 2010, and then we moved to Singapore.
2. In which culture does your child/children refer to them selves as? And what aspects, in your opinion, influence his/her preference?
Yuan: My son Nick always refers to himself as an English boy because he speaks English most of the time. His father has convinced him that he is a Dutch boy (by nationality) and he can speak Dutch perfectly now, I'm always telling him that he is half Chinese and half Dutch and he can understand and speak Chinese too. It caused some confusion for him since we try to define this by the language he speaks (using the little boy's logic), but now he seems to accept the fact that he is a Dutch boy and he can speak Dutch, English and Chinese.:)
Leticia: L doesn't refer to any culture/nationality yet, but somehow she can point out things she likes from her parents' origin country. For example, if I ask L what does she like about her Bonne Maman's (grandmother from my husband's side) country, she will say: Eiffel Tower, Metro, Tarte Tatin (Apple pie). When I ask L about Indonesia, she will say that she likes mie pangsit (wonton noodle soup), becak and Bali, and the next thing I know she says a bit Singlish in her conversation with her little friends :-) She knows she lives in Singapore, and yet she likes both Paris and Jakarta.
3. How many languages are spoken at your home and what language is the most dominant?
Leticia: My husband, H, and I speak English, H speaks French to kids, whereas I speak Indonesian. Our helper is Indonesian, hence I ask her to speak Indonesian to both of our kids. So far, Indonesian is the dominant language at home.
Yuan: We speak English, Dutch, Chinese at home. English is still the dominant language though it is neither of our mother tongue.
4. How do you preserve your own culture into your children’s every day life?
Leticia: I was brought up in an Indonesian family, where food is a VERY important part of the culture, and it is EVERYWHERE for every occasion, including funeral. We used to have snacks, savory on the table for nibbling (ngemil) at my parents' house. My husband, on the other hand, grew up in a French family, where food is important to NOURISH the body. He was taught to eat food only 3x/day plus one time afternoon snack (gouter). He would rather indulge his tongue pallete with a good French pastries during the afternoon snack, rather than eating chips and nuts the whole day. When we first get married, we were surprised to find each other's eating culture. My husband thinks that I ate whatever and whenever I want without thinking how the food can nourish my body. I thought my husband is picky on food. We compromised at the end. Now I teach my children to appreciate Indonesian goodies, fried chips and nuts, only during the morning or afternoon snack.
Yuan: I always teach Nick to use the polite words when he refers to other people, like Auntie or Uncle, Ama (grandma) or Agong (grandpa), Gege (brother) or Jiejie( sister). As in Chinese culture, that is to show respect to other person especially to the seniors. But in Dutch culture, you could just use their first name no matter how old or senior the person .
5. How do you ensure the balance between your own culture and your partner’s culture in your household?
Leticia: Introducing our kids with the food from both countries is one of our way to introduce both cultures to our kids. It's simple, fun and also great experience for them. We eat gado2, kari ayam, sayur asem (sour veggies soup), and we also eat brie cheese, baguette with loads of butter and jam (the French way of enjoying breakfast), good dark chocolate and foie gras. We introduce L to Upin and Ipin, as well as Donald Duck and Mr Men-Little Miss in French.
Yuan: Well, we celebrate all the Chinese and Dutch traditional festivals at home. And now since we are in Singapore, we also enjoy the local festivals. Especially during Chinese New Year, Nick will wear the traditional Chinese clothes and practice to say "Gong xi fa cai" (because he knows after saying that usually he will get an red envelope contains some paper notes, which mama told him that he could save those to buy something he likes:). In December, Dutch children are not only excited about Christmas, also there is a special festival on the 5th December, Sinterklaas will come and give gifts to all the children. So December is the happiest month for Nick since he will get gifts twice, we help him to mark the calendar each day so he knows when he can open the gifts (a good practice for his patience :)).
6. So, overall, do you think a TCK is a privileged world’s citizen or rootless global nomad?
Yuan: Personally I think to be able to experience many different cultures has great benefits for the kids. As for my boy, he is a Eurasian and there is already a mixed culture and background for him, not only one dominant culture. I think it will help him to adapt or accept or understand different cultures easier at a later stage than a non-TCK. Of course, this situation could also cause some confusion for him later, maybe he will have some doubts about his identity at a stage (identity crisis). But overall I think with this globalized world, the boundary of cultures and countries is becoming less obvious, there will be more and more privileged global citizens.:)
Leticia: I would think TCK is a privileged global citizen. Why? Because a TCK has the ability to understand and to respect other cultures, has the ability to adapt to different cultures quickly and not to mention the valuable language skills and rich experience he/she got during the time living in different countries, despite having the feeling of not belong to anywhere. The world is becoming more connected than ever before, people are getting more mobile, the work pace is getting faster, so these TCK kids already have a head start in global living and language skills from the non-TCK kids. I can imagine when my kids are grown up and being asked, "Where are you from?" ;-) I imagine they will take a deep breath first before answering this question, and I imagine their answer would be like this, "Well, it would be better if you specify your question to: what's my nationality, where did I grow up, where do I belong to, because these will describe where I am from" ;-).
Fostering and nurturing our own culture into a TCK’s life is just the beginning. As a TCK parent I realized that as my child grows older, these challenges and opportunities will have more impact on her growth; both socially and emotionally. Although the identity crises and feeling of rootlessness may not surface until later years, I think it’s important for TCK parents to foster and nurture their cultures into a TCK’s everyday life. This will hopefully help the third culture kids to form a strong understanding of their identity and self-worth.
Special thanks to Sun Yuan Vodde, Leticia Malphettes and Brice Royer (The founder of TCKID a non-profit organization) for their invaluable insights and supports.
Look out for my next article “TCK-the art of returning to passport country”