The Pros and Cons Of Being a 'Third Culture Kid'

The Pros and Cons Of Being a 'Third Culture Kid'
By James Mullan
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“Hi, Mum. Meet my three new friends. They’re from Peru, France and Jordan.”

When you meet your child’s new classmates you are thrilled at the globally cosmopolitan lifestyle you have made accessible to her. When she translates an Arabic word in the Mall you are proud and a bit amazed. And you find it funny that she knows her way around international airports better than London railway stations.

She’s a third culture kid. Dubai is full of them, though they are rare in the small town back home. This helps explain why she feels a bit disconnected with her old friends when you take her back home in the summer, while you are whooping it up re-connecting with their parents.

A definition for a TCK is: “A person who has spent a significant part of his/her developmental years outside of the parents’ culture.” (Pollock/Van Rekan, 2009) “Third Culture”? What are numbers one and two? Culture One is your child’s home culture, in the town and country she comes from. Culture Two is the host culture, in our case the UAE. Culture Three is the one she creates with her new international friends. They come from countries right across the globe, speak a variety of languages and worship different religions. Their English accents frequently merge into a mid-Atlantic twang. Come the summer holidays, they fly off in opposite directions, though stay close to each other on social media.

Perhaps you too were a TCK, or are even a ‘third culture adult’? Does your address book look like a listing from an Olympic event? Do you receive birthday wishes the day before from friends across the date line? Do you automatically compute costs across two or three currencies? I don’t imagine this happens to your neighbours back home.

TCKs tend to be achievers, scoring good grades at school. They are good listeners, coping maturely with conversations with your own adult friends. They are likely to be geographically aware and to show cross cultural understanding, feeling personally connected to different countries and peoples. They are flexible and open to change. As they approach the upper reaches of secondary education they are drawn to careers associated with service to the community and the world. So many positives!

But this picture is incomplete. TCKs often feel different, hence their gravitation to each other. At home everywhere (watch them fit into a newly-met group of youngsters on holiday), yet a little detached from their original home. When back for the summer holidays, they can feel a little outside of the tight circle of those old school friends, whose cultural references have moved on a year. An in-joke can make them feel an outsider, and she can come home puzzled and feeling a little lonely.

As adults, a migratory instinct can take hold. TCKs have a habit of finding each other out at university. Why? Because they just get each other. Some evidence suggests that they often marry each other!

Is this good or bad? Should I worry? Should I have stayed at home and not taken this overseas adventure? Fortunately, there is now a good body of literature to inform and guide you. It will advise you not to avoid the emotional events: successful transition involves closure, so when friends leave, have goodbye parties. Similarly, welcome in newly arriving children. There will be plenty of these parties and they are important both for those leaving, and those left. Get stuck into and enjoy the new culture, eg taking abra trips and desert safaris. And recognise that the move has created change: exposure to a new culture = a changed person. Most importantly, keep communication lines clear. Encourage open and honest talk: how are you feeling about being here? Best and worst things? Reassure her that it’s normal to have mixed emotions.

As with anything in life, your overseas adventure is what you make it. The important thing is to acknowledge that it will change your child.

Bill Turner, Headteacher, Kings’ School Al Barsha

Raising Global Nomads: Parenting abroad in an on-demand world. Robin Pascoe. Expatriate Press, 2006.
Third Culture Kids: Growing up among Worlds. David Pollock and Ruth E. Van Rekan. Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2009.
Third Culture Kids: The Children of Educators in International Schools. Ettie Zilber. John Catt, 2009.


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