Growing up is a tough gig for anyone. Each age and stage comes with its trials, wins, bumps, and joys for both the individual doing the growing up and the parent supporting and nurturing them. For some families, there is an added challenge that is rarely discussed but very common in most corners of the world.
Globalization has impacted many aspects of our lives and communities, bringing with it a new kind of growing up and a new kind of family. Families are culturally diverse, and children are often being raised outside their own culture or by parents who have differing cultures.
These children are known as cross-cultural kids (CCK) or third culture kids (TCK). You may be one, raising such children, or know both TCKs and CCKs in your community.
Growing up in apartheid South Africa with a South African mother and an English father, I lived and thrived with the consequences and nuances of my parents’ intercultural marriage. When my parents immigrated to Australia in 1986, it cemented my label as a third-culture and a cross-culture kid.
My teaching career took me to England and Germany where I worked on a military base, teaching the children of military personnel. I met and married my English husband, who was born to British expatriates in Kenya in 1965. Our children were born in Germany. To further complicate things, we moved back to Australia 12 years ago.
While I can claim both labels, each CCK and TCK will have a different experience and story.
Third culture kids definition
In the 1950s, sociologist Ruth Hill-Useem coined the term “third culture kids” to describe children who accompany their parents into another culture and spend a significant part of their formative years in that culture.
Hill-Useem acknowledged that while there were aspects of the culture that the children adopted, they predominantly felt a sense of belonging to those they shared close relationships with and who had a similar background, which was generally their parents. As globalization accelerated and individuals started moving around the globe with relative ease, a new kind of concept was also emerging—the cross-cultural kid.
Who are the cross-cultural kids?
Recognizing that the TCK definition didn’t capture the uniqueness of families in a highly mobile world, Ruth E. Van Reken, co-author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, coined the term “cross-cultural kid” to describe an individual who has lived and participated in 2 or more cultural environments for an extended period of time during their developmental years.
- Children adopted from another country
- Children of refugees
- Children born to parents from at least 2 different races or cultures
- Children whose parents are of a racial or ethnic minority
- Traditional TCKs
What does it mean to be one of these kids?
Since the definition of both types of “kids” covers a wide range of experiences, it would be difficult to provide an all-encompassing description. Based on my experience of being one, teaching many, and raising 2 CCKs, I can say that “feeling different” probably captures it best.
What are the benefits of being a TCK or a CCK?
I’m grateful to be a TCK. I know the sacrifices my parents made to bring us to Australia and the opportunities our displacement and our new home have given me.
1. Broad view of the world
This is very true for me. Living in so many places has taught me that we are all first and foremost people. There are things that make us unique and different, but underneath it all, we want to be loved and feel part of a group.
2. Language acquisition
Our son was bilingual by the time he was 3, speaking English and German plus a smattering of Swedish. Sadly, I didn’t manage to master German, but I have a TCK friend who speaks English, German, Swedish, Italian, and Spanish. She lived in Moscow for a year, and Russian was the only language that stumped her.
3. Cultural bridges
As a teacher, I have worked with many students who are TCKs or CCKs. I always make sure they know I empathize with them. It can turn a tough day into a bearable one for a homesick child when you can connect with them on a cultural level by mentioning something familiar or even just explaining to their teacher or friends how their world may have looked in their home country.
4. Sense of belonging
Getting married to my husband and creating our own family has perhaps offered me the greatest stability and sense of belonging. It provided me with the security of knowing that I belonged to this “tribe” and they belonged to me.
5. Journey around the globe
Not having people who know your birthplace, your history, and your story can be isolating. However, there were times when it was liberating, especially when I was a young teacher exploring the world. I was brave and fearless, and moving didn’t frighten me. Instead, I saw it as another adventure.
Challenges of being a third culture kid or a cross-cultural kid
Given that these children have all experienced displacement of one kind or another, there will always be challenges. These challenges, however, will look different depending on the context and the age of the individual.
1. Cultural displacement
Arriving in a new, wholly unfamiliar place is daunting. Nothing looks, smells, or even feels the same.
Many immigrants will happily share the story of the day their belongings arrived from their home country and how unpacking the items made them feel closer to being whole again. They may also detail the challenges of making a recipe from home and trying to source familiar ingredients.
2. Separation from support networks and family
Being away from loved ones probably had the greatest impact on me, both as a child and a young mum. Coming from a very big family in South Africa, with heaps of cousins, aunties, uncles, and grandparents on both sides, significant events all of a sudden looked very different. Sundays were different. No more family roasts or cousin catch-ups. It was just us, our little family of 5. Christmas and birthdays served as massive reminders of the sacrifices made for a better life.
As a young mum in Germany, I was in it alone. With a husband who worked away and 2 young kids, I leaned heavily on my one friend, the Women’s International Club, and my gorgeous au pair, who was a friend and a helper rolled into one. When I recount my days in Germany to my friends now, they go on and on about how lucky I was to have an au pair. The fact that I had no circle of family, mommy groups, or close friends is lost on them because…well, I had an au pair!
My husband and I made the decision to give our children a stable upbringing when we moved back to Australia. We wanted to provide them with the stability of an extended family and the opportunity to connect and engage with their community in an uninterrupted way. We have done this to the very best of our ability and guess what? They now want to move and travel!
The third culture kids book
There is so much to understand about what TCKs and CCKs experience and can offer to their communities.
The book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds by David C. Pollock Michael V. Pollock, and Ruth E. Van Reken provides valuable lessons and insights into these kids. It is well worth a read if any of this resonated with you and has been described as “The TCK Bible.”
Would I have wanted my life to be any different? No! My story is shaped by the adventures I’ve had while my family and I crisscrossed the globe. I’ve learned so much about others and about myself, and I have so much more to give to others because of my experiences and life lessons. Of course, it hasn’t always been peaches and cream, but it has allowed me to create a tapestry of experiences that I’m immensely grateful for.