Today I will be beginning a new guest series on growing up as a Third Culture Kid and raising Third Culture Kids. First up, is a great friend of mine, Maia, who grew up in South America. Read all about her story and her encouragement for parents considering moving overseas with their children. It’s a great perspective from someone who grew up in the expat environment herself!
It happens probably once a year. Someone knows someone who is moving overseas with kids and they have questions. The soon to be expat is talking to their friend who begins to think, Wait, I know someone who grew up overseas! Maia! Let’s ask Maia. And then I get a text or Facebook message, or email, with questions or plans for meeting up. But more than that, I also get an awesome opportunity to share one of the most important parts of my life, being a Third Culture Kid (TCK).
A TCK is anyone who spent a portion of their formative years in a country and culture outside of their own. TCK stands for Third Culture Kid which is named after the tertiary culture that is developed from growing up between cultures. To put this into a more concrete form: My family is American, but I was born in Peru and grew up going to school in Ecuador and going “home” to Uruguay. My passport said USA but my heart said something else. Probably the most interesting thing about TCKs is that it doesn’t matter what cultures you are stemming from. The “third culture” is the one created from the in-between and has unique characteristics across the board.
I say that this is one of the most important parts of my life because it has greatly shaped the person I have become. A lot of who I am can be traced back to my childhood of culture limbo. It is a really incredible thing. Of course it has advantages and disadvantages like any other way of life, but the advantages are so special.
I am pretending that you are that person sending an email, text, or message, who has asked me about life growing up as an expat. So here is my answer:
Yes! Take your kids to another culture, let them live a different way of life. It is one of the most incredible experiences you can ever give your child. And let me just say, thank you. Thank you for wanting to know how it will change them. Thank you for not being afraid to take an adventure. It is hard, but it is so good.
Being a TCK connects you to the world. When you grow up in many cultures you learn to understand people no matter how they think or live or what culture they are from. It will teach your children empathy for those who are different. It will teach your children how to adapt and how to understand and how to really know the world around them so they won’t offend. It may give them the gift of languages, or a gift of tastes. It will shape the way they see and approach the world.
But also, it will be hard. Your children will feel that, while they are connected to their cultures, that they don’t quite belong in any of them. They will go back to the places you call “home” and they will look like they belong but their worldview and ideas will be different. They will not know all the little things that they are expected to know. They might not know the things that even you, the parent feel they should know. Their priorities might be different. Their speech might be different, but everyone will think they are the same because they look like they are the same.
Then they will go back to the place they have been living and they will feel like they belong but they will not look like it. They may speak with a perfect accent and fluency but they will never be fully “local”. They may have the same priorities and ideas but they will still be offered the tourist price first. They will feel the culture is their own but that they can never really belong to it. It will seep into their hearts but not their bodies.
And because they are growing into who they are, these ideas and places and people will shape their very core. You, the parent, may never fully understand their culture.
It can sound grim, but let me say this. Effort toward understanding goes a long way. I cannot tell you how many people I have deep friendships with who are not TCKs, those include my parents and my husband. Like any other culture, the most important thing is understanding that different is just that, different, and it takes time and effort to build relationships.
Parents who believe their child has experienced the same emotions and identity shift that they have from living as an expat will do their families no favors. But families who talk about what they are going through, who listen to each other, and who strive to celebrate the diversity of culture even within the relationships of parents and children will find a treasure within their experiences.
And bringing your children into the TCK culture is a gift. TCKs connect deeper and faster than any culture I have ever seen. My newest friend is a Korean who grew up in Indonesia and now lives in the US. Yet we are from the same culture, cut from the same cloth. Finding someone who understands you creates deep bonds and TCKs are everywhere. Just ask around!
So, thank you. Thank you for bringing your children deeper into our world, into culture, into a unique experience that will shape them into something truly incredible.
*Maia is a TCK who believes in strong coffee and deep conversations. She has lived on 4 continents, visited around 25 different countries, and still laughs nervously when asked the dreaded “Where are you from?” question. She’s married to a wonderful, stable, and adventurous man who has redefined her meaning of home. She writes about her experiences and interactions with the world as a TCK at theunlost.blogspot.com You can also follower her adventures on Instagram and Twitter @doubleomoo