Third Culture Kids: Today`s Global Nomads  

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  • Tourist Transport Girl Travel Woman Airport. Max Pixel/Creative Commons Zero - CC0.

    Tourist Transport Girl Travel Woman Airport. Max Pixel/Creative Commons Zero - CC0.

    TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - These sons and daughters of missionaries, diplomats, aid workers, teachers and many other globe-trotting parents represent a unique type of global citizen: Third Culture Kids (TCK).

    These are children who spent their formative years outside the countries of their parents and of their birth. Often, but not exclusively, they are the sons and daughters of diplomats, missionaries and international businesspeople. Their childhoods are spent in and out of airport departure lounges, experiencing the world in a way different to many of their compatriots.

    This way of life has been characterised as a culture of its own, a ‘Third Culture’ in between the culture of their parents and the culture (or cultures) of their surroundings. 

    A recent study examining TCK alumni from an international school in Japan showed that third culture kids were more open to new experiences and more conscientious. They had a stronger sense of purpose and self-acceptance, with feelings of restlessness and rootlessness declining with age.

    Adult TCK Micah Anderson was conscious of the stark differences between life in America and life in Macieó in Brazil, where he spent most of his formative years.

    “You’d go to church and somebody would say they got robbed on the way to church. We were robbed almost a dozen times,” he explains.

    “That was very eye opening for me to realise, our standard is not the standard.”

    Sociologist Ruth Van Reken has extensively researched TCKs, further exploring the concept put forward by sociologist Dr Ruth Hill Useem in the 1950s.

    Former US President Barack Obama is one of the world’s most famous Third Culture Kid. Doc. Elizabeth Cromwell/Creative Commons Attribution Sharealike 3.0

    Van Reken names former US President Barack Obama as a notable example of a modern cross-cultural kid, fitting several of her CCK categories. As a child, he experienced different cultures in Jakarta as well as several US cities, and is also an educational CCK, having attended schools in Jakarta, Honolulu and Seattle with different cultures to the ones he experienced in his home.

    Obama also has mixed-race parents, is binational, and is a member of a minority group in his own country. He is also a domestic CCK, having engaged with different cultures within the United States.

    Van Reken’s research found TCKs have a larger world view, but they sometimes struggle with restlessness and unresolved grief, although these feelings tend to recede further into adulthood.

    The findings mirror Van Reken’s own experiences as “a second generation TCK”, and she first noticed these personal characteristics as a child in her father.

    “He would say, unpack your bag and plant your trees. If you’re always moving, you’ll never live anywhere…if you keep waiting for your next move,” she says.

    “I didn’t realise it till later that he taught me a lot of things pertaining to being a TCK, that I came to value, but that he didn’t know in language.”

    When Van Reken returned to the United States aged 13, she quickly found herself to be a “hidden immigrant” around others her age.

    “People saw me, and didn’t understand that I didn’t know, what they knew culturally,” she explains. “That was a tough time, and after a year I decided I would never tell anybody I was from Africa.”

    American literary educator Justin Hopkins has also written about the struggles of his transition.

    He spent most of his formative years in the West African nation of Senegal, but regularly visited his home country. When he returned to the States to begin his tertiary education, he found himself rubbing up against unexpected cultural barriers.

    “Because we had spent some time in the States, I expected it to be easier,” Hopkins explains, but instead “there was a lot of culture strain and tension.

    “I worked in a grocery store and we would throw food out which was hard for me to handle. The amount of food that gets wasted in the United States is so wrong.”

    Even now, Hopkins admits there are hurdles he is yet to overcome in his home country.

    “I find it difficult to connect in a deeper way with people who’ve not had substantial experience living overseas, living outside of the United States at least,” he says. “The worldview can be, doesn’t have to be, but it often is very, very narrow.”

    Despite experiencing some strain, Hopkins believes the benefits far outweigh the negatives of being a TCK. And this mood is generally reflected by many TCKs who write about their experiences.

    According to a survey of 200 readers in 2011, TCK magazine Denizen found more than half of their audience fly at least four times a year, with 60% happy to raise their kids as TCKs should the opportunity arise.

    Australian engineer Russell Conwell is one Third Culture Kid who has continued to stay mobile. “I can’t imagine being in the same school my whole life or being in the same house my whole life,” he says.

    “In fact, I’ve been infected with the disease now and the longest I tend to last in one place is about three to four years!”

    Russell Conwell with his family and friends in PNG. (Russell Conwell private doc.)

    Born in Brisbane, Australia, Conwell spent his early years in Canada where his father undertook his theological studies, before his family moved to Fiji as missionaries.

    After he returned to Brisbane to finish high school and completed an engineering degree, Conwell’s work saw him and his family move from Melbourne to Perth, and even Houston in the United States.

    But despite a successful career in the oil industry, Conwell still had the desire to return to aid work. He returned with his family to Fiji for six months soon after the birth of his first daughter. In 2010, the Conwells, then a family of five, spent six months in Papua New Guinea, returning for another two-year stint in 2013.

    “Sometimes working nine to five in the same job, as a Christian you sort of wonder what the purpose is sometimes,” Conwell explains. “But in PNG, working in the hospital, supporting and aiding the work there, every day you are seeing amazing things happening, the way people’s lives were being changed.”

    Whilst Conwell used his skills as an engineer, the rest of his family reached out to the community. The experience has been especially memorable for his daughters, who enjoyed engaging with the locals, running holiday camps and dance classes.

    “I think that’s sort of a legacy of my upbringing and childhood, Conwell says. “[We’ve wanted to give them] a bit of an exposure to different cultures, the wider world and also an understanding that life is a lot more than education and work.”

    “The experiences they’ve had, far outweigh the downside that could have ever come from travelling and changing and new environments. “

    Canadian TCK Daniel Muttiah currently works as a teacher in Kampala, Uganda. Born in Sri Lanka, he spent his formative years in Nigeria, his family immigrating to Canada as the Sri Lankan Civil War began to escalate. He jumped at the opportunity to return to the African continent in 2005.

    “Our Church supports our missionaries here in Uganda. So when there was an opportunity to come for two weeks, it seemed like a cool idea, and given I had grown up in Africa I was excited to come back.”

    Since then, the Muttiah family has spent a number of small periods in Uganda. On their most recent trips, the couple brought their sons Micah and Noah along, now aged eleven and eight.

    In a small way, they too have experienced life in different cultures, but Muttiah says he isn’t intentionally bringing them up as third culture kids.

    “I don’t think it’s ever possible for a parent to give their child the same experiences that they went through because the world changes,” Muttiah says. "It is something that I’m not intentionally doing, but it is turning out that way. They happen to be here, and we happen to have an opportunity to serve."

    He still hopes his children will be enriched by their time overseas and appreciate the benefits.

    “Even though my time in Nigeria wasn’t the same as in Sri Lanka or Canada, it certainly enriched me and it helps me to appreciate things,” Muttiah explains. “My ability to connect with people and to adjust to new situations, I find it easier.”

    Ruth Van Reken considers the term ‘Third Cultural Kids’ to fall under the broader umbrella concept of Cross-Cultural Kids (CCKs). This concept recognises that cultural dissonance spans across all types of people, including third-culture kids, immigrants and mixed-race families.

    Through her work with Families in Global Transition, Van Reken continually campaigns for the feelings and experiences of Cross-Cultural Kids to be recognised and understood, so that teachers, educators, counsellors and parents can understand the hidden nuances of these cultural differences.

    “One of the reasons I do what I do and feel very passionately about it is if we can normalise this experience, then we don’t have to think, ‘Am I crazy? What’s the matter with me?’” she says.

    “In a world that’s dividing on all these lines, if we understand what we share as humans we actually come together.”

    Written by: Naveen Razik


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