Misunderstood is the latest addition to an ever-growing field of Third Culture Kid literature. I bought it hot off the press and was excited by it’s grounding in both experience and research – a solid combination. Crossman incorporates 220 interviews with TCKs under 30, 50 interviews with TCKs aged 30-60 and a survey of 744 TCKs – an enviable data set indeed (p.xxviii).
Who is it for?
I would have been thrilled to see more weight given to older TCKs, given my own experiences working with adult TCKs who are finding issues (re)emerging later in life, but given that this book is aimed at advocating for TCKs, “acting as a translator between TCKs and those who care for them” (p. xxiii) then this weighting towards younger TCKs makes sense; this book is aimed at both enlightening and resources those who are in a position of caring for TCKs. And it does the job well.
How does it contribute?
From my reading, I’d like to applaud this book for the three main additions it offers to the TCK field as it stands… First, a broader understanding of the variety of TCK experiences. Crossman takes time to distinguish the difference of experience between 20th Century versus 21st Century TCKs, noting changes in travel, education and use of the internet that contribute to shifting narratives (p.12-17). She also notes that “of the TCKs surveyed, those born before 1985 were more likely to live immersed in the host culture. TCKS born after 1985 were twice as likely as older TCKs to have lived in an ‘expat bubble'” (p. 16). These observations highlight the shifting experiences of TCKs through time, as well as Place. Crossman also gives time to those varieties of TCK experience less discussed, the children of international school teachers, a growing population, those without a ‘sponsor’, the children of student parents, and those in non-traditional families. She does a good job of highlighting the ways in which these TCK narratives are impacted by their difference from more ‘mainstream’ TCK peers.
Secondly, Crossman also contributes some interesting statistics through this book, such as, “A third of TCKs surveyed felt misunderstood by parents; more than half felt misunderstood by extended family” (p. 23) and “40% of young [post 1985 birth] TCKs saying they shared a special language with their siblings, compared to just 16% of older TCKs” (p. 269). While it would have been nice to have some more interpretation of these statisticts, statements such as these are a useful means by which to engage discussion and debate, and a useful tool to TCK educators and advocates.
Thirdly, Misunderstood is a fine synthesis of theory, evidence and practical application. Crossman effectively offers tools and techniques to support TCKs through the various challenges they meet. She builds on the famous Pollock and van Reken ‘RAFT’ technique to leaving well (Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewell, Think Destination) and notes that “While ‘Think Destination is about the shifting from one place to another, TCKs are often unsure of what to do after they arrive” (p.229). To combat this, and extend on the RAFT tool, she has developed the Four Stages of Starting Again – Isolation, Investment, Enjoyment and Settling – and outlines helpful ways to engage and manage each of these stages.
Working with adult TCKs as I do, I can see applications for this beyond the young TCK still moving during to parental career. Many adult TCK narratives describe processes that attemped a jump from Farewell to Settling… and much of my work with clients through Life Story is to accompany them through Isolation, Investment, and Enjoyment… because learning to settle is, as Crossman puts it, “a skill most TCKs must learn consciously as adults” (p. 243).
What challenges remain?
I felt the book’s narrative could have engaged more critically with a certain ‘positivity’ rhetoric around TCK experience. I noted a tendency to temper ‘negative’ findings with a reassuring statistic, such as “Despite this, 93% were thankful for their overall experience” (p. 126). While Crossman’s writing does a wonderful job of expressing, without reservation or judgement, some of the more painful experiences of TCKs, the use of statistics such as these echo those sentiments I come across in talks, presentations, writings and in the words of my clients themselves. These statistics are not always thoughtfully used, and I hear expressions of pain tempered all the time by the phrase, “but it wasn’t all bad… it was a great life really”.
Crossman quotes Doughlas Ota as citing these “would not trade” statements as indicative of psychological health, of ‘integration’ (p.22). However, these statements may also be a sign of the vested interest we all have in living lives of gratitude, rather than resentment, and upholding the values of our families who took us abroad in the first place. I would like to see more thoughtful engagement with what we are doing when we ask TCKs to ‘grade’ their life experiences in a way we do not seem to expect of other migratory groups. I suggest that this ‘would not trade’ thinking is ultimately unhelpful for TCKs seeking to process and yes, to integrate their lives, without the need to grade, justify or judge the various experiences that make them up.
My only other challenge in reading this book was in the continued use of term ‘monocultural’. This term is widely used simply to denote those who were raised primarily in a single-culture environment, and not meant to be derogatory in any way. However, I find it is often used to connote ‘insular’ worldviews, and promotes an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality where TCKs and non-TCKs (or our more settled peers) are destined to perpetually misunderstand one another.
Actually, throughout her writing, Crossman promotes the reverse mindset; encouraging TCKs to find points of commonality and connection with both host and passport (or geographical and legal) communities, and refraining from any cultural hierarchy whereby monoculturals land at the bottom by sheer deficit in cultural imput. However, I’d like to see this term used less in mainstream literature, simply for the connotations it promotes. But then, I’m a pedant.
That said, Misunderstood is well written, and sympathetically expresses the TCK experiences in all its myriad expressions. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in equipping themselves to understand and care for TCKs. After all, “this book is about stories” (p. xxvii) and storytelling “helps a TCK move from feeling isolated and misunderstood to connection” (p. 302).
And here at Life Story, we are all about Stories.
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