“If all you take away from this consultation is this, please remember:
You cannot fail at your identity”
My client’s face relaxed into profound relief hearing these words.
TCKs often come to me with an ambivalent relationship with their own identities. The very term Third Culture Kid is one that has been contentious, though is increasingly used as the shorthand to explain a very particular experience of childhood mobility. I open my thesis with a breakdown of the term:
“Third Culture Kids are the children of people working outside their passport countries, who are employed by international organisations as development experts, diplomats, missionaries, journalists, international NGO and humanitarian aid workers, or UN representatives. The “third culture” they possess is the temporary, nomadic multicultural space they inhabited as children, within an expatriate community and, in some cases, international school. This culture is distinct from their parents’ homeland culture (the first culture) and from that of the country in which they spend their formative years but of which they are not native members (the second culture).
The “third culture” inhabited by Third Culture Kids does not unite the first and second cultures, but rather comprises a space for their unstable integration (Knörr, 2005). Knell (2001, p.16) describes this “third culture” as “the community of people who have the shared experience of growing up in two cultures. It’s not just a blending of the first two cultures”. To add to this complexity, TCKs may find their first culture to be multiple, if their parents come from different passport backgrounds, and their second culture is frequently multiple also, depending on the number of countries hosting their childhood years.”
(Cason, R. Unpublished Doctoral Thesis, 2015, pp.7-8)
In other words, Third Culture Kids are the children, and later, the adult children of expatriates and have lived a significant portion of their childhoods abroad. What is deemed as ‘significant’ is sometimes debated, but I’d be tempted to assume that if an individual feels they were impacted by whatever time period abroad, it was probably significant (!)
The range of experiences captured by this very shorthand label, TCK, is immense, and yet we as human beings cannot resist an opportunity to classify, and so a number of TCK profiles have emerged. They’ve even made it to Buzzfeed:
Of course, the problems occur, as in any identity or status, when the expectations of the label start to exert its own pressures on the shape of our life story.
What happens if you identify as a TCK and are not in love with traveling?
What happens if you identify as a TCK but are only fluent in one language?
What happens if you identify as a TCK but are feeling suffocated by the pressure to do exciting things in your life?
Well, it turns out you are you first 😉
Our identities and the labels we carry are useful, even vital, to our feeling a part of community, to finding our Place. They let us know where we belong, and where we don’t. They mark out the boundaries of social expectation, and communicate to others the origins of our behavioural quirks.
But yes, sometimes they restrict us. Even our TCK identity. TCK-ness could be seen as the last option standing for people who so often defy categorisation, and in doing so, confound belonging. For TCKs, therefore, feeling excluded from their TCK-ness is deeply damaging. For there is often nowhere else to go.
When we make assumptions about what TCKs should think, feel, and have in their lives, we risk excluding those who are looking for a Place to Be.
Can we fail at our identities? Can we fail at being TCKs?
No. For these identities are rooted in the past. In the ‘already happened’ parts of our Selves. We may share characteristics, as many researchers (including myself) have demonstrated, but these must never become prescriptive expectations of values or behaviour.
If we share experiences in life, it’s because we are reacting to the same life events and catalysts, rather than because we all share a personality type.
And if we can’t fail at our identities, if we can be freed from the pressures to be Extraordinary and anti-Normal, perhaps we engage with our TCK-ness from a perspective of exploration, rather than fatalism, and get to know the Selves that lie beneath.
If you would like to find out how Life Story can help you engage with your own identity compassionately and productively, do get in touch for a free consultation. I work across time zones and have flexible working hours to fit around your needs. I’d love to hear your story!