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Two Key Lessons from a TCK Childhood

From the series The TCK Experience—Foundational Key Concepts

This is the final post in a three-part series on the key concepts of being a third culture kid (TCK). The first post dealt with the three cultures that make up the third culture experience; the second looked at the unique factors that affect TCKs born after 1985. Here two key lessons common among TCKs are explored.

As we grow up, the culture(s) we live in teach us lessons about how the world works. The experiences we have shape our understanding of life and people. Each culture teaches us answers to certain questions, which together form a worldview. How do I show respect to others? How do I show gratitude? How do I express politeness? How do I express love? What does success look like? What are the most important things in life? The answers to these questions, and more, are supplied by the families and communities we grow up among.

TCKs grow up with different answers coming from different cultural influences. Sometimes these answers contradict one another! An action considered polite in one environment could be considered very rude in another. TCKs tend to understand intuitively that there is more than one way to see a situation—more than one answer to each question. The foundational worldview TCKs construct, therefore, is strongly influenced by the experience of living in between cultures.

In this post I am going to briefly outline the two most common “lessons” expressed by TCKs during hundreds of interviews I’ve conducted.

Everyone Leaves

Frequent goodbyes were a key childhood experience for most of the TCKs I interviewed. Perhaps because they moved frequently, perhaps because they watched many of their friends leave, perhaps from many summers of reconnecting with and then farewelling family members. Some also attended conferences with their parents’ organisations, where they made and said goodbye to new friends each year. Frequent goodbyes formed part of their understanding of the world, and taught a lesson: everyone leaves. There is no such thing as a permanent friend. Any investment in a new person is an investment in the goodbye you will inevitably have to say to them.

I lived with a mentality that “everyone leaves.” I just recently moved off to college and I had a really close friend get mad at me for pushing her away and trying to do anything I could to minimize the hurt I knew was coming. Honestly I still expect us to eventually lose touch anyway because people move on. That’s all I’ve ever known.” –Maddie, USA passport; grew up in Germany and Japan.*

TCKs respond to this common experience in different ways. Some try to avoid goodbyes, or to hide from the painful feelings that go with them. Some try to avoid investing deeply in relationships, especially when they feel the risk of losing the person is high—that they will move soon (which might mean anywhere in the next two years). They may excel at initial connections—being warm and friendly—but stop short of sharing their deeper selves. Some TCKs go the opposite direction—diving deeply into friendships immediately, for fear there won’t be enough time to develop a relationship slowly.

These different reactions may seem unconnected, or even contradictory, on the surface. Yet they all spring from the same common belief, a childhood “lesson” learned through the many transitions inherent in international life. Changing these patterns is not a matter of learning techniques for engaging in relationships. Instead, what will most help these TCKs is to engage with the grief of losing so many relationships in the past, so suppressed grief won’t interfere with future interactions.

No One Understands

The only “lesson” raised more often than “everyone leaves” was the idea that “no one understands.” Almost every TCK I interviewed spoke about the experience of feeling misunderstood. Being caught between cultures as children meant that few people in their lives shared their experiences—whether family or friends. A third of the 750 TCKs I surveyed said they felt misunderstood by their own parents, and more than half by extended family members.* 41% felt misunderstood by friends in their host country, and 67% by friends in their passport country.

TCKs often feel they will never be known completely; at best they are known slightly by people all over the world. Each person only knows tiny snapshots of parts of their lives. —Gabe USA passport; grew up in China

Part of the experience of living “in between” lies in not completely sharing the experiences of those on either side. TCK friends and siblings were cherished for their shared experiences—people who could “get it” because they too had lived it. Losing these relationships was extremely painful—whether through a family moving out of an international community, or a sibling moving away. With everyone else, TCKs spend a lot of time explaining the whys and hows of their lives.

Here in Thailand I have to explain all my Australian terms, that Christmas is in summer and still the  25th of December and stuff like that, but then back in Australia I need to explain everything! —Katherine, Australia passport; grew up in Thailand

Several TCKs I interviewed said they had a breakthrough in this area of their lives when they developed a deep relationship with a person from a non-TCK background. This helped them see that while so many aspects of their lives were different, the emotions underneath are common to humans generally. Understanding can be built, even when it is not inherently present.

I know that there are many out there who are just like me, or at least can understand how I feel. There is a sense of isolation from others who are not TCKs, but I’ve always felt that in time most other people can at least comprehend the feelings we have. Loneliness is a universal trait among humans, whether it’s because you were always the weird kid at school or because you lived two thousand miles away from anyone who spoke English. While the reasons may be different, it’s the same type of pain we share. —Eugene, USA passport; grew up primarily in China

A huge motivation behind what I do is the knowledge that understanding can be cultivated. I do not share all the experiences of a third culture childhood, but I can listen, and learn, and come to understand their perspective. We all can. We can share the work of bridging the gap between our experiences.

* All statistics and quotes come from Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century by Tanya Crossman, Summertime Publishing, 2016.






Image credit: Amine Rock Hoovr on Unsplash.
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Tanya Crossman

Tanya Crossman

Tanya Crossman is the author of Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century. She is passionate about building bridges of understanding between Third Culture Kids (TCKs) and those who care for them. She has mentored hundreds of teenage and young adult TCKs over the past 13 …View Full Bio

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