Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Third Culture Parent

On my bio on Twitter I'm down as being a Third Culture Parent. I'm not really sure if this is an official term, but I suppose by it I mean that I am the mother of two Third Culture Kids. The term TCK is the title of a book by the late David Pollock; I was given this book, which is is about the experience of growing up among worlds, back in 2004 on my birthday from the Head of Lower School when I worked at ISA.

Tonight I asked our 16 year old daughter, "Where do you think home is?" Her answer was, "I don't know, I don't think I have a home". It was such a sad little answer that it made me pick up the TCK book again and flick through the first few pages to see if her feeling was a common one (it is). I then started thinking about how I would answer that question myself. I've lived away from my "home" country for longer than I've lived in it. For me the country no longer feels like home, though when I go back and visit my mother who still lives in the house we moved to when I was 5, that does feel like home. However, I cannot imagine ever moving back to the UK. Actually to be honest I have no idea where we will end up. I think for us home is just wherever we happen to be right now, and the things we bring with us from place to place are the things that make it feel homely.

I'm a pretty international person. This is now the 7th country I've lived and worked in, however as my entire childhood was spent growing up in England I was pretty secure in that culture before leaving it almost 30 years ago. Since then I have worked in 4 European countries, the USA and 2 Asian countries. I met my Dutch husband in Portugal and both our children were born in Holland, though they have British passports and birth certificates. For our 18 year old son who is now at university in England, this is the first time he has ever lived in his "passport country". Our children left Europe for Asia when they were 11 and 14 years old, and much of what they are today has been influenced by their growing up in a country that neither my husband or I are from.

One of the characteristics of TCKs is that they "build relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any," which leads to a sense of belonging everywhere and nowhere that our daughter described tonight.

For myself, one of the things I appreciated most about living in Asia was experiencing what it was like being a minority. It has given me a different perspective that will stay with me my whole life long. I was clearly a foreigner - I looked different and I thought differently from most of the people around me. For our children, many of their friends were Thai, and many of the cultural norms of Thailand rubbed off on them. They certainly looked different, but in many ways they thought in the same way as their Thai friends - peer pressure was certainly different. With our son I noticed he became much more respectful towards elderly people. Back in Europe again we are like hidden immigrants - we look the same as everyone else, but we actually think very differently as a result of our experiences and in some ways this has made moving back to Europe more difficult than when we moved away to a country where people expected us to think differently.

One of the great advantages this experience has given our children (and ourselves) is that we are very aware that there can be more than one way of looking at the same thing. Qualities that are valued in our Western society, such as independence, are not quite so highly valued in countries where the extended family is the norm, so we have often found ourselves questioning our own values. Our children have learnt to be more adaptable, but at times don't really know how to "fit in", they seem to move from one place to another easily, but often don't seem very settled anywhere, though they have large numbers of friends from all over the place and have even managed to maintain some long-term, long-distance friendships.

People often look on our lifestyle as being fairly "glamorous". It can be tough too! Generally I think the plus points outweigh the negative ones, but I guess only time will tell.


  1. How interesting!!!! ---coming from someone who never left Louisiana until the Army moved us to Alaska. I imagine that your TCK's are well rounded individuals who truley recognize difference, and eventually they will find a place they are willing to call home.

  2. Maggie, it is a lot of fun for me to read your reflections about living all over the world. I have lived in Colorado my entire life and my other culture experiences have come from travel. It is not the same as living among people who think differently. I feel so much more understanding of cultures and different ways of thinking since being connected with people all over the world via social networks.
    I think that your kids are blessed to have such experiences and to be able to feel "at home" anywhere they are.

  3. Maggie, this is so interesting, thank you. I do feel the same way, although I have only lived in Europe (France, Spain, UK and now Germany). I am French myself and my two little boys were born in the UK. We now live in Germany and because they are so little (4 and 2 years old), I Think they will become more German than French! But I must admit, I am now worried of moving places because of my children. I know it will be a great experience for them and they will learn how to adapt, which I guess is one of the key skills required by our century. On the other hand, as you say it can be tough too!