Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Third Culture Kids

Last Friday several of my seventh grade students asked me if I was a TCK, a third culture kid. I considered this a great compliment, which is a far cry from my thoughts in college. In college, I thought TCKs were the kids who hadn't bought clothes or taken a shower since junior high. Apologies to my TCK friends.

I had to explain to my students that I am not a TCK. If there were such a thing as a TCA, a third culture adult, I would qualify. I lived in Hungary for two years, met my (American) husband there. We returned to the US for three years, but it took only a few months there to realize that we were not settled. We went to Thailand in 1999. In 2005, we again returned to the US for three years. Five years ago, we returned to Thailand; and this fall, we moved to South Korea.

I don't know if I will ever live long-term in the United States again. If it weren't for my parents and my need to update my wardrobe on occasion, I would have very little problem not returning to the US for an extended period of time. For me, Thailand feels like home. That's a bit crazy and my Thai language skills are
ไม่เก่งพอ/not good enough. I don't like spicy food, which rules out almost all Thai food. 

But my son was adopted from Thailand. My son's face is 100% Thai. Thai faces are the faces of my best student memories. Thailand is where I knew students in kindergarten and saw them graduate from high school. Thailand is far from idyllic, but when I think of a place to lay my head and rest, Thailand is that place.When I see pictures of friends in Thailand, it is where my heart longs to be.

Back to the TCK thing. This has set me to thinking on the types of TCKs in the world. Here are a few types of TCKs that I can think of. People can fit into more than one of these categories.

Image from
  1. The traditional TCK. A third culture kid is a child who has spent a significant amount of their childhood or formative years in a culture that is different from the home culture of the parents.
  2. The international school (only) TCK. This is a student who lives in their home culture, but attends an international school and thus is raised somewhat outside of the traditional cultural norms. (Many of my students in Bangkok fit into this category.)
  3. The TCK whose parents embrace TCKness. These are parents who are aware that their children are growing up outside of the home culture and foster the wide world that this experience brings.
  4. The TCK with reluctant parents. This is a TCK whose parents perhaps did not realize what they were signing up for when they agreed to bring up their children in a country other than their own. The parents may try to keep the children living under most if not all of the home country's cultural norms. 
  5. The TCK who is only in another country to attend school. In Thailand we had quite a few Korean students whose parents wanted them to learn English and attend international schools, but the students could not attend international schools in Korea. These students often ended up in some interesting permutation of a non-official boarding school, living with extended family, friends, or even on their own at a young age.
  6. The in-country TCK. These are some of my students now in Korea. They may or may not have spent a portion of their lives outside of their home country. Often they spent a few very young years away from their parents home country, but they have returned. These students have parents whose lives were not significantly transformed by their time overseas. These students tend toward the norms of their home country. (Some countries seem to have stronger pulls than others. Korea is a rather homogenous culture, so the path of least resistance certainly means living, acting, thinking Korean).
  7. The TCK Adult. This is me. I am a very different person than I would be had I not spent thirteen years of my adulthood (so far) outside of my home country. Major life events have taken place outside of my home country. I met my husband overseas. I met and adopted my son overseas. Friends have come and gone overseas. The sorrows and joys of my adulthood have largely been lived overseas. When I step back and look at my life, I ask myself, "Can I ever return to the US?"

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