This week on the blog is my friend Mishell Hernández who I met at the Polyglot Conference in Thessaloniki, Greece. We both have culturally complicated stories and backgrounds whichis what brings her here. Let’s talk about TCKs.
A new family comes to town. The neighborhood is excited. Then the questions come.
"Where are you from?"
"Well... How much time do you have? Abridged version or the true story?"
Confused looks abound.
TCKs are the new kids on the block and I'm proud to say I am one, but it's been an interesting journey for lack of a better word. I am first generation mixed race and immigrant to the US. I am half-Mexican, half-Mongolian, born in Russia which makes me a “cultural chameleon”, a third culture kid, a TCK.
The childhood memories that deeply define my identity and roots are a mish-mash Viktor Tsoi songs, the sound of my abuelito’s farm in Mexico, picking tiny wild strawberries in the valleys of Mongolia. The images in my mind are accompanied by an orchestra of murmurs in my mother’s natal Mongolian, (Mexican) Spanish, Russian, and now (American) English.
This means I have three identities that form part of my core identity: Mongolian, Mexican, and American. Harmonizing the three in a world that tells me these are all separate is sometimes stressful, but also very enriching. Why not both? Or all three? This is how I define myself but I admit it was not always this way.
I am not much different than you, or you, or you, but I was taught to define myself as “Mexican”, “Mongolian”, “mixed”, “half-caste” when I was a child. This, in my experience, is my first knowledge of the concept of me and them which is usually harmless but sometimes it is the opposite.
When we grow older I think that we begin to put two and two together- am I really being treated differently, for better or for worse, because of my skin color, the shape of my nose, my faith, my label? The question will first cross our thinking minds when scrambling for answers. The answer is sometimes no, I have misjudged.
Sometimes, though, the answer is yes and this “yes” becomes much more complex for a TCK because the line between “us” and “them” is blurred even from within. Why can’t I be both? Or all three? I’ve never been persecuted for my background, but I do know what it is to feel a particular kind of inadequacy of never being able to fit in.
So what are TCKs?
In the 70s, sociologists Ruth Van Reken and David Pollock coined the term third culture kids, or TCKs, to describe the children of diplomats and missionaries who grew up outside of their parents’ passport countries. Have you ever heard the term “army brat”? They’re TCKs, too.
This is because as children they grow up in a host country due to their parents’ job abroad, but when it is time to repatriate to their passport countries (their parents’ country) they realise they do not fit in as it is expected of them to even though they speak their parents’ language and their passport states their nationality.
But then something funny happens: when they go back to their host country where they felt they fit in better, they find they also do not truly fit in either. They experience what I call the "I am, but I am not" syndrome. For me, I am Mongolian, but I am not. I am Mexican, but I am not. I am American, but I am not. I am Mexican, but I am also American and Mongolian, and so on and so forth.
Viggo Mortensen who plays Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings is a TCK. He was born in New York City, his mother was American and his father is Danish both of whom met in Norway. When he was a child, he moved to Venezuela with his family and then settled in Argentina where he attended primary school. At age 11 he moved to New York City once again.
Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States is also a TCK. He was born in Hawaii to a white American mother and a black Kenyan father. Obama then moved to Indonesia where he spent ages six to ten in Jakarta. Moreover, the term has expanded beyond academia and into social media to include the experience of all hyphenated individuals who are children of immigrants and interracial/interethnic families.
How does the TCK think?
My TCK background taught me to think like this: By speaking this language, what am I showing to the world about myself? By using this slang, this tone, inflection, what perception am I giving to this person? Given my sex and my brown skin, round nose, dark wispy hair on my arms, where do I fit in the spectrum of power politics?
Basically: what do I do to fit in with this culture and still be authentically me? I was an awkward kid (friends will say I still am!) and growing up I remember that my cultural and ethnic performance of my Mexicanness and Mongolianness was off-beat and weird. Thus I grew up hyperaware of behaviour and speech.
And all things considered, who am I really at the very end if not a conglomeration of their perception that we only control and cannot control to a certain extent? Cue identity crisis.
The Struggle of TCKs #datTCKlyfe
TCKs are familiar with this sentiment and most TCKs are familiar with existential crises. Many, not all, are now equipped with the resources and support to help understand the phenomenon because it is now much more common. The TCKs of the 80s and 90s are now in the work-force and making changes such as providing websites such as Denizen, networks like TCKidnow.com, and counseling tailored for cross cultural individuals. However, there is still work to be done.
Beyond simply defining a person as a TCK because of their life experiences, we need to think about what they say about the times we live in. In short, I believe we should continue to expand knowledge on inter and intra cultural communication and understanding, and human psychology as per affected by culture.
So now what?
We are all different and the same. TCKs are not the future nor are we the past. Like other groups, we are the present and I can bet on that. In my opinion, TCKs are not superhuman, we are not wunderkinds, we are not the future of humankind. We were only put in a particular set of circumstances that forced us to first adjust and then analyse the cultural paradigms we were brought up in.
What we do with that experience is a choice. I choose to help others think, and perhaps, make sense of their upbringing through my writing. So I will leave you with age old truths: do not judge a book by its cover, ask questions and listen deeply to the answers, do not assume anything.
Ask yourself: what happened with this person or this group for them to behave this way and how can I reconcile myself with it? Dare to call yourself out on your biases by reading books written by men and women of all colours, faiths, and sexual identities simply for the sake of understanding. Think, observe, appreciate-- because we as people are, for better or for worse, a many splendored thing.