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Cultural Complexity and Hidden Diversity: Exploring Today's TCKs

08 Feb 2015 6:59 PM | FIGT Blog Editor (Administrator)

This is the second in a series of excerpts from the soon to be published first FIGT Yearbook, written by the 2014 Parfitt Pascoe Writing Residents

Insights and Interviews from the 2014 Families in Global Transition (FIGT) Conference

The Global Family Redefined

CONCURRENT SESSION led by Rebecca Grappo, Ryan Haynes, Ruth Van Reken and Alexandra Pomeroy

By Sue Mannering

I raised three of my own Third Culture Kids (TCKs) in the Middle East but I never knew such a term existed until attending the 2014 Families in Global Transition Conference.

‘A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experiences, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar backgrounds.’

– Ruth Hill Useem

Insights into this session’s topic were provided by four panelists whose backgrounds are as diverse as the TCKs they were discussing.

Rebecca Grappo has lived in 12 countries over the last 30 years and raised three TCKs of her own. Her specialty lies in individualized college advising for TCKs and boarding school placements. She is president of RNG International Educational Consultants, LLC and has a Masters in Education.

Ruth Van Reken was born in Nigeria and is an Adult TCK and author. Her work includes Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, which she co-wrote with David Pollock. A revised edition was released in 2009. The co-founder of the Families in Global Transition conferences, Ruth has spent almost 30 years travelling the world, speaking about global family living.

Ryan Haynes has a degree in Sports Medicine and a Masters in Counseling Education and has worked as a High School counselor for 15 years in four different countries.

Alexandra Pomeroy has a B.A. in International Relations and has worked as an employment counselor and a Balkans program officer for various government departments. Alexandra is on the board of the Foreign Service Youth Foundation and as the child of a Foreign Agricultural Officer lived in five different countries in her youth. Though she fits the definition of a TCK, her take on the term itself is an interesting one because she rejects the label.

How do TCKs Differ Today From the Past?

Ryan cited access to the Internet as one of the major differences, calling today’s TCKs ‘digital natives’. We are more connected than ever, apps such as Whatsapp, Viber, Facetime, and Skype help keep us globally connected. Air travel is easier, cheaper and thus more accessible than ever before. Alexandra mentioned other social networks such as Facebook and Google hangout, but, she said, these networks can also serve to make us feel disconnected.

Cyber bullying, porn and violent video games are some examples of the destructiveness of technology says Rebecca. Some kids are hiding behind the screen. Addiction to video games can occur when they don’t feel connected. They “descend into their own isolated world”, an alternate virtual world full of imaginary friends. While listening to this I think of the teenager I tu- tored in English some time ago. Eastern European, living in the Middle East, addicted to video games played all night, linked via cyberspace with friends from the passport country, her father posted to Asia.

Ruth added that despite the advantages of connectivity, the fact that today’s TCKs live in many different countries may prompt you to ask, “how do you change your cultural mirror?” and “how do you sort out who you are?” In addition these moves are increasingly complicated by what she refers to as ‘non-intact’ families (divorced or separated and living on different continents, for example). You can stay connected but it doesn’t change how far away you are from each other.

Rebecca suggests that the environment impacts TCKs today too. Some postings are to countries in turmoil. Terrorism threats have an impact on schooling. Your passport or the nationality of the school you attend may mean security is upgraded from time to time or always. Certainly when my own family lived in the Middle East, the international school my daughter attended was occasionally subjected to upgraded security, and she would come home wide eyed and tell me all about it. After a while, it became the norm, and she may have mentioned it in 

The separation of a close family member will impact TCKs too, says Rebecca. Consider the case of an unaccompanied assignment for a family member to a danger zone. And my mind wanders this time to fathers posted on temporary assignments to neighboring countries, flak jackets part of their luggage.

Cultural Complexity

Alexandra listed the terms ‘cross cultural, bi-racial and TCK’ and then she said something surprising, to me, anyway, particularly as the term TCK was new to me. She said the terms were contrived and that the definitions were mostly ‘academic debate’. She doesn’t identify with the word TCK and she finds the label and other labels annoying. Furthermore, she argued that she and her friends found the term TCK in particular, to be elitist.

Ruth, in her quiet, caring and understanding way, countered that young people don’t like labels yet there are issues and terms that provide a common ground for discussion. Teenagers want to be normal so may reject the term TCK. “It’s not productive to tell kids who they are,” said Ruth. Let them tell you and describe it rather than others prescribing it. Yet it’s important to ‘connect the dots’ and to encompass all examples of this concept, for example, children of refugees. It’s important to talk about loss, both overt and hidden. Transitions, she said, are universal so how do we take the message and apply it? Ideas grow and change with time and she questioned how to take these base assumptions and build on them. It would be ideal to find a ‘language that connects with everyone’. Rebecca added that the term TCK covers a variety of socio-economic groups and it’s helpful for people to put a name to these experiences.

Ryan, who currently works in an international school in Bangkok, and has seen culture clashes firsthand said, “people are curious.” What’s it like to be a TCK in a country where you stand out? What’s it like to repatriate? Any child who studies in a different country will go through a re-entry ‘process’ if they return to their passport country.

I couldn’t help but think of the rejection of another term, ‘trailing spouse’, by many at the conference and have empathy for Alexandra’s hypothesis.

Strengths and gifts of being a TCK
Looking beyond the challenges of the term TCK, those raised as one can benefit from the strengths that being a TCK offers, strengths such as:

  • The ability to talk to anybody
  • Being unafraid of, in fact, welcoming, new experiences
  • Generally being able to transition well
  • Having a three dimensional view of the world
  • Being flexible
  • Seeing the world as an interesting place
  • At 40, using who they are
  • Using their background of diversity in their ability to interact
  • Having a sense of adventure


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