May 14, 2013

What am I? One Third Culture Kid's View

I don't know how parents had meaningful conversations with their children before the advent of motor vehicles. It is my firm belief that if you want to discuss anything of import, or weasel any information out of your child, you'll have to be in a car with them. There is something in the aura of a car that loosens the tongue. I once had an entire "the birds and the bees" talk with a younger version of Zax on the way to soccer practice.

So Noisette had the following conversation with Sunshine on the way home from gymnastics the other day:

Sunshine: "Dad, am I a German or an American?"

Noisette: "Well, it's a unique situation. You are both. You were born in the United States and this makes you an American. But Mom and I are of German descent, and that also makes you a German. Therefore you have both passports."

Noisette, as an afterthought: "My guess is in the deepest of your heart you are an American."

Sunshine, hesitating only the tiniest fraction: "No, in the deepest of my heart I will always be a South African."

I'm not sure if this warms my heart of or it breaks my heart, but either way it's a powerful sentiment. And it's a sentiment you better reckon with when embarking on the adventures of expat life.

Because whether you like it or not you will be fiddling with matters in the deepest heart of your child or children. (Leaving aside, for the moment, the matters in your own deepest heart).

A touch of three cultures

For all the great stuff expat life can bring you - the honeymoon-like feeling of everything being new and beautiful when first arriving in a new place, exotic travel opportunities, new foods to add to your palate, paid annual home leave, great weather, domestic help, multilingual kids, friends all over the world - it also comes with a risk.

The risk that nothing will ever feel the same afterwards.

Considering that life is full of risks in any case, I consider it a risk worth taking. But just know that you're not only taking it on for yourself. Your kids will be forever changed by it too.

This brings me to the topic of Third Culture Kids or, for short, TCKs.

I haven't really talked much about TCKs on this blog. The reason, I think, is that I don't love that term. It's meant to describe children - people really - who've spent a part or all of their developmental years growing up outside of their parents' culture. Who pick up bits and pieces of each culture but don't ever acquire full ownership of any of them. Who often have more in common with other TCKs, regardless where they've lived, than with other people from their passport country. Who, for all the ease they may move around the world with, often struggle to adjust back to life in their home country after Repatriation.

But why Third? Why not Second? And what does that make of our kids who've spent their entire lives outside of Noisette's and my culture but then added on Asia and Africa at various times? Are they Fourth and Fifth Culture Kids? Maybe I'm just being too literal, but I still don't like that term. Global nomad better captures it for me. Someone who's at home everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Because whatever you call us, we all struggle with the question of where home is.

Remember how I wondered, at the end of Where is Home?, how our kids might answer that question one day? After showing you a video with a collection of interviews they did with other TCKs?

What I didn't expect is that they'd already be so sure of their answer, in their "deepest heart."

And that the answer might be South Africa - one of the countries we don't actually have any passports for.

I suspect this might change again over time, but at least for the moment Sunshine seems to be quite sure.

What I also didn't realize is the fact that the answer most likely will be different for all of our children, depending on how old they were when we lived in a place, what kinds of friends they made there, and really just their overall personalities.

Will this put us on four different continents in the future?

By the way, I will now embark on reading the book Third Culture Kids, which comes highly recommended by virtually everyone in the expat community. So that I can more competently answer the question of what "third" culture really means. I'm hoping it will answer many more questions. Stay tuned!


Mrs FF said...

Sunshine's response brought a tear to my eye. Ok more than a tear :)

Guess kids perceive things differently.

Sine said...

Mrs FF, it did the same to me! It's so beautiful but also sad at the same time. I guess that seals it for us - we will have to return one day. said...

Me too! In fact I can't stop crying now.

Sine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sine said...

Awwwww... Now you guys are getting me going again too!

Lara Kilfoil said...

I think, from what I have been told about the book (really should get to reading that too!) is that THIRD culture comes from each parent being from a different culture, and the child being raised in a third. For example, if I (American) and my husband (South African) did an expat assignment in Germany with our 5 year old. But, in all cases with the little ones, I am sure it is a crazy experience compared to other First culture kids, but one I don't think any of us would give up!! Now, on to downloading that book.....

karlamtz said...


I just came upon your blog and I noticed that you moved to SA a few years ago from OP, KS, is that correct? We are currently living in KC,MO and have had an opportunity arise that may relocate us to SA. I'd love to ask you some questions if at all possible.


Sine said...

Lara - that's first what I thought too but I did peek into the book on Amazon, and what it really means is this: The parents are one culture (or two different ones but don't have to be) and the family lives in another country (second culture) - the term Third Culture refers to the unique culture these kids adopt, like a third culture, that is unique to just these times of kids. It doesn't matter where they're from originally, they develop a distinct culture as an expat child that binds them more closely to other TCKs than either their host country or their home country. At least that's how far I got. I also have to read it fully.

Sine said...

karlamtz - yes, we did live in OP KS for three years prior to SA and now live in TN. Would be happy to answer any of your questions, just email me at joburgexpat at gmail dot com. Or go to the contact form on this blog.