Recently, there’s been an explosion of media recognition of a phenomenon that’s been around for hundreds of years—the TCK (Third Culture Kid) and the CCK (Cross Cultural Kid). A TCK is a child who has grown up in one or more cultures other than their parent(s) and has created a third culture unique to their experience which they identify as, while the CCK nomenclature covers a broader spectrum of children living between cultures such as immigrants, refugees, international adoptees, and bi-racial or multi-racial children.
TCKs are extremely adaptable to new situations because their life experience has required it. One of the tools in their bag of tricks is to blend in, quickly learning the lingo, popular songs, and favourite foods to appear as locals to the country they currently live in. They know they belong everywhere while simultaneously never quite fitting in everywhere. This ability to adapt may mean they also struggle with a clear sense of identity.
In a world that celebrates diversity, we are still very patriotic to our countries, no matter where we reside. For those who’ve grown up in a monoculture, a sense of identity is grounded in anchors such as traditions, languages, foods, physical places, and significant people. The TCK, however, through repeated moves ends up with a plethora of identity anchors to choose from rather than a dominant set leading to a single identity.
As educators, our dual challenge is to adequately teach both academics and life skills. The TCK may already have life skills that exceed ours, as they easily navigate foreign airports, bargain in open-air markets, and translate into multiple languages. Yet one life skill they struggle with is being certain of who they are and then leading from that place of security. This is most commonly seen in their late teen years and early 20s, when they transition to university while often adjusting to the culture shock of living in a country which feels foreign to them.
Though identity insecurity may not clearly manifest itself till their higher education experience, TCKs need support much earlier. The repeated normalized losses TCKs experience can lead to negative effects such as anger, depression, and the inability to grieve losses or process them. One significant way we can help them is to provide a safe space for TCKs to tell their story as they acknowledge and affirm the losses and begin to accept them as part of their identity. The medium may vary, from artistic expression to an English writing assignment on identity, but the purpose is the same. We can measure success when TCKs own their identity and understand their belonging is not tied to the physical or even the intangible but rather is found within themselves. This identity will continue to be shaped as they shift between cultures and countries but the core of who they are—a strong individual with an identity grounded in a valuable heritage of difference—will always remain.