Life between the ivory tower and a cardboard box

I am a Third Culture Kid: Introduction

TCK Book CoverI am a Third Culture Kid.

A third culture kid (TCK) has been defined as:

“A person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership of any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of a similar background.” (Pollock)

What does this mean? It means that my years growing up and living in South Korea, the Philippines, Grenada, and then the United States affected me, my cultural identity, and worldview in ways that make me different from a person who has lived in the same town, city, or country. Not better or superior; just different.

TCKs inhabit a cross-cultural and highly mobile environment. As a result, they are described as culturally sensitive, multilingual, possess high adaptability, and have truly multi-cultural perspectives and thought processes. Many writers and scholars have said that TCKs are the model citizens of the future global society, as they are products of a postmodern world where political borders and cultural differences cease to matter. As a TCK, I believe that being able to understand diverse perspectives can certainly benefit the world and can change how people view things like race, culture, nationalism, heritage, and the general idea of difference. I think that being a TCK is what interested me in majoring in Anthropology. While it all sounds very romantic, TCKs also face some key issues that tend to further confuse their own sense of identity.

One of the biggest (if not the most important) issues TCKs face personally is grappling with the idea of where “home” is. This is especially pronounced when faced with the question, “Where are you from?” I feel that TCKs are particularly sensitive to the implications of the question “Where are you from?”, which exacerbates the anguish of finding an appropriate answer. The question “Where are you from?” is loaded with expectations that wherever you lay your head at the end of the day dictates who you are, what your family is like, what religion you practice, what food you like to eat, and even what color your skin should be. This leads to the deeper assumption that where one lives or where one is a citizen must automatically be one’s “culture”, leading to a lot of stereotyping. Because TCKs grow up with diverse experiences and tend to be highly mobile, where one lays his/her head at the end of the day tends to change and can often be at odds with what kind of person you are. As a result, TCKs will argue that one’s parents’ cultures and one’s host culture are no indication of their cultural identity. Of course, they may be influenced by both, as they will undoubtedly be raised by parents who may identify with their own cultures and will have contact with the locals of the host culture. Nonetheless, because they do not have full ownership of either as a foreigner, TCKs inhabit an in-between space where they are products of both yet do not claim full identification with either. This in-between space is termed the “third culture”, hence the name “third culture kid.”

Plane wingTo illustrate, I don’t have “a hometown” in the conventional sense. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines hometown as “the city or town where one was born or grew up; also : the place of one’s principal residence.” First, since I grew up in many places, by definition, I have more than one hometown. As a result, I feel uncomfortable with the idea that home is just one place. One can have homes all over the world. Second, the idea of a “principal residence” seems to me like a relative term, especially when one is mobile. Up until July, my “principal residence” was my apartment in Des Moines. Obviously, I don’t live there anymore, but does that then stop Des Moines from being my hometown? I feel that the idea of a hometown is another one of those ways to gauge where one “is from.” The conventional idea behind a hometown lead others to believe that, because I was born in Korea, I must speak Korean, or that, since I lived in Grenada, I must have some Afro-Caribbean ancestry and inserted the word “mon” at the end of every sentence. I don’t or didn’t do any of these things, but I did live and go to school in both countries, I ate local cuisine, I was friends with my neighbors, and my family shopped at all the same places that everyone else did. If that doesn’t make a place a home, then I don’t know what does.

The other important issue for TCKs is a sense of unresolved grief. High mobility allows TCKs to experience many different cultures, either through moving or by having friends come and go. While this lends itself to a more cross-cultural lifestyle, it also sets the TCK up for feelings of loss and culture shock that may or may not be addressed fully, due to pressure to adapt to the new environment. Homesickness also pervades as a form of grief, where TCKs often miss their old homes and must deal with the question of whether they will be able to return.

During my teenage years, I remember constantly badgering my dad about when we could go visit Grenada again. To this day, I still have not gone back for a visit. I still think about it a lot. However, I was able to visit Korea when I was 19, right before I started college. It is really funny how a physical place can elicit such a visceral reaction in a person. Little things like a storefront or a street corner brought back so many memories I didn’t even know I had, of afternoon strolls or morning walks to school. I revisited old haunts and was able to go to the hospital where I was born and meet the woman who helped me come into the world. Despite not having lived there in 14 years, in a way, being there made me feel complete and like I had found my way home again. Even just two months ago, when I had a stopover in Seoul, I felt at ease looking out the window and knowing that I was nearer to all the spaces I had once inhabited. I hope to someday go and visit again. I also hope that one day soon, I can feel the same way upon setting foot in Grenada and the U.S. again.

I’m not worried, though. To a TCK, the world is so small that distance is never an issue. When the next trip comes is only a matter of when.

(to be continued)

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One response

  1. Pingback: I am a Third Culture Kid: Being “The Foreigner” « Where’s the money in that?

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