As the worldwide mobile population increases, there have been a few studies done on the expatriate children who have spent a significant part of their developmental years outside the parents' culture. These children are called "Third Culture Kids" and once adults, they are called "adult Third Culture Kids."
Recently, I re-read a few books on the topic to have better understanding of ourselves as my son, a Third Culture Kid at age 11, and I, an adult Third Culture Kid, put an end to our life in New Delhi which lasted over 6 years and return to Japan by choice whereas my husband, whose job brought us to India, might move onto his next posting. We hope our decision is all for the best as a family, as my son enters his teenage years while I return to pursue my job aspirations in our home country.
Although I have my own adjustment anxiety, my pivotal concerns rest on my son. Could we make the repatriation further enrich his path to adulthood? How can I assure that my son retains his positive attributes as a Third Culture Kid while fostering his sense of who he is and adequacy as Japanese citizen at the same time? I anticipate it will be a challenge, as I, an adult Third Culture Kid, struggled with these issues in the past.
In this essay, I explore the realities that my son, a Third Culture Kid, might face as he goes back to his home country. First, I introduce the definition of the terms followed by my son's profile as a Third Culture Kid. Next, I write about our decision on repatriation and speculate on my son's immediate transition, common challenges for Third Culture Kids in a longer adjustment process as well as my role as a Third Culture Kid's parent. I conclude the article by sharing my sentiments on our repatriation as a parent of a Third Culture Kid and an adult Third Culture Kid in my mid-40s.
The definition of Third Culture Kids, adult Third Culture Kids, and Global NomadsEven though determined to end the global nomadic life, both my son and I remain a part of the following groups; my son as a Third Culture Kid and/or Global Nomad and I as an adult Third Culture Kid (ATCK) and/or Global Nomad in a broader sense*1. The definitions of each term are as follows:
Third Culture Kids (TCKs) Pollock and Van Reken, the co-authors of the groundbreaking book, "Third Culture Kids - Growing up Among Worlds*2," developed the following definition: "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 experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background." The book also explains that the term doesn't refer to the children who have been raised in what is often called the "Third World." Instead, "Third Culture" was first used by two social scientists, Ruth Hill Useem and John Useem, during the 1950s to refer to the shared lifestyle of the expatriate community as an interstitial culture, as opposed to the first culture, their home culture, and the second culture, their host culture, respectively.
Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) When Third Culture Kids grow up, they are called "adult Third Culture Kids." For instance, the current U.S. President Obama is an adult Third Culture Kid.
Global Nomads The term is often used interchangeably with Third Culture Kids (TCKs) and/or adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs). Norma McCaig, who coined the term in 1984, defines a global nomad as "a person of any age or nationality who has lived a significant part of his or her developmental years in one or more countries outside his or her passport country because of a parent's occupation." In the essay, I use the term TCKs and ATCKs as opposed to Global Nomads, since I find quite a few people use the term Global Nomads colloquially to refer to any expatriates who move from one country to another, even though their global mobility started in adulthood. My husband, for instance, would fall under the latter loose category of Global Nomads; despite his highly mobile international lifestyle once in adulthood, I find that his identity is firmly rooted in Japan.
Note on Kaigai/Kikoku-Shijyo Once in Japan, my son will be known as Kaigai Kikoku-Shijyo, or Kikoku-Shijyo, which refers to Japanese returnees' child/children*3. Unlike the aforementioned terms, such as Third Culture Kids and adult Third Culture Kids that are yet not commonly recognized beyond expat communities, everyone in Japan knows who Kaigai/Kikoku-Shijyo are. Since I believe my son's experience in India is closer to that of TCKs as opposed to that of Kaigai/Kikoku-Shijyo which also include Japanese children who attended Japanese schools abroad, I stick to the term TCK to describe my son in the essay.
My son's profile as Third Culture KidLet me first introduce my son's background as a TCK on behalf of him. The following introduction is edited, revised and approved by my son.
- "Born in Washington D.C. in 2001 as a son of Japanese mother (ATCK) and Japanese father (globally mobile individual since his mid-20s), I have dual U.S. and Japanese citizenship, though I feel mostly Japanese. My family moved to Tokyo when I was about 8 months old as my dad got a job there. Between age 1 and 5, I moved once from Greater Tokyo to Tokyo and attended three local daycare centers altogether. I don't remember many things from this period. In fact, I don't even remember my dad having lived with us during these years, but my mom told me it's because he was out of the country most of the time to make the world a better place, working in the field of international development. At age 5, we moved to New Delhi as my dad got a job with an international organization. I didn't know any English at that time but I was admitted to the Kindergarten of the American School. Now I am a middle schooler and honor student within the same American School. When I think about it, I have spent more than half of my life here in New Delhi.
I love my school. I have friends from all over the world. My mom often asks the nationality of my close friends, but many times I don't know because I don't care. In fact, going to this school makes me forget about nationality of my friends because we are all in one community, the American School community! But I must return to Japan together with my mom this year so that I can be a decent Japanese, I am told, while my mom also wants to work and settle there. As for my Dad, I will miss talking with him but I'm OK with it. I'm used to not having him around and to having our time together when he has vacations. Besides, we can always stay in touch via Skype and emails just like I do with my friends who have already left India.
My parents want me to spend my teenage years in Japan, but they say I can go anywhere in the world for college. My first choice is MIT even though I'm way too stupid to go there yet. But if I get scouted, I would rather be a soccer player! Where do I feel my home is? Gee, I don't know. I guess wherever my mom is. I've never heard the term, Third Culture Kid, but TCK sounds cool. I like it."
My son is, indeed, funny and one of a kind.
Our decision on repatriationWhereas my husband's work brought us to India (please see my previous article, Living in New Delhi, India as Expatriates), and we didn't know what to expect at the time, we ended up staying here over 6 years, having irreplaceable experiences that enriched our lives.
In contrast, we made a conscious decision on repatriation, concerning our son's education as Japanese and the mobile lifestyle during his adolescence coupled with my life without solid career prospects. Yet my anxiety outweighs the excitement of a new life ahead of us. For one, reentry is known to be one of the most difficult transitions for many TCKs, and it was for me in the past.
Outlook for Immediate TransitionMy son's immediate transition to a local Japanese public elementary school should go relatively smoothly, thanks to one of the Japanese education systems called "Trial Admission (Taiken Nyugaku)" for the Japanese children living abroad (Kaigai Shijyo), which allows them to attend Japanese public schools during their vacation so that they can have the experience of studying in Japanese schools. We have taken advantage of the system every summer since my son was in the first grade. As we were "home-less" in Japan, we stayed at my mom's home in Nagoya, my hometown, and he attended the public elementary school nearby. Despite a rough experience with a bully during one summer, we managed to cope with it.
When I discussed our possible return to Japan with my son, he told me that he would prefer to start his schooling with this school. Thus, I arranged logistical matters, such as housing and my job, accordingly. As for his Japanese proficiency, he should not have any trouble understanding instructions at school as we use Japanese at home and he loves reading books including Japanese novels. Still, both my son and I are aware that he must work hard to catch up with the level of Japanese language proficiency, writing in particular, for his grade level. In addition, knowing that my son does well at the current school, he may feel frustrated at first, but I trust it will be a matter of time before he feels academically sound among his peers.
Common challenges among TCKs during the processMy anxiety for my son goes beyond the initial transition and revolves around how he comes to term with who he is against all odds while reshuffling his positive attributes as a TCK to make things work. Although vague, the challenges are there, as is also expressed in the following way in the book by Pollock and Van Reken: "...for some TCKs the unrecognized challenges have caused years of frustration as they struggle to deal with matters that have no name, no definition. In the process, they have lost sight of the benefits they have also received."
For instance, my son's life as a TCK concomitant with attending one of the best American Schools known abroad has instilled the values, attributes or skills that I embrace in him, such as tolerance, adaptability, cross-cultural understanding/interests in the world affairs, looking at things from multiple perspectives, outspokenness, confidence, and social/communication skills for mutual understanding.
However, flipping the same coin to the other side, or moving to another social context, this set of positive qualities can be easily seen as negative traits. Should my son continue to behave and express himself in the same way in Japan where people share the common protocols that value harmony and humbleness, he might be labeled as argumentative, self-centered, obnoxious or disrespectful, rendering him puzzled or frustrated. Or else, his survival instincts may lead him to become a "cultural chameleon" as is often seen among TCKs as he quickly picks up and adapts to what is accepted and what is not accepted, in which case he is left with the feeling of not being quite himself. Similarly, although he currently identifies himself as mostly Japanese, he may start to feel like an unfit Japanese and more like a so-called "hidden immigrant"; that is, he "looks alike but thinks differently"*4.
Desperately seeking to have a sense of belongings and approval, he might give up all the gifts that he has gotten as a TCK as he forces himself to fit in. He could get resentful of the judgment, criticism or treatment that he gets, and start disliking and denying his own culture and own people, becoming rebellious. Or he might give up finding a way out and withdraw himself.
I can imagine so many scenarios that could go wrong.
I as a TCK's parent and as an ATCKThe specialists on the subject point out the importance of parental proactive support for TCKs to deal with the challenges, because when TCKs learn to work through these challenges, they become part of TCKs strength. In retrospect, I managed to make some sense from each struggle, thanks to my parents who always believed in me, and supported me even though I was confused, lost and sometimes out of hand during my adolescent years. I want to do the same to my son as my parents did to me.
On a positive note, however, a path ahead of my son may not be as rocky as I went through. Foremost, whereas I was also in and out of the country during my high school years, my son returns Japan before his entrance to Japanese junior high school, and we plan to let him spend his entire junior and senior high school years in Japan. Second, my son is happy-go-lucky person by nature, and having fun has been one of the most important needs that he has. Subsequently, he works hard to relate himself with other children, including during the "Trial Admission" at a Japanese local school mentioned earlier so that he can simply have good time. Furthermore, he makes friends not because they understand each other's feelings, but because they share the common interests in doing some activities, such as playing soccer. Third, I believe his life as a TCK provided him of a foundation to survive and thrive wherever in the world, including his mother country; his TCK qualities, such as openness and acceptance to the people from diverse backgrounds, should help him adjust back to his own culture, applying the same skills to his own kinds as he embarks on his journey as an adolescent.
Unlike in my old times, owing to the study on the subject, now both my son and I know that we are a TCK and an ATCK. As for me, learning about TCKs not only empowered me and helped me validate my sentiments and experiences of the past, but also equips me to support my son appropriately when a challenge arises. Without knowing about TCKs, I learned the hard way that I may be an unconventional Japanese but it doesn't mean I failed as Japanese; I turned out to be different because of my upbringing. Should the similar struggles happen to my son, I can remind him that it's normal to feel the way he feels as a TCK, yet he can still be wholesome Japanese and sound global citizen at the same time.
Putting an end to our global nomadic life and making a homeIn the midst of writing the essay, I paid a visit to the American School campus after long absence. I re-realized how privileged we have been to belong to such a unique "Third Culture" community that is diverse, open, generous, and at the same time, inspiring and filled with positive energy and hope for the future.
Concurrently, I am grateful to have a place where I can go back and call "my home country" as I put an end to my global nomadic lifestyle which can be restless and exhausting. Now in my mid-40s, I reach the point where I want to "live/settle locally and work globally." Furthermore, despite various issues that the country faces and the challenges that I must accept as an ATCK in my own culture, I love Japan and I miss my people.
Thanks to IT advancement, even in Japan, both my son and I can continue to stay in touch with our friends scattered all over the world. Having been fortunate enough to be a part of the amazing TCKs/ATCKs community, it's about time for my son to immerse himself into his own culture, and for me to start making a home where my son can always count on coming back and feeling at home.
Annotation *1 I call myself "an ATCK in a broader sense," because two out of my three living abroad experiences before college happened not because of my parents' job, but because of my own decision to study abroad during my high school years: one year in Australia and another year in the U.S. *2 The first edition of the book is published as "The Third Culture Kid Experience" by Intercultural Press in 1999. The revised edition, "Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds" is published in 2009. The book is the most comprehensive book on the topic that I know as of now and a great read for TCKs/ATCKs. The revised edition of the book is also available in Japanese. *3 For further discussion of Kaigai/Kikoku-Shijyo, you can refer to Appendix B by Prof. Momo Kano Podolosky, "Comparing Third Culture Kids and Kaigai/Kikoku-Shijyos" in the revised version of "Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds" which is published in 2009. *4 According to the book by Pollock and Van Reken, Norma McCain and David Pollock began using the term, "hidden immigrants" in the mid-1980s to describe the experience of TCKs returning to their passport culture.
Other recommended books on TCKs and their parents
- - Pascoe, Robin (2006). Raising Global Nomads: Parenting Abroad in an On-Demand World. Expatriate Press: Vancouver, BC.
- Pascoe, Robin (2000). Homeward Bound: A Spouse's Guide to Repatriation. Expatriate Press: Vancouver, BC.
- Shahs, Aniket & Akash (2005). Club Expat: A Teenager's Guide to Moving Overseas. Dog Year Publishing: Indianapolis, IN.
- Sand-Hart, Heidi (2010). Home Keeps Moving: A glimpse into the Extraordinary Life of a "Third Culture Kid." McDougal Publishing: Hagerstown, MD.