Third Culture Kids Aren’t a Triangle–They’re a Wave

A recent conversation sucked me, feet first, into the black hole of expat doubt. And by doubt, I really mean: “What the hell is going to happen to my kids at the end of this experiment?”

The conversation, with a brilliant friend who studies cultural differences, was about the unknown effect of removing yourself from the cultural petri dish. That dish, teeming with spoken and unspoken norms and rules, almost always influences your actions and reactions to the world around you. It’s like the third Newtonian culture law.

So what happens when you go all Matrix and pull the plug on the cultural fluid you’re floating in? What happens when you’re a third culture kid and you start mixing and matching your microbes?

There’s a whole cottage industry devoted to third culture kids, or TCK as they’re often referred to. And, in my cheeriest, happiest moments, I think of all these expat kids, who are growing up as cultural guinea pigs, as the forerunners of a new and better global order, one without borders or walls. But that’s when I”m feeling cheery.

When I’m not, I wonder, and yes worry, about the difficulty of not having a petri dish of your very own.

Identity, culture, association. Norms, taboos. Whether to be on time for a meeting, ten-minutes early, or fifteen minutes late, whether to engage or step back, how to relate to ‘others’, small talk, traditions, volume, ideas.

Cultural microbes.

****

A different conversation with another long-term CPH friend ended with this: if you died, would you want to be buried here?

Both answers? An emphatic no.

My sons were born in NYC to an American mother and a British father. They spent some of their formative years in Cyprus, and have now lived in Denmark longer than anywhere else. Though I don’t speak much Danish, they do. They could, if they wanted to, start the process of applying for permanent residency. They navigate Copenhagen like it is their backyard, because it is. And yet they don’t, nor would they ever, consider themselves Danish. They live here, but they’re not Danes.

The hard truth is this: No matter how long I live here, how much I love my life here, or how much I appreciate Danes, I will never feel Danish. My own un-assimilation gets passed down to my kids, consciously or not. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t picking up on the clues and cues around them. How could they not? They might not be plugged into the Danish Matrix, but they’re around plenty who are.

So what the hell kinds of cultural norms are my kids absorbing? Well, to my shame, they swear like Danes (who swear a lot). Dad thinks it’s important to teach them the art of British banter. Mom thinks its important to teach them the spirit of American rebellion.The younger one is a budding socialist, but it’s hard to tell if that’s due to marinating so long in Denmark or his increasingly pinko-leftie mother. The older one, who will be legal drinking age in a mere eighteen months, seems to have no interest in the Danish teenage party scene. They’re soaking in some weird cultural slop, made up of ingredients from our respective cultures, plus the one they live in, plus the stuff they pick up from living in an international community.

And so here they are, teetering on this no-citizen’s-land, picking and choosing what they like and getting rid of the rest.

Perhaps in an age when we’re increasingly recognizing gender fluidity, cultural fluidity is not far behind?

When my kids go to the US for summer breaks, they morph and flow until they find a comfortable wavelength to inhabit. The same when they do when they reside in Denmark. Or when they go to the UK.

A while back there was an excellent commentary about expats and immigrants and their life as a triangle; when you no longer fit where you came from, but not exactly where you live either. The more I think about it, the more I believe that triangle is too angular. It’s too rigid. Perhaps instead of a triangle it should be a wave, fluid and ever-changing.

Culture, for my kids, is now a spectrum rather than a shape. It’s a wavelength they exist upon, altering as they see fit.

****

So what does that mean, practically speaking?

Like most high school parents, I have (more than just) occasional anxious bouts of “Oh my god, how are we going to pay for college?”. Coupled, for good measure, with “Oh my God, WHERE is he going to go to college?”. This is inevitably followed by “He doesn’t play the Piccolo or do ice-dancing or build orphanages in Bolivia, if he has to write an essay, what the hell is he going to write about?

Until it occurred to me his cultural fluidity is an asset. His life on this spectrum is an asset in and of itself. This wave shape, far from setting him adrift, is what makes him desirable. Because he’s not rigid. He’s adaptable. He’s a cultural shape-shifter.

There’s no turning back from a more globally interconnected world. With a hop, skip and a plane ride, we’re exposed to life outside of our own cultural expectations. The internet and social media makes cross-cultural connectivity not only easy, but inevitable. The veil has been lifted, the red pill swallowed. You can hide behind hedgerows or border walls–sorry, fences–all you want, but the truth is, the world is changing.

We need adaptability. We need fluidity. We’re going to need lots of immigrant and TCK–the first wave, if you will.

Maybe all this really means is that I don’t need to worry at all. Perhaps my kids are going to be just fine.

Though I still have no idea how we’re going to pay for college.

 

For more lessons from a decade abroad, check out There’s Some Place Like Home, available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.

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19 thoughts on “Third Culture Kids Aren’t a Triangle–They’re a Wave

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  1. I love this idea of cultural fluidity! If we could only get more young people to live abroad – bring on obligatory National Service! And get ready for the peace brokers of the future!

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    1. Yes–I think living outside your cultural comfort zone, learning that we, as humans, almost always have more similarities than differences–it goes a long way toward paving the road of compromise and peace.

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  2. I’ve managed to take my kids out of the US to travel a few times but not to live. Would love to have done that.

    I wonder: Where do your kids see themselves going to college or where do they see themselves living? Is there a point where you anticipate returning to the US or will you be living in another country after Denmark?

    My dream would be, post retirement, to live someplace out of the US for a year, someplace else for a year, etc. The main hurdles to that scenario are grandkids I can’t imagine being away from for more than a few weeks at a time and a husband who is very rooted. So I expect it will be solo travel of a month or two here and there with my husband occasionally agreeing to go.

    When one grows kids with a traveling mindset it can lead to a life of travels thereafter. I have a dear friend I taught with who since retiring has more travel miles than anyone I know. She’s never home; has one grown child in Hong Kong, one in Wisconsin (with one grandchild), and another one who used to be in Britain but is now in CA (with four grandchildren). She travels A LOT (from Indiana) between the grandkids’ residences staying for a couple weeks each visit (providing childcare respite for the parents) and also goes once a year to Hong Kong.

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    1. Those are questions that we ask ourselves constantly–and sometimes keep me up at night.

      As for grandparents–that it the heaviest burden I carry, keeping the grandkids “away”. I’d argue that the time they DO spend with family is more quality time, and I try my hardest to make sure that they keep in regular tough, but I’m not going to lie, it’s hard.

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  3. Yes, it is very fluid. Where , in your adult frame of mind , cultural nuances are very obvious differences intentionally navigated, in your tck ‘s , the navigation is a natural part of it al, as they’ve always done it. As a parent, it’s strange that we will never understand our children’s childhood (because we weren’t raised outside the cultural petri dish). I recall guiding my son with his graduate program essay – which had to do with working with diversity. He felt he had nothing to say. Because it was such a natural part of his existence , I found myself highlighting his norm against the reality of his American counterparts . And from there, his essay developed. It comes back to the question about how he liked that overseas ‘experience’ – his response remains ‘that was his reality, THIS is his experience.

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    1. That’s my expectation as well, but it’s interesting to note that your son didn’t even think of his ‘diversity’ or his experiences as outside of the norm–because to him, they weren’t. I think it’s only when we sit back and really tease them out and think about them that they become more apparent. In a good way!

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  4. A beautiful read! We are third culture kids ourselves, and we live far away from our birthplaces and parents. It sometimes feels lonely as our exposure to cultural diversity is far different from those we interact with on a daily basis. But when you find another third culture kid with a similar experience, you instantly click! It’s that special bond that you can create with other TCKs that makes us unique.

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  5. Great topic and relatable! I’m a TCK myself. I used to feel as though I didn’t have a place to call home. However, rather than feel like I belong nowhere, I feel as though I am so lucky to be able to have called so many places home and have been exposed to other ways of life aside from my own. No TCK experience is the same, but I also feel that many TCK’s are more rounded, empathetic individuals who can relate to others better than most (especially those far from ‘home’). Will be forever grateful to my parents and I’m sure your children will really appreciate the life and sacrifice you have made for them growing up as a TCK!

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