TCKs – the aliens amongst us

“Where are you from?”

It’s a straightforward question, isn’t it? Not if you’re a Third Culture Kid (TCK, also known as a global nomad).

The term was coined in the 1950s by an American sociologist Dr Ruth Hill Useem, to describe people who have spent a significant part of their childhood years in two or more different countries. Useem found that, unlike people who move to a foreign country as adults, children incorporate elements of each culture they live in, but don’t fully integrate into any single one.  They combine pieces of their home and host cultures to form a “third culture.”

These experiences continue to affect people throughout their lives. Studies over the past decades have identified a number of common characteristics shared by TCKs, irrespective of which countries they lived in. These include good intercultural skills and interpersonal sensitivity, open-mindedness, adaptability, fluency in multiple languages, etc. Which is handy, right? However, growing up in different worlds also poses challenges: e.g. a sense of loss and grief (especially as many children don’t choose to move, it’s decided for them), confused identity, feelings of not belonging anywhere, rootlessness and cultural homelessness.

Why am I telling you this? Because I’m a TCK. I was born and spent the first eight years in Russia, the next nine years in Namibia, and then I came to New Zealand, on my own, aged 17, and ended up staying (for more than 15 years so far). I have elements of all these cultures ingrained in me. 

The whole rootlessness/confused identity issue did really bother me as a teen and in my early 20s. I felt that I was missing crucial chunks of experience to really belong anywhere and that I’d be a foreigner everywhere I go. The question “Where are you from” used to make me quite uncomfortable, especially if I didn’t want to share my entire life story.

I didn’t learn the term TCK until I was studying towards my second qualification in my mid-twenties, but I had been preoccupied with this topic long before that. 

In the first space opera I wrote when I was 16, kids get plucked from different planets to be sent to an intergalactic space school (to become crime fighting space agents, obviously), and the criteria for Earth kids was that they had to have lived in a foreign country, which was meant to make them adaptable enough to cope with living in space amongst the aliens. That book never saw the light of day, but I continued researching this topic for school essays and later for uni — that’s when I discovered the term Third Culture Kids.

There’s a piece of research that suggests making this discovery can be life-changing. It was for me. It helped me understand myself and my experiences, to realise there were many people who felt the same way as me, and to feel seen and validated. It’s similar to realising you have a neurodivergence for the first time, or figuring out your sexuality — your experience in the world suddenly makes a lot more sense.

Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, a book by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken is a great resource for anyone who wants to know more about this topic. As the cover says, this book is for “anyone who wants to understand the blessings and curses of growing up multiculturally.” You’ll find it useful if you’re a TCK yourself, or if you’re a parent of one, an educator, an employer, a researcher or a policy-maker.

I’ll also include a link to my old scribblings on this matter because they have handy references to more research and articles: https://midnightmediamusings.wordpress.com/tag/third-culture-kids/ 

Crawling to your dreams

Lately, I’ve been missing appointments like crazy, even with reminders. I wondered if I have early-onset dementia, but more likely, it’s just my brain telling me I have too many tabs open.

I’ve been getting frustrated with my inability to establish a routine this year, to find a balance between work and parenting, and to write regularly. My nomadic youth has taught me how to pack a suitcase using up every bit of space, and I’ve been trying to apply it to life, assuming that if I organise things the right way, I’ll be able to fit it all in. But what if there’s just too much stuff? What if I’m at full capacity and it just won’t fit, no matter how much I try?

I found this hard to accept because a) I compare myself to others — other people are able to manage jobs, kids and side projects, so should I; and b) I compare myself to my former self who was a bit of an overachiever.

But I don’t know other people’s circumstances and my own circumstances have changed. I’m dealing with a demanding (and often unpredictable) day job, a sensitive kid who hates sleep, an invisible chronic illness, a freshly diagnosed neurodiversity with it’s sensory and executive function challenges, and cumulative stress that was bound to catch up with me at some point. I don’t have much in terms of a support network either.

So, maybe this IS my capacity. Maybe that’s why my brain has been sending me the “not enough working memory” error message every time I try to plan something.

That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t follow my dreams and finish that damn book. But given I can’t take anything off my plate at the moment, I need to accept that it’s going to be messy. There won’t be regular writing sessions, balls will be dropped and appointments will be missed. There will be tears, and that’s okay.

Maybe one day my situation will change and I will be able to find consistency again (like I did last year for a few months). Until then, progress will be sporadic and opportunistic. 

In May, I took three weeks off work to edit. I might be able to do it again next year. Before then, there will be weekends where I get a few hours to myself, nights when I can afford to sacrifice more sleep to the writing gods, and bursts of focus and creativity. 

Of course, writing sporadically will take more time. And that too can feel frustrating. But once the book is finished, it won’t matter how many years it took to write. It will be mine, it will be done, and it will be tangible. And I’ll have the success of a kept promise to myself to surge me forward as I write the next book and the next.

So, if the burning elephants you’re juggling prevent you from writing every day or even every month, acknowledge your limitations. But don’t give up on your dreams. Be opportunistic, snatch your sporadic chances, and remember that every little bit of progress gets you closer.

If you can’t walk towards your dream, crawl, and if you can’t crawl, lie down in your dream’s direction.