Table of Contents
Globalization has made our world increasingly interconnected and multicultural, to the point that one would even be tempted to ask themselves whether the terms ‘culture’ or ‘community’ have the same meaning they used to have before. This phenomenon of worldwide integration also brought international migration to increase substantially through the 20th and 21st centuries. Specifically, one trend has been growing at an astonishing rate, that is the one concerning Third Culture Kids (TKDs), who David Pollock defines as “people who have spent a significant part of their developmental years outside the parents’ culture.” Though TKDs are not necessarily the children of those expatriates who move for career-related reasons, this essay focuses specifically on them. The reason behind this choice lies in the fact that this is not only a category that shows different components than other types of TKDs – second-generation migrants, children of missionaries, etc. – but also because their number has been increasing so rapidly during the last decades that it has raised concerns over the well-being of those children. Indeed, globalization carries with it deterritorialization and multiculturalism, elements strongly connected to the identity of a TKC. As a matter of fact, as this study shows, their mobility experiences make up for an important part of the perceptions they have of themselves and deeply affect their sense of belonging. The aim of this analysis is therefore to try to answer the question “How are TCKs’ sense of belonging and identity shaped by their mobility experiences?” Other topics will be addressed as well, such as the pros and the cons of being a TCK and the environment inside of an international school. This writing will also draw on the accounts of a group of five young adults, all coming from Rome and right now all in their early twenties, who have undergone one or more mobility experiences. Three of them can be properly described as TKDs, while two of them have lived in another country during their developmental years only for a limited amount of time, therefore they will rather provide a comparison for analyzing how the amount of time spent abroad affects both belonging and identity. The use of this sample group not only allowed the study of global dynamics in a smaller community, but also favoured a more specific analysis, as the interviewees were all in their early twenties and all from Rome. As they are still in their early adulthood, in fact, they have a strong memory of the mobility experiences they underwent in their adolescence, but are able to analyze them with a more critical and mature eye, unlike an adult or a child. Furthermore, the fact that they all had already lived in a big city before their first experience abroad, allowed this study not to have to take into consideration an important variable, which is the difficulty that a person from a small town has in adapting to a cosmopolitan city.
Migration and Globalization
Migration has always been a fundamental component of our reality. Indeed, human beings have migrated since the beginning of time, whatever the reasons behind each movement were. People may move to seek freedom from war, avoid poverty, seek new economic possibilities, flee persecution, or trade. The phenomenon of international migration, in particular, increased sharply as a result of colonization. Between 1492 and 1820, 10 million migrants were sent from Europe and Africa to the New World, the majority of them being slaves, and only a minority being conquerors, missionaries, merchants, or farmers. Between 1821 and 1920, instead, the majority of those migrating to the New World were Europeans and free wage-earners. Most importantly, thanks to colonialism we also see a phenomenon arise, that is the movement of international students between colonies and motherlands. This process went both ways, either from colonial possessions to, for instance, the United Kingdom, or the other way round. Prior to the Second World War, children from the UK made up the majority of internationally mobile children, due to the country’s extensive colonial holdings all over the globe. The end of the Second World War instead witnessed American children moving to Europe with their parents due to the reconstruction of the continent. Migration is, thus, not only a forced phenomenon, it is indeed not only driven by poverty.
Globalization has now increased the number of expatriates and their families throughout the world to manage global economic marketplaces, leading to an increase in the number of international schools as well. The number of TCKs that are believed to now exist in the world is approximately 220 million. Therefore, if before expat children used to be restricted to a small percentage of the worldwide population – the offspring of ambassadors, diplomats, and military personnel – right now they are more and more a reality of our world.
Third Culture Kids
Third Culture Kids are thus in our analysis the children of those who have decided to migrate to another country for career-related reasons and have attended an international school to continue their studies. Some scholars also use other terms to refer to them, such as ‘cross-cultural kids’, or globally mobile children. The former, however, is an umbrella term that is actually used to include also other categories, such as children of minorities and international adoptees, who this analysis will not take into consideration. Therefore, in the following lines, the synonyms that will be used to talk about TCKs will either be ‘globally mobile children’ or ‘international students’, in order to highlight their upbringing in an international school.
But why are Third Culture Kids called in this way? What does ‘third culture’ exactly mean? In their book, David and Michael Pollock, and Van Reeken, define ‘first culture’ as the home or passport culture of the TCK’s parents, ‘second culture’ as the host culture in which the family has moved, and lastly they claim that “third culture […] refers to a way of life that is neither like the lives of those living back in the home culture nor like the lives of those in the local community, but is a lifestyle with many common experiences shared by others living in a similar way.” The third culture they inhabit does not, then, combine the first and the second culture, but rather comprises a place for those children’s unstable integration.
TCKs often make a community on their own because of the unique experiences they had. Indeed, the differences in their mobilities should not make us believe that TCKs do not share some fundamental characteristics. Indeed, they all had to undergo the same emotional and psychological struggles during the process of relocation. At the same time, they also had the privilege to acquire a plethora of skills, such as adaptability to new environments and open-mindedness. It’s worth saying that, of course, there are both pros and cons of being a TCK, thus one cannot promptly assess whether making their children live that lifestyle is a safe choice or not. Yet, regardless of the answer to this question, TCKs’ mobility experiences have indeed relevant repercussions on their growth. This is because those movements take place during the years when a child’s identity, connections with others, and worldview are forming in the most fundamental ways’.
The very same concept of identity related to TCKs is difficult to define, and studies show contrasting findings. The common ground between the plenty of interpretations found is that identity is partly negotiated with the environment(s) one finds themselves in. Some scholars, however, claim that in our post-modern world, identity “is hybrid, composite, dynamic and unfixed.” Others even call into question the idea that one’s sense of self is strictly connected to their national identity, as they argue that the more cultures intermix, the less nations remain homogenous. For the purpose of our analysis, the scheme adopted here will be the one of David and Michael Pollock, and Van Reeken, as their study is one of the most relevant in the field. Those scholars claim that we discover our sense of identity as “the world around us mirrors back to us who we are in that relational context.” Therefore, since for TCKs those mirrors change continuously, their identity is continuously redefined. The problem is that before those children can understand who they are in relation to the new environment around them, they need to understand how that same cultural context works. The mirrors that Pollock and Van Reeken talk about also play the role of anchors: family, community, and place. The reason why those entities play such a key role in the identity-formation process of a child is that the latter gradually discover the world by slowly loosening their ties with those anchors. And, in order to do so, they need to have the certainty that those ties are there, and so that they are in a safe space where they can face up new challenges. At the same time, the family, community, and place also act as mirrors – there the child looks and see a reflection of how each mirror defines them. In other words, those reflections offer answers to the basic question each child asks themselves, which is “Who am I?”. Therefore, with a change in ‘place’ the anchors no longer feel secure and mirrors start reflecting different images, offering the child fluctuating judgments.
Mobilities in developmental years do then impact greatly the identity-formation process of an individual. In general, studies have shown that several TCKs define themselves on the basis of their mobility experiences. Indeed, all of my interviewees have, regardless of the amount of time spent abroad, claimed how those experiences have undoubtedly shaped both their personalities and their sense of self. One of my interviewees, Sofia, who lived in Dubai for three years from the age of fourteen, when asked whether she believed living in Dubai changed her, answered: “Definitely. I mean, I would have not been the same person had I not moved to Dubai. I think the particular thing about that was that Dubai was a very international place […]. I was suddenly thrown somewhere where people spoke so many different languages, they looked so different compared to me, they had such different cultural, religious, social, just like, components of themselves. […] I think being around different cultures in such a natural way made for the sort of the best multicultural upbringing you can have. Because you’re not being taught about things like racism or Islamophobia in a classroom, but you’re being taught about it through people around you. […] And I feel like, weirdly enough, it was very identity-building.”
As it can be understood from Sofia’s words, thus, mobility experiences enable TCKs to have a tangible experience of the world, one that is impossible to achieve through books or movies. They tend to acquire a three-dimensional view of the world as well as the cross-cultural enrichment that derives from it. It has been found, indeed, that most TCKs have fewer prejudices, being able to realize that there are reasons behind each cultural group acting in a certain way. As a result, they often develop a cultural adaptability that enables them to take risks and seize opportunities, exactly because they have already done it and so they are confident they can do it again. Sofia, for instance, after finishing school in Dubai, moved to London for her bachelor’s degree, and next year will be moving to Los Angeles for her master’s degree. Also, my interviewees that have lived abroad for only a limited amount of time have shown the same inclination, and are right now studying abroad for university.
To sum up, mobility experiences do hinder the identity-formation process of third culture kids, but they also shape their identity in ways that they would have never experienced if they had never left their home country. One might claim however that those gains are not without pain, and thus the question arises “is it worth it?”
You just learn to base home less on like walls, the ceiling, and roof, and it’s more about how you’re feeling in the place. So if you feel comfortable, if you feel you’re free, if you feel good about it. That is what makes home now. […]
A con is this… as much as you feel at home everywhere, but also you do not have a home. Which is nice, it can be useful, like the concept of home being more a state of mind rather than a place. But then there are sometimes when you just feel like you want to go home and you want that to be a place where you want to rest, where you want to shut down from the world, where you have that comfort, like feeling safe in a place. And we might not have that.
Studies show that TCKs answer in different ways when asked where ‘home’ is. Home can either be found in more countries, everywhere or nowhere (in the sense of either being ‘a citizen of the world’ or being rootless). In those cases, home is referred to as a physical place, but more commonly mobile students answer in a way that makes home seems more like an emotional space, defining it as a state of mind. The quote mentioned above, for instance, clearly shows how some TCKs sometimes feel like they don’t really belong somewhere, and ‘home’ is instead something that you construct yourself. Those answers often reveal a sense of rootlessness in mobile children, which often has repercussions on their future. Indeed, out of the five girls I interviewed, the ones that were able to answer the question “where is home?” were the two who had spent less time abroad. The other three international students, instead, were not able to identify a ‘physical’ home, but rather claimed it to be more a state of mind. This phenomenon is hypothetically also enhanced by being in an international school. While on the one hand, it is clear that the multicultural aspect of such an institution spurs cultural empathy and open-mindedness, on the other hand, it can also foster alienation. International schools (rightly) encourage interaction between different cultures and beliefs, but by doing so they also push students to continuously compromise their ideologies. This is not a negative thing per se, but the dilemma lies in the fact that those beliefs are challenged first inside of the walls of the school, and then again once students set foot outside the gates of the institution, as they found themselves in a culture which instead has a set of clearly established convictions, which match neither with those of the TCK’s home country nor with those inside the school. Also, this sense of rootlessness in TCKs is reflected in the mobility patterns they tend to pursue once adults, as they often continue moving from one place to another rather than settling permanently somewhere. This is, of course, not necessarily either a right or wrong choice, but it does display some kind of inability to actually decide where to live one’s own life. This phenomenon was also clear in my interviews: both Sofia, Lorena, and Sara (the three ‘proper’ TCKs) declared how they were unable to answer the question “do you believe you will eventually settle somewhere in your future?”, while the two other girls I interviewed showed an interest in permanently settling somewhere.
Nonetheless, by being home ‘a state of mind’, or by belonging ‘everywhere and nowhere’, it has been found that TCKs sometimes develop the ability to be more objective towards behaviors peculiar to specifically one culture. They, in fact, are inclined to ‘not own their loyalty to any place’. Lorena, for instance, described how she realized how peculiarly Italian was to take coffee so many times a day only once she had lived for a while in Switzerland. Also, both Sofia, Sara, and Lorena found themselves partly detached from the culture they came in contact in Rome, especially when it came to matters such as homophobia, racism, or other conservative beliefs. The city was seen by all three of them in a much more objective and realistic way, almost impersonal. Most of the time, they considered it to be more provincial and close-minded than the ‘third culture’ they have lived in. Other aspects were noticed as well by the interviewees. The disorganization and liveliness of Rome, for instance, sharply came to Lorena’s attention after moving to Lugano (Switzerland), and still right now shocks her every time she comes back to the Italian capital. Indeed, she described Lugano as a much more severe and strict place, while she recalled Rome being warmer and welcoming. Another finding was the way all three TCKs perceive Rome each time they come back. They described the experience as being halfway between the one that a tourist would and the one of a resident. As a matter of fact, each time they visit the city they are able to enjoy it with the carefreeness of the former and the knowledge of the latter.
The points made above illustrate how the matters of identity and sense of belonging in Third Culture Kids are complicated and multifaceted. Obviously enough, mobility experiences do affect those processes, though how this happens is difficult to assess. One might suggest that yes, making a child come into contact and live in another culture does bring many advantages, offering the individual the elements to develop a more critical thinking and objective view of reality. The question is, however, how all of this can be possible while providing the child with the elements to go through their developmental years feeling secure and safe. This study does not, of course, have the aim of providing answers to such complex questions, but it attempts to illustrate the many facets of the topic. The heart of the question here is that being a TCK is becoming something more and more common nowadays, and thus societies need to adapt to this reality and offer the instruments needed for mobile children to grow without feeling rootless or lost. Right now, many studies have shown the different ways in which parents and organizations can help third culture kids in their mobility experiences, and most international schools have already implemented several measures to help mobile children integrate in the surrounding culture while retaining an attachment to their first culture. Indeed, academics have claimed that this is fundamental in order to give the child a stability and a sense of security. The British International School Ho Chi Minh City, for instance, organizes an ‘International Week’ festivity each year, enabling children to celebrate their own cultural identity while appreciating those of others. They also try to make students feel at home in the host country by making them learn about Vietnamese traditions through celebrations such as the Moon Festival.
All of this is important also because in our world Third Culture Kids are becoming more and more needed, specifically because of the cross-cultural skills they acquire thanks to their mobilities. Globalization brings many virtues but also challenges, and individuals who know how to mediate between different societies are an important asset to our world.
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 Ibid, chapter 2.
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