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What Third Culture Kids Can Teach Us About Being Americans

What Third Culture Kids Can Teach Us About Being Americans

As we approach the Fourth of July, I find myself reflecting on another, lesser-known celebration: International Third Culture Kid Day on June 28. It’s not a well-known term in America, but when I first discovered it during my research, it helped me make sense of something I had felt my whole life but hadn’t been able to put words to. I imagine I am not alone.

third culture kid (TCK) is someone who was raised in a culture other than their parents’ or the culture of their place of origin, and also lived in a different environment during a significant part of their childhood development years. My family’s journey exemplifies this: Indian-origin, three generations in Tanzania, then dispersed during African nationalist movements. I grew up in Tanzania and the U.S., with stints in France, Germany, India, the UK, and Dubai.

There isn’t a lot of research into the actual number of TCKs globally though one estimate put it at about 1% of the world population. As with most things, being a TCK has distinct advantages, but can also create challenges.

Those of us who identify as TCKs move between cultures at a time when our identities are being formed. As a result, we tend to be more comfortable engaging with people across lines of difference. We learned early on that our identity was not tied to one specific way of thinking, believing or behaving, so we’re more comfortable letting others show up as who they are without seeing their worldview as a threat to our own sense of self.

The downside of being a TCK can be a sense of rootlessness, a feeling that we don’t quite fit in anywhere. We can find the question “Where are you from?” challenging since we don’t tend to be from just one place.

As a researcher and educator, I have the opportunity to engage with many TCKs. Every time I do, I’m struck by something that feels as though it has eroded in the U.S. over the last few decades, but which is core to our identity as a nation: the ability to hold and manage the complexity of identity in healthy ways.

Interestingly, the TCK experience mirrors the American story in many ways. With the exceptions of Native Americans and enslaved Africans, this country has asked people to do what humans aren’t wired to do: leave their culture, family, and community behind to build a new life here. In essence, America is a nation of TCKs.

The polarization we see in America today feels akin to our nation’s middle school identity crisis. Think back to middle school or of someone you know in middle school now. It’s a time most people don’t look back on fondly because parts of ourselves were suddenly in conflict as we moved into a new phase of identity formation.

When our identities feel destabilized, we have two choices: move through the discomfort, opening ourselves up to new discoveries; or withdraw and isolate ourselves from the unfamiliar. As a nation, we’re in a similar moment of redefinition, grappling with what it means to be American in the 21st century even as heightened social and economic segregation and new technologies allow us to disappear into our bubbles. The question of what it means to be American is also being wielded like a weapon by those who gain by polarizing Americans and turning us against each other.

This is where TCKs have compelling insights to offer. In my conversations with TCKs who acknowledge the challenges of their upbringing but deeply appreciate the skills and mindsets they developed, there are a few big themes and strategies:

  1. We craft our own narrative: We remind ourselves that we get to define who we are, choosing what to take or leave from our experiences.

  2. Be an anthropologist: We approach experiences not through the lens of who we are, but rather what the experience is and how others understand it.

  3. Collect stories: One TCK told me she thought of every person she met as an unread book, assuming there was something valuable to discover in the pages of their interactions.

  4. Breathing and learning to calm ourselves: We learn to get our brains out of fight/flight mode when feeling uprooted, allowing us to see that we’re not in danger.

These strategies can help us navigate our national identity crisis more productively. The story of America is, in many ways, the world’s largest Third Culture experiment – a nation constantly in the process of becoming, navigating the space between our origins and our future.

By celebrating Third Culture Kid Day alongside Independence Day, we remind ourselves that America’s true strength lies in our ability to bridge differences, and honor the complex, multifaceted nature of American identity as we recommit to creating a more perfect union.

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