The challenges of Third Culture People

Did you grow up in one culture, your parents came from another, and you are now living in a totally different country? Then you are a third-culture kid! Yet being a third-culture kid is not always easy; in fact many hardships may arise from this culture-hopping phenomenon.

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 country my parents grew up in simply does not exist anymore. When I was thirteen we witnessed a chunk of East Germany’s population simply running away from a country that had been created by the Allied Forces in an attempt to keep Germany from ever trying to play a major role in world politics by dividing it into four parts. One part was given to the Russians without the population having any say in it. My hometown was originally part of West Germany, the part controlled by USA, France and Britain. Then, as if in an aftertought, it was decided to give this little region to the Russians in an exchange for a part of Berlin, later known as West Berlin, to make sure the Allied Forces have a foothold in Eastern Germany too, so that this devided nation could serve as a “buffer nation” in the cold war.

East Germans suffered a lot of injustice and worked their butts of for Russia, while West Germany experienced the economic miracle and showed the world what intelligence and hard work could accomplish ๐Ÿ™‚

Fourty years later, mentalities had become very different and then, out of a sudden (exciting story for another blog one day maybe) the country became one.

From one day to the other our schooling system changed and we found ourselves in a world totally different than the one our parents knew. I remember the week all our beloved products disappeared from the shops, and the shelves were empty and we got worried. Then a week later the shelves were full of things we had never seen before. This bankrupted our local industries and gave West Germany an immediate marked expansion.

When we started to visit churches across the former border 20 km away from us, what a culture shock. Although we spoke the same language, you could tell by our clothes we are from a different country. The children thought us strange because we didn’t know the same TV programs and hadn’t watched the same movies. We tried to catch up on our education by dutifully watching Mac Gyver and the A Team every day after school.

But a general sense of lostness set in nevertheless. I quickly learned to speak immaculate high German so that nobody could tell my East German Origins by my accent.

Interactions obviously vary from culture to culture. The way we interacted in East Germany was totally different from what was important to West Germans back then. What used to shock me most were the totally old fashioned concepts people seemed to live by compared to the mindset we grew up in.

Now, many years later, having lived in different nations, I regret that the country of my childhood simply does not exist anymore. People had to adapt or get lost, adapt to new laws, new job descriptions, new ins and outs, new entertainment and foods for goodness sakes.

Coming to South Africa was like being put on a bus to school 5 days after school started-

Imagine that! Arriving at your new school, nobody telling you even where your classroom or what your schedule is. All the other kids know each other and have their seats. There you stand, everyone staring. You open your mouth and your strange accents immediately makes all the other kids put up a huge barrier. You are strange. And then you don’t know the next classroom to go to after break, are late, and get reprimanded for it. At the end of the day you do not even know which bus to take home.

That’s, in truth, how I felt when coming to SA. As a pastors wife in along established church where my husband had been the pastor for 8 years before me, there was not much I could do right. Nobody ever explained to me the ins and outs of the ministry, nor the local etiquette as in what was expected. I asked my in laws who all live in the same small town, toexplain me what they expect, since they let me know how much I did not do right.

Speak our language, cook our food, I was told!

8 years down the line it has become simpler, but not easier at all.

The hardest part, to raise my two little boys as confident as possible.

I am trying to make that extra effort to be as sparkly as I can, for every time their mom introduces herself, people emphasise on her differentness. Different accent, different name, etc. Afrikaaners aren’t exactly known to be the most open minded people there are.

I do not want my boys to ever feel they are the odd ones out.

My sons are very fast learners. Steven, 3, speaks German with the vocabulary and understanding of an adult, plus Afrikaans fluently and English all necessary basics.

Samuel, 15months, knows more than 30words in 3 languages already.

I myself was reading big novels by the age of 8 and try to carry over mylove of languages to my boys. But where do we belong?

I am,overtime, losing a lot of my old friends from overseas. Itโ€™s hard to keep in touch when you are so far away and your life differs so drastically.

Culture Shock in my native country

While I am always regarded as a stranger, a foreigner when in South Africa or elsewhere, people back in Germany expected me to behave the same way and know the same things as they do. Fact is, our value systems are very different in South Africa and Germany. When back in Germany, I so want to just fit in whats going on and happening, but I do not know anything about current TV shows, fashion trends or the latest German pop hits nor the current political affairs or insider jokes.

When I am asking my siblings and parents to update me on this, they think I am shallow. How can you want to watch a TV Show when we want to talk about our personal problems, they ask. Simply because I need to catch up with the country as a whole, before I can truly place what you are telling me into proper context!

My children have to relate very different to their two sets of grandparents. South African grandparents want to be greeted with a kiss on the mouth which would be seen as a degree of child abuse in Germany, especially if its forced. South African grandparents can not be adressed directly as in”you” but must always be addressed as “Oupa” or “Ouma” – “does Ouma want to see this picture I made” you have to ask. Generelly, in South Africa families meet to eat and share unrelated anecdotes over generous amounts of meat.

In Germany, relationships are much more on equal footing, and Grandparents want to see you sing a song or perform on an instrument, and do some activities like hiking,board gamesย  or going to concert together. Food does not play a main role.

My parents feel offended if my husband tries to feed them too much, his parents do not know what I want if I arrive with a board game and think it would be real fun if we play together.

While a third-culture kid must let go of their identity as foreigner when he/she returns, the home country can prove to be more foreign than anything encountered before. The peer group a third-culture kid faces does not match the idealized image children have of โ€œhomeโ€. This often makes it hard for a third-culture kid to form their own identity.

Airports. Traveling. I wished we as a family could go to a completely different nation where none of us gets to say how this is done, but we do as we feel is right.

The experiences our kids get are awesome. My children have played with lion cubs, swam in 3 oceans, crossed the world 4 times before the age of 4, played soccer with African children in the dirt, watched musicals in Germany and danced in Botswana, are really happy to meet new people and smile at every stranger introducing themselves with “Hi my name is Steven” or a friendly hug. I remember how confused Steven was in Germany when strangers did not talk back to him (you do not small talk with people you never met) while in South Africa you can not even buy bread without talking and joking with the cashier.

My kids are unafraid. I want it to stay that way. So I am really trying not to be odd in my forever strangeness. The world is not my home, heaven is. So I am exercising my ability to make myself at home anywhere I am at the moment. Sorry for those who don’t get it.

If I make mistakes, it is not because I want to offend you, it is because I didn’t get a handbook on your way of life. I really do try to find the jokes funny … But please, let my kids feel accepted!

I also am not quick to give answers to problems, simply because my global experience shows me that there are no quick answers.

Sometimes it discourages me that intelligent people are so insecure while the ignorant walk around basking in confidence.

Here is a great video on third Culture children

http://vimeo.com/41264088

They are the most awesome people you might ever meet!

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10 thoughts on “The challenges of Third Culture People”

  1. Hi Chris – my brother sent me the link to this post. We are also TCKs (now adults), and I have been living in SA for many years and am married to an Afrikaner. My experience with the Afrikaner community, however, has been very different to yours. I feel accepted. In the beginning, everybody made sure to speak English when I was around. Now, I understand the language, but people still ask whether it’s all right to speak Afrikaans. I actually love Afrikaans cooking and braaing, but have made sure to introduce our friends to the dishes I know from all my other homes (I have lived in several countries). They like coming to eat in our house because they find it adventerous. Maybe the difference is that I live in a big city and am not part of a religious community. I would have thought that a religious community should be more open and caring to a stranger like yourself. That is what most religions of the world teach. I am sorry that you have encountered conservatism and rejection instead. What I love about South Africa is that most people here – whether they are aware of it or not, even in very conservative mono-ligual communities – are mutlicultural. It is nearly impossible to be unaffacted by the many different ethnic, religious, lingusitic communities around one. That is why from the beginning I felt very much at home here. Coming from a TCK background, I can tell you that the best thing you can do for your children is to let them find out for themselves who they want to be. As a child, I always had a choice which language to speak, which books to read, which music to listen to, what to eat and who to be friends with. I went through all kinds of identification stages. In the end, I realised that I am I, European by birth, African by choice – a “Eurican” maybe? It hasn’t always been easy, but I am grateful that nobody ever forced me to be anything that I wasn’t prepared to be. I found my own way. I feel very fortunate to live in SA. All the very best to you and your family!

    1. Ai sweetie, nice of you to drop by. Do I hear some admonishing in your words? Gee here in the platte land Afrikaaners wear heavy beards, use the K word and believe they have a special corner in heaven reserved for them. Not that easy chaning the mindset. I did not feel I said I was rejected. I am honestly talking about the challenges to realte to people who stayed grounded while you were flying. A blog becomes better when the author doesn’t pretend to have it all together. At least for my part, I enjoy the company of honest people! ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. We’re just beginning to work out issues of identity with out two. My husband and I have Scottish origins, our children were born in England and spent the first part of their lives there, but we now live in Qatar – a Muslim country and very different culturally. My boys now say they are Scottish, but I hope they also grow up feeling part of a wider global community.
    I actually don’t feel any strong connection with the country of my birth (England) or my family (Scotland). It’s just not important to me, but I recognise it might me to my kids. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Hi, thanks for liking the piece on a difficult subject. I think because the British have their own communities world wide, you might not be thrown into a profound identity crisis even when living in a foreign nation. Both partners from different nations, living in yet a different place, makes for excitement in parenting for sure!

      1. We recently celebrated International Day at our kids’ school (I will blog on it at some point). It is such a diverse environment, but everyone loves learning about each other’ countries and cultures.
        People here are really open to hearing and discussing different ways of life and cultural values. They may not agree with them, but they respect that we all have our different ways.

      2. Thanks for your comment! That reminds me so much of how it used to be in Germany, where multiculturality is seen as a big plus. We would often invite people from other nations into our homes and listen to their stories, at university I taught German to Chinese students South Koreans and helped them with their exams, and they would share about their home, cook some real cool dishes etc. South Africa, on the other hand, is not really known for it’s tolerant history, right.
        Coming from a big European city to a small town community was the biggest culture shock ever. Many of the Afrikaans people take a big time offense if you talk to them in English, especially if you are a member of their family by marriage. From the first day on I was forced to speak Afrikaans, although English is a3rd language for me and it was an effort to speak English and I did not know any Afrikaans. People are very set in their ways, and traveling seemed to offend them “his is best – home is best” was the default reaction I got when trying to share about the rest of the world. Racism is still big, and even directed at me, as if being not Afrikaans makes me less valuable to some. It was a big shock to see that people like Portugeese or Spanish were seen as non-white and placed lower. I find it hard to deal with the arrogance of some, who have little education but judge the world.
        For my children – if my son talks about ice cream, an Afrikaans family member will be quick tocorrect him “dis roomys” and make him and the other cousins feel he is “strange” although all the children understand basic English perfectly. In Germany, being from another nation is seen as interesting, you will be be asked a lot about your home country and the differences make you special. Here, it is all about Afrikaans-ness. I am not a big meat eater, but meat eating is seen as a necessary moral value by people around me who think chicken is a vegetable. ๐Ÿ™‚ There is a big difference in coming to work as a family unit in another nation, and being married to a member of a different culture facing unrealistic judgement from in laws. In Germany, my kids are seen as really cool for speaking English and Afrikaans along German. Here, nobody makes an effort to understand the other side of them. My son loves knights -and the other kids do not even know the first thing about knights! I had kids over for a documentary on castles and knights and dress up play so Steven’s friends could play along with him! I will love to read your post of International Day at your kids school. That means lots of expats are together – none of the other children that we know here in town has ever traveled far, let alone abroad.

  3. You and your family are in that place between cultures, an always interesting (if not entirely comfortable) place to live… it makes you citizens of the world. Thanks for another wonderful, thoughtful post. —Jadi

    1. Hi Ronald, nice meeting you! There are books and studies about the challenges of being a TCK, you will find plenty of info when you google it. Reading about other ppl’s experiences helps making sense of ones own adventures. My own parents weren’t able to prepare me for the demands of society as it was all new to them too. I really hope to be much better equipped by consciously making every effort to be involved in the culture my kids grow up in. Not only do I teach some classes where my son and his friends attend, I try to have fun with the current trends in the community although they aren’t part of my culture of origin. I want my kids to feel totally at home.

  4. Thanks for sharing this story of your life as a Third Culture Kid. My heart goes out to you. I have always lived in the US, but in several different states. I never really felt “home” until coming to Colorado 11 years ago. Also, I am a fine artist, and a follower of Jesus, which puts me in a very small category. I often feel like a stranger.

    A couple of years ago, my husband & I hosted a beautiful German teen for a year of American high school. It was a wonderful experience! Then, last summer, we took a trip to Germany to stay with her family. During our trip, we spent a few days in Berlin & learned about the history. We also spoke with a few people who had lived in East Berlin and experienced part of what you discuss in your blog. I have a very special place in my heart for Germany, & for people like you who have been alienated in this world for a time due to circumstances you cannot control.

    I am so glad you say that heaven is your true home–mine too! I remember that in Israel, many years ago, God reminded the people many times how to behave toward “aliens & sojourners,” because they themselves had been sojourners in Egypt. In a way, most of us find ourselves in this situation at one time or another. Even those who stay in one place, like some of my relatives, find that things around them change. One day we will be in a place where everything feels comfortable & right. Until then, it is good to be reminded to be compassionate because love & acceptance can go a long way to help someone else.

I would really love some feedback from you!

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