This word was practically drilled into my head when I was growing up. You’ll adjust. You’ll be fine. You’ll adapt. And I always did, for the most part. I’m still adapting to Oklahoma (which is a record).
I moved around a lot as a kid. In fact, there was a time in my childhood when I attended a different school every year for 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th grades. Before I had settled myself in Florida at the age of 19, I had lived in two countries, five states, ten cities, and twelve houses. All that time I knew not a single one of those places could ever be completely mine to call home.
Enter the term Third Culture Kid (TCK). A friend of mine recently introduced me to this group label. What’s interesting is that I have spent most of my life avoiding any such labels. I never felt comfortable being called a member of Generation X. I was never part of the popular group, or the jocks, or the goths. Actually, during high school, when most labels start gaining serious play, I was only ever called out as white. There weren’t a whole lot of us white kids in that place, so we were probably as novel a species as goths are to any other American high school.
I never knew until recently how badly I wanted to belong to a group. Although I am a pretty solitary creature, the idea of belonging brings about good feelings – security, comfort, connections. I like the label TCK and here is why: this single term connects me to every other person on the planet who has ever felt out of place, even when they’re “home”. TCKs grow up in a culture different than that of their parents’ yet are expected to “repatriate” to their home cultures after significant time away.
This resonates with me in so many ways.
There is a disconnect even with our own families because we, as TCKs, spent so much of our lives with other people’s families. Thanksgiving dinners were spent at the Chow Hall with airmen or sailors or soldiers who had no family nearby. Other times they were invited to our holiday table. Neighbors helped each other move into (and out of) each other’s new houses. The sight of a Mayflower moving truck down the street was always exciting. It meant new kids and new friends. I didn’t grow up in South Florida or Wisconsin with my cousins and aunts and uncles. I did, however, grow up behind barbed-wire fencing with other people’s cousins and aunts and uncles. I’ve probably spent more holidays with them than you have. It’s just the way it is.
Some people call this a fortress mentality. This, I think, is a stupid and misguided label. It might apply to some people but it certainly doesn’t apply to us or, in general, to military families. TCKs (and the adults who are raising them) know how and when to adapt. The term fortress mentality is defined by behavior that is completely opposite of that.
Years ago, long after my father had retired from the military, he and I were talking about how difficult the transition from military to civilian life had been for him. The military had given him a crash-course in how to live the military life, but there was never any help transitioning out of it. In a way, I think this traumatized him. And he’s not the only one. I’ve met several career military people who have suggested life “on the outside” was proving more difficult than they’d expected.
But here’s a question that nobody has ever thought to consider: What about the kids?
During that conversation with my dad, I openly confessed to him that I, too, was having trouble. Born during my father’s run though boot-camp, I had never known life as a civilian until his retirement. I was clearly an adult by now, and if I remember correctly, well into my 20s. Yet the only new friends I had made in this civilian world were with other adults who had spent their childhoods moving around, too. We seem to cling to each other, our own kind. Nobody else understands the kind of lives we’ve lived.
So it doesn’t surprise me that I married another TCK. Except my husband doesn’t seem to think much about place and home they same way I do. In fact, I don’t think he gives it a second thought. He has been able to come to terms with it – it was, after all, his childhood, which is over. Matt is more of a present-to-future thinker. I am a past-to-present thinker. Matt wants to help colonize Mars (he has my permission if I’m dead). I want to go back to the Colonial days (but with better sanitation).
He and I might not think alike, but he understands my life up to now. He’s been there, too. Matt tolerates my constant blubbering about feeling at home and belonging, and he doesn’t tell me to get over it. I don’t necessarily believe getting over it has anything to do with what I’m looking for, either. The term TCK has helped me understand that my ability to adapt doesn’t mean forgetting where I came from, even if I have to count those places on two hands.
I’m looking forward to learning and writing more about Third Culture Kids. It not only speaks to me on a personal level, but I think it touches on how we all actually have more in common than we allow ourselves to recognize. For example, I am interested in learning how being a TCK affects one’s personal opinions on religious tolerance, gay rights, immigration, and refugees of war. I’m also curious to know if other kinds of people consider themselves to be TCKs. I didn’t just grow up in two countries; I grew up in two very distinct cultures within my own country. I’ll save the story of my culture shock from Upper Michigan to Prince George’s County, Maryland, for another day. (As a teaser, I’ll let you know right now that it involves going from living in the middle of nowhere to a world with assault weapons and a barrage of gang warfare.)
My own child is growing up in two very distinct cultures within her own country: North Florida vs. Central Oklahoma. Even as an adult I’m having a hard time figuring out what the hell is going on in this Bible Belt state half the time. I can’t imagine what it must be like as a kid. I’m quite proud to say that North Florida, even with all its flaws and good ol’ boy networking, is at least a step ahead of Oklahoma when it comes to the care of human rights. My only hope is that Elle can adapt, that she can learn how each place is her home, even the places she’s never been. Maybe she, too, will claim to be a TCK and a much more compassionate person because of it.
Other resources for TCKs (or to learn more about TCKs):
This book, which I’m reading now – Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds
Or this, Denizen Magazine