An updated version of this post has been published on tanyacrossman.com
Part of the Third Culture Kid experience is living “in between”. 62% of young TCKs I surveyed (those under age 30) said that feeling “in between” was a significant childhood experience. There are several ways in which TCKs live “in between”. In this post I will explore ways in which TCKs live in between countries.
This is easily understood on the surface. A TCK is a citizen of one country, but lives in another. (Or is a citizen of multiple countries, or has lived in multiple other countries.) The complexity comes in how the TCK feels about and relates to these countries – never being completely and comprehensively in any one of them.
Connected to the passport country
A TCK has a relationship with his passport country – he has a legal connection to the place which issues his passport. Often it is also the place where many family members and family friends live permanently. For many expat families the passport country is a “home base,” somewhere they frequently visit. Many TCKs also feel they “represent” their passport country while abroad – that people meeting TCKs overseas get an impression of their passport countries through them.
Connected to the host country
Many TCKs also feel that they “represent” their host countries while travelling. Sometimes people see them as the “expert” on that country (and language/culture) regardless of how immersed the TCK was – or wasn’t! In this situation a TCK may feel pressure to live up to these expectations. Other times people ignore or don’t recognise the TCK’s connection to the host country/culture. In this case, TCKs may feel pressure to promote the places they feel connected to.
In between countries
The reality is that most TCKs do not identify entirely with one country – they are influenced by, and attached to, multiple countries at once. The passport country may be where they are “from” and yet they may have spent far more time outside it than inside it. 58% of the 744 TCKs I surveyed for Misunderstood spent more than half their childhood years outside their passport countries; 30% spent less than three years there.
While a TCK may know she is a “foreigner” in her host country, she may feel even more “foreign” when visiting her passport country. In both scenarios the TCK is not quite 100% “from” the country in question. In both places the TCK is like a cultural ambassador for the other place.
Every TCK is different – they have unique life journeys. Not all TCKs feel they are (or are expected to be) ambassadors of the countries to which they are connected. But the common experience of the Third Culture is that a TCK is connected to multiple places; in every TCK there is an aspect of being “in between” these countries. These connections make the TCK’s experience of the world different to that of a monocultural kid (one who spent their entire childhood connected to a single country).
Acceptance of the “in between” experience
There is nothing wrong with being a TCK; in fact, only 2% of the TCKs I surveyed said they would take back their international experience if they could. Connection to multiple places isn’t “bad” – but it is different. This means that there is an unspoken bond between TCKs – they understand, with no explanation needed, what it means to live in between countries.
This brings me to something anyone can do to build deeper friendships with TCKs: accept that a TCK has these additional country connections, even if you don’t fully understand how it works. No matter who you are, there is comfort in being with people who simply believe you, accept you, and desire to better understand you.