Are immigrant kids TCKs?

Continuing my series of posts looking at commonalities and intersectionalities among Cross Cultural Kids, today I’m tackling a question I hear a lot: “are immigrant kids TCKs?”

I have been approached a number of times by people who immigrated as children, saying they really identified with a lot of the content in Misunderstood. Some really grabbed onto the vocabulary of being Third Culture Kids, even though they did not technically fit the description. I think this is largely because there is a similar but opposite dymanic happening for the immigrant kid and the TCK.

In both cases, the child is caught between two cultural influences and allegiances: the place in which they live, and the place from which their parents came (before or after having children). Both immigrant kids and TCKs experience the tension of differing expectations – which country is their “real” home? Which country are they really “from”? Questions from others – friends, family members, and strangers – can all add confusion and a sense of pressure.

Both immigrant kids and TCKs have dealt with living between these different countries, cultures, and expectations. There is a great deal of emotional resonance between their experiences. And yet, they are not the same. Children of immigrants, and child immigrants, are absolutely Cross Cultural Kids – they belong to the wider umbrella of cross cultural childhoods. But there is a distinct difference as well, so I would not call immigrant kids TCKs. (Although there is definitely a segment of Cross Cultural Kids who are both TCKs and also immigrant kids.)

But this is an example of why I think it’s so important to shift the conversation to discussing Cross Cultural Kids generally, not just TCKs. The overlaps in the experiences of Immigrant Kids and TCKs are real, the resonance in their emotional landscape is real. It means that resources ostensibly for TCKs may be really useful for some immigrant kids, and resources ostensibly for immigrant families may be really useful for some expatriate families. Widening our view of what it means to grow up cross culturally allows for the inclusion more people, and for connection between more people through shared experiences.

Now, in this example, how can understanding the similarities between the experiences of immigrant kids and traditional TCKs (without ignoring the differences) help both groups?

Both immigrant kids and traditional TCKs share the conflict of expectation to connect to their parents’ cultures, while living in a different culture.

This means many can identify with each other’s similar struggles in this area, such as accusations of “betraying” one culture by attaching to the other (and perhaps vice versa).

Both immigrant kids and traditional TCKs bridge the two cultures (the parents’ culture and the host culture) due to their parents’ decisions on behalf of the family.

This means many can identify with each other’s feelings about being born/brought into a situation of cultural complexity beyond their control.

And, as with all Cross Cultural Kids, both immigrant kids and traditional TCKs share the experience of navigating lives of cultural complexity – with all the innate pros and cons that come with it.

There are limits to the overlaps in their experiences, however. An immigrant kid has legal status in the country where their family now lives. A Third Culture Kid, however, generally lives in a country they know they will leave, and may not have the option to stay. This “unrequited love” is a feeling immigrant kids may well be able to deeply sympathise with, but do not share.

Both may share the experience of being seen as “foreign” in a place they love and are very familiar with – but Third Culture Kids don’t often deal with being seen as “foreign” in a country that legally recognises them. (Unless they have the intersectional cross cultural experiences such as being part of a minority group, etc.)

These differences mean it is also important to recognise the distinctiveness of their different cross cultural experiences. In Misunderstood I collected the experiences of a wide range of TCKs – different parents’ work (missionaries, foreign service, corporate, educators), different schools (international school, local school, boarding school, homeschool) and different experiences of transience (a long time in one country, frequent moves, first move happening in high school). It was important to recognise the distinct differences in these different types of Third Culture experiences. But it was also helpful to express their commonalities.

In the same way, while immigrant kids and traditional TCKs are distinct experiences – they are not the same – the commonalities they share as Cross Cultural Kids are real and worthy of recognition. If an immigrant kid finds TCK resources like Misunderstood helpful – fantastic! That’s great to hear. The more resources available, the better. But I also hope to see more resources developed for Cross Cultural Kids generally that will openly include the wider and more nuanced range of experiences that exist among CCKs.

Cross cultural intersectionality

As I wrote in a previous post, I’m currently writing a series of articles looking at the intersection of different cross cultural childhood experiences.

One thing I did in Misunderstood was start to highlight the intersectionality of cross cultural childhoods – some of the ways in which different cross cultural experiences can overlap. One can be both a TCK and also an immigrant kid, for example. These experiences are similar, but distinct. To call a person who is both immigrant and TCK just a TCK is to erase (or at least overlook) key pieces of their particular cross cultural experience.

In this post I will be offering a quick look at the three intersections I specifically addressed in Misunderstood. I plan to write more about these, and other intersections, in the future. But this is a start.

TCK + Mixed cultural/ethnic heritage

I talked to a lot of TCKs who had parents from different cultures and/or different ethnicities. Multi-cultural and multi-ethnic families are two different experiences, although related ones. Often if a family is one it is also the other, but not necessarily. One TCK I interviewed had parents from Finland and the US – very different cultures, but both parents were caucasian. I also interviewed TCKs who had parents from different ethnicities but the same passport country. (Often there was a minority culture in play as well.)

The key difference is visibility. A child of mixed ethnic heritage may find they look “different” no matter where they are – that they are obviously, visibly “other” no matter where they are. As I wrote in Misunderstood:

“Biracial TCKs in particular spoke of feeling their outward appearance did not match how they felt inside. While this is a feeling many TCKs express, biracial TCKs carry their difference on the outsdie. One biracial TCK (with an African father and Asian mother) told me she felt she had to ‘prove’ herself to both sides of the family, that she stands out in every family gathering, no matter which side of the family she is with. There is an upside, however. Another biracial TCK told me he has come to like this ‘different’ appearance because it reflects the cross-cultural life has has lived as a TCK.”

Several TCKs I have spoken to said they appreciate their “ethnic ambiguity” – using it as a way to blend in as local in different contexts, or to give a reason for their difference that others will readily accept.

Those whose parents are of the same ethnic background but from different countries do not have the experience of visibility – they do not wear their mixed cultural heritage on their skin. Several told me stories of feeling hurt that their mixed heritage was overlooked, downplayed, or even ignored by others. On the other hand, others appreciate the lack of visibility, and the ability to choose how they want to present.

There are clearly additional complications of identity for this group of intersectional Cross Cultural Kids – but they have one big benefit other TCKs lack. Even when these TCKs did not have citizenship in more than one country, most had a sense of ownership in another country or culture. Their cross-cultural identity is generally more readily accepted by others than a TCK whose cultural and ethnic heritage was centred in their passport country.

TCK + Immigrant

In Misunderstood I coined the term Immigrant Expat to refer to families who experienced both immigration and subsequent expatriation. These families are connected to the parents’ original culture, the naturalised passport country, and the culture(s) they live in as expatriates.

In Misunderstood I looked specifically at Korean-American expats as an example of this type of intersectional cross-cultural experience, but I have talked with Immigrant Expat TCKs from a variety of backgrounds.

“My parents were born and raised in Korea and moved to the States after high school. They took what they thought were the best parenting methods from both their backgrounds (Korean and American), and employed them hand-in-hand., My siblings and I were raised to respect out elders, but to not be afraid to question their decisions where we saw fit. We celebrated both American Thanksgiving and traditional Korean New Year. We visited relatives both in Korea and in the States. And all this happened as we grew up in China.”

I also looked at what I called Returned Immigrant Expats – families who returned to the parents’ original country, but now with foreign citizenship. The group I used as my example for this section were Chinese immigrants who had returned to live in China (from various passport countries) though I also spoke to TCKs who had this particular experience in other countries.

“These families have an interesting dynamic. The parents may feel China is home, but they no longer completely belong as both they and the nation of China have changed. Their children, on the other and, usually feel completely foreign. The difference in their experiences can create conflict.”

In many cases, both types of Immigrant Expat TCKs found they had a stronger connection to the language and culture of their parents’ original country than cousins who were immigrants but not also expatriates. Living in international communities meant Immigrant Expat TCKs felt more at ease expressing a multi-faceted cross-cultural identity, and less pressure (or desire) to assimilate into the majority cultures of their passport countries. Instead, these CCKs often feel quite comfortable identifying with and expressing elements of all the cultures to which they feel connected.

TCK + Cross-Cultural Adoption

As I interviewed TCKs who were cross-culturally adopted for Misunderstood, some common questions and reactions became apparent. I started to look for these intersectional CCKs and ask them about their experiences. I was especially interested in the experiences of young people who lived as expatriates, foreign passport holders, in their birth countries. I included a list of comments made by many of these CCKs, which included wondering about people around them – the people they were genetically and historically connected to – and common experiences of looking local, while next to parents who did NOT look local.

I also wrote about three common reactions these TCKs had to their situation, while also noting that some TCKs experience a mixture of all threee at different times.

The first common response: avoiding or refusing to identify with their birth culture. This may involve refusing to learn or speak the language, lying about their heritage or history, or exhibiting extreme patriotic or nationalistic sentiment about their passport country/culture.

The second common response is the opposite – wholly identifying with their birth culture and distancing themselves from their passport country/culture. Again, this may include language, lying, and strong cultural preferences, this time in favour of the birth culture and against the passport culture.

Finally, the last common response is “to get stuck in questions of identity and belonging“. For these CCKs there is a deep insecurity related to their sense of identity and identification with the various cultures to which they are connected. They may fear being made to choose, or feel anxious about where they belong.

“These reactions are ways in which adopted TCKs process their situation and the conflicting emotions they may experience. As they work through these issues, they can come to integrate the different aspects of their cultural identity – allowing for celebration in place of conflict.”

Something I’m very excited about is that since the publication of Misunderstood more research into the intersection between TCKs and adoption is underway. To learn more, check out this interview with Lynn Kogelmann, mother to a cross-cultually adopted TCK and long time counsellor in international schools.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to cross cultural intersectionality. If you want to know more about these overlaps, pick up a copy of Misunderstood – paper or digital!