I have lived away from home for four years now. Which in some ways is not that long really – equivalent to the length of time it took to do my degree (which included a year in France, not a repeat year…).
However, when I think back to boarding the plane to Bangkok back in February 2013, what really strikes me is that my youngest daughter was in a pushchair, and my eldest was being carried sleepily onto the plane.
These four years are a fraction of my life but, for my kids, they have almost been the whole.
But this isn’t something that I’ve really given a huge amount of thought to. My focus has always been making sure the kids feel settled. Helping them adapt to where we are living. And, you know, all the standard parenting stuff. Some days this extends to crafts and baking, trips to museums and zoos. Others it’s just heaving a sigh of relief when I switch off their bedroom light, grateful that we have all survived another day.
I suppose I have just seen my children as extensions of myself . Which they are, to an extent. But, while we are all experiencing these different countries at the same time, the big difference is that I am an adult (yes, it surprises me too, but there you go). For them, these moves we are making right now are shaping their childhood. My childhood is already formed.
And what different shapes our childhoods are. As a child, I grew up in the same town. We moved house once, when I was seven, and I cried every night for a week. I attended one primary school and one secondary school. Few people left, few people arrived. My extended family lived close by. My schools were predominantly white and British. I don’t remember anyone joining my class from another country…but I do have a really bad memory, so I’m happy to stand corrected! Essentially, my childhood was monocultural. If I had to give it a shape, I would say it was a circle. A happy circle, the circumference of the town in which I lived, where I went to school, made friends, became an adult.
But my kids? Yes, they are British. They speak English at home and at school. We go back to England regularly. However, my youngest has no recollection of living there. If I imagine the shape of their childhood so far…well, it’s more complex than a circle. A series of heart shapes, perhaps: one in the UK, where our family are. One in Bangkok, our first move, and one here in Germany. But these hearts would be connected with lines. And off these heart shapes would be satellites, to where all the people who have been important to them now live. So there’d be an offshoot to the States. Australia. Hong Kong. Indonesia. So really, the shape of their childhood is less a shape and more an enormous pattern….
What started me thinking about all this was when my oldest said to me recently, ‘I just wish I had lived in one country forever’. When I questioned her about it, she said she just wanted to stay where everything was familiar, where she knew her way around. Where she had friends that stayed. A monocultural childhood. Like her Mum.
Of course we talked about all the benefits of having lived in different countries. But it’s sometimes hard to explain these advantages to a child when, for them, it has been the norm.
Third Culture Kids
Now I had heard the term ‘Third Culture Kid’ before. I just didn’t think it applied to my children.A ‘Third Culture Kid’ (TCK) is a child raised in a culture other than their parents for a significant period of their early development. I knew that there were some books about this, and lots of articles written but I just didn’t think about my children in these terms. Perhaps because I didn’t see the value of labelling them as one thing or another.
And then I went to the Families in Global Transition Conference, and there was a great keynote speech by Ann Copeland on Third Culture Kids. It was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me, in that it illuminated the differences between myself and my husband and our daughters. Yes, we are living the experiences now together, but the fact they are experiencing these moves as children is a whole different ball game.
For these kids questions like, ‘Where are you from?’ are challenging. They’re often met with a pause and then a ‘Well…’. As in ‘Well..my Mum’s British, my Dad’s German, I was born in America and grew up in Hong Kong. And Peru. And South Africa’. Just naming your passport country doesn’t quite cover it. But then the worry is that other people, for whom the response would simply be, ‘I’m from England’ won’t quite get it. Because you might look the same as them, but your experience is so different.
Do kids need a label?
Whether we agree on the definition, or the label, or the name itself, I do think it’s helpful to give children something to identify with. I explained the idea behind the term Third Culture Kid to my daughter. I told her that there were tons of other kids, just like her, who experienced similar feelings. She listened and it made sense to her. I’m not going to rush out and get them ‘TCK’ name tags, but just knowing that her experiences were understood and shared made her feel a bit better.
And then, while I was busy heaving a sigh of relief, she informed me that she’d now decided that Germany‘s her favourite country. And even if we move again, she’s going to move back when she’s grown up and have a family here. And two horses. And seven dogs.
I have got to say that this filled my heart with happiness because it meant that, if nothing else, she’s settled where we are right now and she appreciates living here. And her childhood shape may not be a circle, may not be a ‘shape’ at all, but it’s a pattern that is happy, and one that is full of love.