The End of the 3rd Culture Kid

I’m kind of ignorant of American pop culture.  Especially the culture of my generation.  I’ve never seen The Breakfast Club, never watched Family Ties, and haven’t listened to any significant 80’s albums.  I’m a Third Culture Kid.  Now I have a kid of my own, and when I think of her future, I realize the era of the Third Culture Kid may be coming to an end.

Me in the background of a US Military video on Rota's cub scouts.
Me in the background of a US Military video on Rota’s cub scouts.

Third Culture Kids are children who accompany their parents into another society: Military brats, missionary kids, and children of government or business families that work outside of their home country.  I was a missionary kid, with a dash of military brat, since my parents were missionaries to the military.  I grew up in Rota, Spain, from 3 or 4 years old to half way through 5th grade.  We didn’t have TV except for VHS copies of Star Wars and The Adventures of Robin Hood.  I didn’t go to public school until 4th grade, and then after leaving Spain in 5th grade, didn’t attend public school again till 7th.  That’s a lot of time out of the American culture.  I still have conversations with my wife, Irma, and she’ll mention a movie or TV show, and I have no idea what she’s talking about.

Being a Third Culture Kid has upsides and downsides.  The most obvious downside of being a TCK is that they tend to be disconnected from their ‘home’ culture.  They tend to experience culture shock on their return.  They tend to experience depression, and feel out of sync.  Third Culture Kids tend to mature faster in their teens, but experience aimlessness in their 20s.  They often resent being repatriated.  I know I did.

On the upside, TCK’s tend to be welcoming, globally aware, highly likely to earn advanced degrees, and rarely get divorced (though they tend to marry later).  TCK’s who integrate with local culture tend to be linguistically adept.

I have a 15 month old daughter, and over the next few years Irma and I will be making decisions about where to live that could result in her experiencing life as a Third Culture Kid.  As I’ve been thinking about it, though, I’ve come to realize that the Internet has remade the global landscape in such a way that Third Culture Kids won’t experience repatriation the same way I did.

The first movie I saw in a movie theater was Benji the Hunted, in 1987 at the military base theater in Rota, Spain.  Now you can watch movies in the theater in other countries even before they’re released in the US, and with some fancy internet proxy trickery, even watch Netflix and Hulu from Osan, South Korea, or Ubon, Thailand.  Heck, half of our culture is global anyway these days.  Everybody’s watching Gangnam Style and has at least heard of Harajuku.

Third Culture Kids used to have fairly rare interactions with peers in their passport countries.  Letters were rare, and never to the kids, but now with Facebook I see Halloween pictures from extended family in Mexico.  It’s become so common place that we take it for granted.  I feel silly coming up with examples, because we all experience it every day.

Of course, while kids facing re-integration into their passport culture may have some cultural touchstones, they’ll still face a challenging task.  It’s by no means easy to act like or become a native in a place you aren’t, but everyone expects you to be.  We’re more aware of the issues now, though, and at least the global distribution of the culture gives them a place to start.  I don’t think we had any repatriation support when I came home from Spain, but in the years since I’ve had book recommendations and contact from someone at my parents mission organization that’s focused on it.

So while some of the downsides of being a Third Culture Kid may be softening (the biggest remaining downside being that the US is just… well… a really boring place to come back to), the upsides are probably not.  While you can see videos and news stories from places like Thailand and Slovenia, you can never truly get the global conversation if you’ve never left your home country.  The visceral knowledge that other people do things differently and have a different perspective is invaluable.  It makes you a citizen of the globe, and in our connected but civically unstable world, that can be a great asset.

So Irma and I are weighing buying a new house and going the typical middle class route, but on the other side we’re looking at the possibility of a global life for ourselves and our kids.  In the end we’ll have to make a decision, but at least I know that if we do decide to move far, far away, in some ways it’ll turn out better for my kids than it did for me.