The term third culture kid (TCK) refers to a person who spends a significant part of their formative years being raised in a culture that is different from their parents. Among TCKs there is often a sense of not really belonging to the culture of the country that their parents originated from or the culture in which the family currently resides; hence, the development of a third culture.
Tanya Crossman is an Australian who spent two years living as a TCK in America. Since then, she has spent most of her adult life living in Asia. She is a cross-cultural consultant with over 13 years of experience working with TCKs across the globe. Tanya frequently facilitates workshops at international schools with the aim of developing cross-cultural competency and equipping parents and teachers to better support children living cross-culturally. Tanya is the author of Misunderstood, a book that gives a voice to hundreds of TCKs.
Why did you decide to write this book?
Crossman: I was struck by how many parents feel guilty and are afraid that they are doing the wrong thing to their kids. My advice to parents is: Make the best choices you can with the information you have. If home is a safe space and you love your kids, that in itself will be a tremendous help. I wrote this book as a way to care for the parents, to be able to say, “I’ve spent the last ten years understanding these kids, let me tell you what I’ve learned.” I wanted to provide a little bit of insight and supply some helpful tools to parents who are doing their best. In this book, I’m being a bridge between parents and children who love each other but just aren’t seeing eye to eye.
What should parents know about TCKs?
Crossman: First, it’s important to understand that experiencing a different culture as a kid is completely different from experiencing a different culture as an adult. For a child, this is a formative experience that affects how their world view is formed. Their world view is being influenced by multiple world views.
Second, only 2 percent of the 750 people I interviewed for my book said that they would take back their experience if they could. The rest of the TCKs said that overall, being a TCK was a good experience. They said that being a TCK is an important part of who they are because they have integrated the good and the bad; they have learned to hold that together so that the bad things don’t make the whole thing bad.
How can parents support their TCKs?
Crossman: Something that is extremely helpful for TCKs is creating a safe space where kids can express different aspects of culture and not have to self-censor. Having a space where they can just be whatever mix they are. When parents are able to do this at home they get to know their real kids, not an act their kids put on based on their parent’s cultural expectations.
Choosing when to correct your kids and when to let it be OK is an important part of this. For example, certain table manners might be important in public but in our home, it doesn’t matter whether you use chopsticks or a fork or whether you pick up your rice bowl. It’s important to communicate that, in our home, there is room for different expressions of cultural preference. It can be difficult for parents to create this kind of space because it may mean that their children are not speaking their favorite language or conforming to their cultural way of doing things. And there may be a point of grief when you realize your child doesn’t prefer your comfort food or language and they don’t have the same cultural connections that you do. It’s important that you don’t try to make your kids fit into a cultural mold that they aren’t connected to. It’s refreshing for children to know that home is a place where they can go and relax; where they don’t have to worry about fitting in or making a mistake or pronouncing words correctly.
What are some other things parents can do to help?
Crossman: First, accept that you can’t fix everything- Parents need to come to terms with the fact that they cannot protect their kids from everything and they can’t fix everything. A lot of parents feel the pressure to make their kids fit in. And so they spend all their time correcting their child’s pronunciation. And so the child is learning that they have to act this way for mom. The reality is that your child isn’t going to always fit in and their accent is going to be different. You can’t fix that, but what you can do is create a safe space so that when they hit those hard times they can come home and talk to you about them.
Also, provide access to pop culture and other cultural touch points. One of the TCKs I interviewed, related how when she was growing up her grandparents would send her videos of popular TV shows. They would record them off of the TV specifically for her and then ship them to her. When she grew up she discovered that a lot of her peers had memories of watching these same shows with their grandparents and so that became something that she could relate to. Parents can also expose their children to certain music and songs that are well known in their passport culture. Talking about things that are going on is also important; especially if the passport country is a nation that the global community is not aware of. Families can make what is going on in their passport country part of the family’s everyday life.
Before commencing university, young people will benefit from having extra time to just get used to how to live in that culture— It’s extremely helpful if the young person has an adult who can walk them through the process of getting set up in that new environment. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a parent; it can be a relative or family friend. Moving to a new location and getting settled at university usually necessitates navigating tons of paperwork. Having access to an adult who is well versed in living in that country can be a tremendous help. Things such as applying for a drivers license and signing up for government bursaries or grants can be overwhelming.
Be prepared for a delay. Sometimes there is a delay; a child might jump into everything and then a few months later it hits them. And then there can be outbursts of anger or resentment due to having to leave the previous country. These outbursts mean that you have created a safe space because your child is showing you how they feel. Nevertheless, it can be helpful for parents to have people that they can offload to as they support their kids through their own transition.
What TCK work are you currently doing in Beijing?
Crossman: Most of my work is with international schools who bring me in to support their communities. I also do public talks from time to time, and plan to offer some evening and weekend seminars later this year. In addition to this, I am looking into producing video seminars. Since moving to Beijing, I’ve started to do a lot of work with Chinese families whose children are being educated at international schools. Although these children are being raised in their passport country they are being immersed in a culture that is different from their parents, and so there is still a level of support that such children require. I also have a blog that I regularly update with resources related to understanding and supporting TCKs.
Connect with Tanya
This article appeared in the beijingkids May 2019 Identity issue.
Photos: Courtesy of Tanya Crossman