What is TCK Heritage?

I was interviewed recently by a woman doing research on TCK’s* and cross cultural people. There were two things that came up during the interview that particularly struck me.

She asked me if I considered myself a migrant. I said no. I had never thought of using that word to describe my situation. What is the difference between an expat and a migrant? Good question. According to the Oxford English Dictionary a migrant is:

  1. A person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions.

When I hear the word migrant, I think of the migrant worker. Somebody who follows the work by season, working in the fields. Migrants migrate from place to place as the need arises and work becomes available. Technically a migrant can be an expat.  People become expats for many reasons but a lot of them go to one place and then go home, most don’t go from place to place to place. A TCK does not choose where they are going and is not seeking work, they have no choice, so I would probably put them in the expat category but not the migrant one. That was my final answer. Care to discuss it?

The other thing she asked me about was heritage. What is heritage to a TCK? Was it formed by the cultures around me, did I make that part of my heritage, or was is something else? I have thought about this a lot since the interview. I found that I wasn’t sure what it meant. I discovered that there are two kinds of heritage. Tangible and Intangible. Tangible heritage includes architecture, archeology, objects, landscapes. Intangible is a bit more complex. The best definition I could find was a UNESCO site:

“…..intangible cultural heritage does not only represent inherited traditions from the past but also contemporary rural and urban practices in which diverse cultural groups take part;”

I always considered my heritage to be my family history. The fact that my family came from Ireland and Scotland to America in the 1700’s and gradually moved from the East coast to the Midwest where they eventually settled. They were immigrants and migrants. They were looking for work and a better life. They brought with them their particular variety of religion and their cultural traditions but I think much of it was lost in the great melting pot that became the USA. My family celebrates Thanksgiving and Christmas but not much else. My father never celebrated Thanksgiving growing up because it was corn picking season. On my grandparent’s farm there was always work to be done, didn’t matter what day it was.

Christmas in Burma with snow backdrop

Growing up TCK I didn’t have a deep connection with most of my extended family. I would see them once a year, if that, and didn’t have time to learn much. My parents tended to live in the moment so we learned about our current home’s history and traditions, wherever that was.  

When I lived in Mexico I knew a girl who went to the American school and lived in a neighborhood with a lot of other Americans. They had a girl scout group and celebrated all the USA holidays. One year she asked me to go over to her house for Halloween. I had dressed up a few times over the years when we lived in New York but it wasn’t really a part of our tradition. I liked getting the candy but to be honest I didn’t have any desire to repeat the experience. If I really thought about it, my life was way too interesting without having to participate in strange American rituals.

My current Christmas decorations

So, what is my heritage? As an adult I spent a long time doing genealogy research on my family. I thought it was fascinating to delve into my history and learn where I came from and how I got here. I ended up making a connection to their lives and mine because of the travel to parts unknown, etc. Something gave them the strength to do what they did and I felt it must be a part of me as well. So that is part of my heritage. Over the years I have learned about and celebrated many traditions from around the world and I have many objects in my home that have become a part of my heritage. Things my parents collected from Asia and Africa are now prominently displayed in my home and will someday probably be in my child’s home. They all have a story behind them and are an important part of who I am today.

What is my heritage?

It’s complicated….

 

*TCK stands for Third Culture Kid: Somebody who has grown up outside their passport country because of their parents’ work.

The Harvest

In 1975, I volunteered for an organization called Migrants in Action.  It was an advocacy group for the Mexican migrant workers who worked in the fields from Texas to Minnesota and all across the USA.  This got me interested in learning more about these migrant workers.  I was in college at the time and decided to apply for an independent study to write a research paper on migrant workers in the USA.  It was approved and I spent six weeks doing research and writing the paper.

Part of my research took me to the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas.  I don’t remember the details, there was a lot of legal jargon in my paper but it boiled down to:  Things were not Good for the Mexican Migrant Worker.  Here is a timeline:

  • 1920:  The Bracero Program is born. This was a contract that allowed for workers to bring their families with them, stated the pay rate, work schedule, where they would work and their legal status.  Of course this contract was written in English.
  • 1924:  The US Border Patrol was created and the “Illegal Alien” is born
  • 1942:  World War II creates job vacancies.  The Bracero Treaty was signed and this opened the door again to Mexican laborers. Between 1942 and 1964 four million Mexican farm workers came to the USA. Again the contracts were written in English and many braceros would sign them without knowing what their rights were or were not.  At the end of their contract they had to return to Mexico. As World War II ended, the jobs were taken over by returning veterans or workers displaced from wartime industries.  The program ended in 1964.
  • 1966:  Cesar Chavez leads a 250-mile march to Sacramento, California, to bring attention to the mistreatment of farm workers.
  • 1975: The California Labor Relations Act was passed; it was the first law that protected the rights of organizations of farm workers.

Today many of migrant workers are second or third generation families who have their US citizenship.  It is also possible to enter the country legally through the Guest Worker program.  Sometimes people will stay after their contract ends hoping for additional work and a better life.  In this way they open themselves up to all kinds of abuse and injustice because technically they do not exist. But even people with citizenship are living in poverty under horrible conditions.

There is a new documentary film called The Harvest/ La Cosecha which follows three children in a migrant worker family.  There are 400,000 children in the USA who work long hours seven days a week picking the food that ends up on your table.  The film in and of itself is an advocacy for this group of undervalued and mostly “invisible” people.