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.

World Citizen Storycast

I am featured this week on the World Citizen Storycast podcast.

The focus was on the adjustments and challenges of growing up in different cultures as well as reverse culture shock when returning to the passport country.

Check it out.

26: Before I Tell My Story

 

 

Cross Cultural Heritage Study and the TCK

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I recently came across this study:

Excited to share this study we are promoting through our TCKid Research Bridge program: Laia Colomer’s “Cross-cultural heritage. Understanding cultural heritage in a globalized world (ATCK-HER)” !

Purpose of study – ATCK-HER project is a pioneering study of cross-cultural heritage aiming to understand the significance and use of heritage in a globalized world. Whereas in the past heritage has been perceived and studied in terms of cultural artifacts, traditions, and places etc. that generally belonged to one particular culture, forming part of its cultural heritage, now in a globalized world a cross-cultural heritage is emerging.

I like to participate in TCK/Global Nomad studies and do so whenever I come across them. I think it helps me find out a little more about myself but I also hope that the results will be used to educate others about who we are. The more people who know about us and understand us, the better. I am surprised by how few people have heard of the TCK’s. Above they mention ATCK. All this means is Adult TCK.

A TCK is also known as a Third Culture Kid or a Global Nomad. The definition per Wikipedia is ‘children who were raised in a culture outside of their parents’ culture for a significant part of their development years.’ I think that is just part of the story. A better definition would be “a person who has lived outside their passport country between the ages of 2 and 18 because of their parent’s work.” But this tells you nothing about the Third Culture.

When growing up you have your family culture. Your parent’s culture. When you live in your passport country, your parent’s culture usually mirrors the country’s culture in many ways. As a TCK, you need to combine your parent’s culture with that of the country you are living in. That creates a third culture that is a combination of both and becomes uniquely yours. This can also happen to children of immigrants but they usually know where they belong and feel at home because they are growing up in their passport country.

It can all get blurred because none of it is black and white. But the more you live outside your passport country the less you identify with it and when you return to your passport country you can feel very much like an outsider. It never feels quite right.

I changed my tagline recently from Expat Alien – Foreign in my own country to Expat Alien – Recovering expat on the prairie. I have been living in my passport country for about 15 years now. I am still not 100 percent comfortable. I moved for the 30th time to come live in Minnesota and although there has been an adjustment period, it hasn’t been so bad. It is a beautiful area, the people are nice, there is lots to do and see. When I moved here I told myself I would give it five years. Last time I did that I stayed nine. Maybe I’ll finally find my roots on the prairie.

Related Posts:  The Question of Home, Hidden Immigrants, TCK Resilience

 

Things I left behind

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Marilyn at Communicating Across Boundaries has challenged TCK’s to write about things they have left behind.

The only place I had ever known

I was born in Burma and lived there for three years before my family moved to my passport country in the USA. I spoke 5 languages and had never lived anyplace else. I lost four of my five languages. We moved into a three bedroom house in Ithaca, NY and when I would find myself in a room all by myself I would start to scream in terror. I had never been alone before. In Burma we had servants and nanny and neighbors who were always around. On our way back to Burma after two years we were in a plane crash and I lost my favorite doll in the fire. I have had trouble with fear of fire ever since.

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Nanny

On leaving Burma after only a year to move to New York I left behind my nanny who had been my constant companion and spoiled me terribly. I didn’t like my school in New York and refused to go back after the first day because the teacher didn’t know my name. My brother told me to get over it and move on.

English

A year later we moved to Mexico City. They didn’t speak English there. I couldn’t talk to anybody or understand the TV. Plus I went to British school so even the English was funny.

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Dogs

We had two beautiful dogs that lived on our compound in Mexico. They belonged to the landlady but spent most of their time at my house. I loved those dogs.

Friends

I only lived in Bogota for one year but I made some really good friends and had a great time. I cried all the way from Bogota to Miami when I left.

Travel

From Bogota we moved to Nigeria and I made some good friends there as well but I was never very attached to it. I was in boarding school in Switzerland for two years and enjoyed the freedom of being able to hop on a train and see all kinds of amazing places. Leaving friends behind in Switzerland and starting over in my passport country was hard. I had a lot of adjustment problems I didn’t understand at the time.

I lost a lot of “things” along the way like dolls, toys, records, books and clothes. But I never missed them the way I did the people. After we left Mexico I lost TV but that never bothered me either. I realized later it put me at a disadvantage with my American peers. But that was only one of many things.

What did you leave behind?

College Bound

The Kremlin, Moscow

The Kremlin, Moscow

My son was born in the US state of Minnesota. We were living in Russia at the time. Our first challenge was getting him a passport. We took a bunch of photos of him lying on a white bedspread. He would not be still so we had to work fast. We came up with a few we thought might work and went off to submit our forms. They were rejected. The photos were no good. They had a place in the building where we could try again. I held him up over my head so I wasn’t in the photo and more pictures were taken. Finally we came up with one they accepted. My thought was, he would look completely different in a couple of months so what difference did it make?

At seven weeks I boarded a plane bound for Moscow. It was a 12 hour flight with a layover in Amsterdam. Luckily he slept most of the way and the real up side was he proved to be a ticket to the head of the line at customs. Easiest arrival I ever had.

Dancing in the rain in Switzerland

Dancing in the rain in Switzerland

Over the next six years I dragged him all over Europe. At eight months we went to visit a friend in Finland. We took him with us to see the movie Braveheart and he slept right through it. At 10 months we visited family in the US. At 18 months we went to Helsinki. Later we spent time in France, Italy, Switzerland and Holland. We took a road trip across the Rockies to California. At one point we were sitting in a restaurant in Amsterdam. It was late and we were enjoying a nice meal. There were two men at the table next to us. One of them leaned over and asked, “does your son always sleep at restaurants?”. I looked over and he was fast asleep with his head on the table. My answer was, “Yes he can sleep anywhere”. And he did.

The electric train in St Petersburg

The electric train in St Petersburg

I had some challenging plane trips during his terrible two period but otherwise he was a good traveler.

My childhood was much the same so I didn’t really think anything of it. Children might not remember the details of their early travels but they absorb the experience. They understand they are in an unfamiliar place and need to act differently. They hear people speaking different languages. They learn all kinds of things. I can vividly remember being six in a hotel room in Tokyo and seeing television for the first time. What struck me was I could not understand it. They were speaking a language I did not understand. I grew up speaking five languages, how could it be that there were more?

On a Carousel in Paris

On a Carousel in Paris

 

So my child learned to adapt and adjust and deal with things he found unpleasant. He went to a Russian school and hated it because he was the “different” one. When he returned to the US and went to school, again he knew he was the “different” one.

 

“Although the length of time needed for someone to become a true TCK can’t be precisely defined, the time when it happens can. It must occur during the developmental years – from birth to eighteen years of age. We recognize that a cross-cultural experience affects adults as well as children. The difference for the TCK, however, is that this cross-cultural experience occurs during the years when that child’s sense of identity, relationships with others, and view of the world are being formed in the most basic ways…… no one is ever a “former” third culture kid. TCKs simply move on to being adult third culture kids because their lives grow out of the roots planted in and watered by the third culture experience.”

From Third Culture Kids by David C Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken

After returning the US, my son had other challenges – adjusting to five different schools, his parents’ divorce, and his father’s death. His experience in Russia and traveling around Europe gave him unique tools to cope with these things. His father’s family was Russian and he now embraces his heritage with a balanced view. He knows the hardships that people endure there but he also knows about their rich culture and has memories of the wonderful people who helped care for him.

Nations Friendship Fountain, VDNK, Moscow

Nations Friendship Fountain, VDNK, Moscow

 

 

Now, as he goes off to college he will have new challenges to face. My main challenge in college was adjusting to my passport country and people I knew little about. My son is better prepared for the transition. He is comfortable with diversity and a wide range of people. He will do well.

 

 

Going “Home”

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I just returned from a school reunion in Lugano, Switzerland. I went to boarding school there many years ago and this year about 65 of us gathered to retrace our steps and relive old times. Some people  brought their spouses, some were from different classes so we didn’t know everybody going in but we made new friends and our family expanded.

We ate risotto, cannelloni, pizza, spaghetti, and ended the trip with a six course meal. We drank Prosseco and lots of good wine. The first night we were entertained by a local group of Italian men making traditional music. One of our friends put together a slide show of photos of all of us when we were in high school.

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We spent a day in the Versazca river valley. Our buses had trouble making some of the hairpin curves up and down the mountain. We stopped in a small village and hiked to the river and some went to the falls. Our second stop was at the famous Roman bridge that everybody jumps off of. It was a tradition at school every year and we would cheer people on as they jumped. This time it was even more impressive to see the over 50 crowd jump into the icy cold water.

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We took the funicular up Monte Bre and enjoyed the spectacular view. A group of us walked back down the mountain and were sore for days but they had a great story to take home with them.

On our last day we took a boat cruise to the nearby town of Marcote for dinner. It was raining on the boat but we had a live band and dancing and it was still beautiful.

That last night we gathered in our common room and I was sitting next to an old friend of mine. She said, “I hate good byes. We never put down any roots.” I knew exactly what she meant. I looked around the room at people I had known most of my life. I said, “ This is our home. These people are our home. We are a family”. And I started to cry. It was so hard to have to say good bye to the people who understood what it was to be a third culture kid, where no explanations were needed, where we could be ourselves with no compromise or pretending. Some people call us chameleons because we adapt and adjust to our surroundings but we are never truly comfortable and never feel completely relaxed except when we are together.

It was hard to leave Lugano, one of the most beautiful places on earth but the hardest part was saying good bye to each other.

 

 

 

Hidden Immigrants

UnknownMy parents are always going through their things and trying to get rid of as much as possible. I was visiting them in April and among the other things my mother gave me was a book I read about 20 years ago. When I first found out about Third Culture Kids and discovered I was part of a tribe I tried to read everything I could find on the subject. Linda Bell wrote and published Hidden Immigrants, Legacies of Growing Up Abroad in1997. She was an Expat raising TCK children.

“The first time I realized I was in over my head was when my four-year old daughter, Amy, came up to me shortly before we were to depart French West Africa for “home leave” in the States.

“Mommy, what language do they speak in Ohio?” she asked. “Will they understand me?”

Right then I knew that “understand” might be the operable word….”

The book grabbed me right away. Linda interviews 13 people who grew up outside their passport country. She has chapters on Culture Shock, Living on the Surface, Here are my Roots, Costing Out the Pain. Her introduction for the section on Here are my Roots resonated with me. She describes it perfectly and it was so comforting to read all those years ago when I was just learning about myself.

” Children who move around a lot soon learn to be a quick study in order to survive. Socially they learn to make the first moves, quickly assess the movers and shakers, observe the group norms, and make friends. During the time internationally mobile children are overseas, they usually enter a kind of socially exclusive bubble where most other children they meet, usually in a school where they share a common language, also move frequently from culture to culture. They all realize their existence within a particular bubble is only temporary and that they, or their friends, will move on in time. Eventually, when these children enter local schools and institutions in their countries of origin, the bubble bursts. The entire social structure resulting from their mobility collapses. Sometimes — for the first time — they meet peers who haven’t moved, haven’t had to make new friend, haven’t learned how to adapt. As we’ve seen already, when internationally mobile children come up against this situation, they tend to withdraw, retreat, marginalize. Not only are they confused about their stays in the new situation, but also by their seeming inability to adapt quickly to it.”

Yep, that was me all right. So how does that tie in to Roots? The chapter is all about people. People are our roots. Family and friends. Most of the interviewees were still good friends with people from high school. Even if they only saw them once a year or once in a blue moon, they were still considered close friends and provided a feeling of “home”. I am that way. I have friends I haven’t seen in 20 or 30 years who I still consider close friends. Whenever I see them, we just pick up where we left off like no time had passed.

This is a  book you can pick up and flip to any page and start reading. The last chapter is called Voices and each interviewee tells a story about their life that impressed them or stays with them. A couple of them lived through wars and were evacuated through war zones. I have a couple of friends like that myself. Some talk about how their past influences what they want for their children – tolerance, openness, adaptation skills.

Hidden Immigrants is available on Amazon.