We hear a lot about helping international assignees and their families with culture shock and reverse culture shock. We don’t often think about the fact that international assignments change children from mono-cultural to third-culture kids (TCK). TCKs are a unique cultural group. Cultures are defined by distinct and shared behaviors of a social group and are made up of elements that include traditions, norms, language and religion.
A TCK is one who spent a portion of their developmental years (ages 0-18) outside their home culture. These critical years are when a child’s worldview and sense of self is formed. Kids who move internationally build their identity on changing cultural foundations. They are influenced by multiple cultures without truly belonging to any of them. As a result, their sense of home is often the place in the world where their family resides at that particular point in time. They can find it difficult to feel a lasting link to one single place. TCKs don’t feel they fit in anywhere. They have a strong sense of being different from both home and host cultures. They often feel most at home when traveling. TCK Alex Graham James’ poem describes the feeling of not belonging: “I am / an island / and / a United Nations / Who can recognize either in me / but God?”
It is often easier for a TCK to move to a new country instead of back home because of the expectation that they’ll fit in and have the same values and cultural understanding as their peers. This is not entirely possible for a TCK since they have been socialized outside of their home culture. This can make teenage years especially difficult due to teens’ innate horror of being different. Even with the connectivity of TV, Youtube, Facebook and other social media sites, TCKs may not entirely understand cultural nuances of their home country. Upon re-entry their sense of isolation increases as they feel out of sync with others their age. A simple question like, “Where are you from”, can elicit a complicated answer. Often TCKs skip the stereotypical teenage problem-years only to have an identity crisis in their 20s.
I am an ATCK (adult TCK). I was born in Canada, lived in Scotland when I was 8 and moved to Singapore at age 15. Back in a Canadian college, I tried on my roommate’s closet full of name-brand clothes. I was stunned and shamed when she expressed anger that I had tried on her clothes without asking. In my overseas group this was perfectly normal behavior but it didn’t translate well in North America. I couldn’t explain my actions in in a way she could understand. I looked like her but acted in a completely foreign manner. Had I not been a Canadian national, she may have put my actions down to cultural differences and been more forgiving.
Apart from the odd faux pas, TCKs typically make friends with ease. They tend to go deep in conversation and establish meaningful relationships. On the flip side, they’re typically able to leave friends and places easily. This is due to the fact that they have experienced extremely difficult good-buys so have inured themselves against getting too emotionally involved.
Although uprooting causes its own set of challenges, parents offered an overseas assignment should seriously consider accepting for their children’s sake. TCKs overwhelmingly view their experiences as positive. As a group, TCKs are profiled as independent, flexible, creative risk-takers, good at solving problems and dealing with ambiguous situations. They tend to be more mature and able to thrive with change. They are culturally aware and able to relate to a wide variety of people. Families tend to be closer due to their intense shared experience and resulting reliance on each other.
A study by Unseem notes that TCKs are four times more likely to earn a bachelor degree than their non-TCK peers. Half went on to earn their postgraduate degree. A quarter majored in subjects with an international slant. Others chose fields based on their potential to work abroad. TCKs tend to be more highly educated but their restlessness results in a higher likelihood of switching schools during their undergraduate program. Nearly half attend three or more colleges and take over four years to complete their degree.
Their international background gives TCKs a competitive edge as adults. As companies trend toward a global focus, employers prefer hires with international experience. Selecting the right candidate for an international assignment is vital to both the candidate and the company’s success. Assignment failure costs hundreds of thousands of dollars in relocation, re-hiring and training expense along with unmeasurable impact on the company’s reputation, business relationships, employee morale and more. The TCK profile matches those of an ideal candidate for an international assignment as the employee will face the challenge of a high-profile position in an environment with foreign cultural and business practices.