Wednesday, March 11, 2015

(Re) Defining TCK, or Swimming with Jeans On

I spent this past weekend at the FIGT annual conference. It was full of inspiring encounters with people whose work and ideas are amazing and with whom I could happily spend weeks, and months, rather than a scant few days.

One issue that Ann Baker Cottrell raised, at the research forum and during one of the discussion sessions, was whether the definition of TCK (Third Culture Kid) needs to evolve.  After all, the term has been used since the 1960s when Useem coined it, much has happened in the field since then and, as one person put it, all three words in the term are problematic: "Third" confuses people (we aren't talking "third world"), "Culture" (but it's more than that) and "Kid" (but we are typically talking about how a childhood experience has effects in adulthood).

I, like Cottrell, have tended to adhere to a pretty "traditional" definition of TCK, based on David Pollock (time spent outside of parents'/passport "home" between ages 0 and 18, with expected repatriation to that "home" and with attachments to expat cultures as much or more than attachments to host cultures). Because there is no expectation of repatriation, I consider immigrants, exiles, and refugees as different from TCKs.

Include immigrants or not?  While I think not, Cottrell concisely argued the case for a proper study of immigrants and TCKs to settle the question of the similarity or difference.  Good call.  Someone Social Sciency needs to do this.  Personally, I'd also like more on how much developmental stages matter:  is a stint abroad ages 1-3 the same as one ages 10-13, for instance?  Again, this is a great job for someone Social Sciency.
In updating my TCL booklist recently I struggled, as I always do.  How much time has to be spent abroad in those developmental years to count?  Pollock and Van Reken indicate it is flexible, but probably a year or more. What is "abroad" on continents where one might travel across national borders easily and frequently (or in places like the US where one might remain in a single country but travel between very different regions and cultures)?  What about people with mixed parentage (Cross Cultural Kids or CCKs).  What about CCKs who are not TCKs?

This in fact was a thread  in the conference discussion: should TCKness be considered a kind of CCKness or vice versa?

A European perspective adds this: in Europe "TCK" is considered a problematic and uniquely American term, redolent of neo-colonial privilege (apparently "expatriate" is similarly reviled).  Far better to resuscitate "secondment" as a concept, as far as the English are concerned.   People go abroad because they are "seconded" to places overseas.  (Can you imagine a newbie trying to figure out how Third Culture and secondment go together--Oh dear!)

And then I heard Naomi Hattaway talk about her  viral "I am a triangle" blog post.  A TCK student of mine had mentioned the triangle idea to me, and I had shrugged it off, misunderstanding the triangulation for some kind of cultural mingling.  Which it is . . . but isn't.  Hearing Hattaway herself talk about it, and then actually reading the post, I really like what it articulates: we all start as circles in our "home" country.  When we move, we move to a different culture (somewhere square), and then the effect for us is that we become triangles.  When we repatriate, we have pointy parts and don't become circles again.  (Hattaway's post comes with pictures: check 'em out for a better explanation than I give here).

What I love about the triangle is that it IS in some key respects exactly TCK.  Three-sided (Third Cultured) and with both excess cultural knowledge (pointy bits that stick out) and bits missing because we've been away (the triangle doesn't fill up the full circle anymore).

In my own panel on Third Culture Literature, Brittani Sonnenberg described the TCK problem of having too many different kinds of cultural knowledge as weighing one down: it is like swimming in jeans.  Jeans are great, but not in the water.  Her observation, and Hattaway's triangle make me think about context: TCKs accrue lots of cultural knowledge, most of which is useful only in specific contexts: we have to do a lot of whittling and editing to present the pertinent parts of our cultural knowledge in any given context.

Our pointy bits are the moments of excess: we know too much "other stuff" for the cultural context in which we find ourselves and (here's the clincher) to look at us, the people around us have no idea why we know that stuff.  Likewise, our flat sides lop off bits of the circle people expect us to know about  and the people around us have no idea why we don't know that stuff because we look like we should.  I look and sound pretty American: why don't I know anything about the American TV shows from my childhood years?  Why do I know so much about sambal badjak and fetishize rooms with white-washed walls and tiled floors? 

Hattaway underscores how hidden a TCK upbringing can be once one repatriates: "It’s a secret that isn’t a secret" she writes.   This is because when we come back, we look like everyone else.  We look like all the other circles (I am only talking TCK here: CCKs do not necessarily look like everyone else, and they can and might experience this totally differently), but we are triangles.  Do we tell people?  Do we hope they don't notice?  Do we feel superior (hey! look at all my amazing pointy bits of exotic knowledge) or humiliated (please don't ask me anything about how the political structure here actually works because I haven't a clue, and I have no idea how many inches are in a foot)?  

Maybe we are swimming with jeans on, and we keep swimming that way because we aren't wearing a bathing suit underneath.


  1. Excellent post! Only point I'd argue: not every TCK looks or sounds local in their passport country. It can depend on where they are in that country--big city with lots of diversity or small homogeneous town, etc. Plenty of TCKs of color stand out in certain parts of the US, Canada, Europe, etc., even if our passports are from those areas, even if at least one of our parents are from there, etc. It can compound alienation in a way that's different from the "hidden immigrant." A great essay that you might relate to, on being assumed to "fit in" when one doesn't, is Lisa Suhair Majaj's "Boundaries: Arab/American."

    1. Hi Lisa, Excellent comment! Thank-you. Looking forward to the Majaj essay.