Discovering my Third Culture Kid (TCK) identity as an adult has been like a predestined romance waiting to happen before I had the language for it. Yet throughout this love affair, realized in the process of claiming a tribe, I’ve noticed a missing piece: acknowledgement about privilege variances as a tribe.
The intense feeling of being different without a language to internally process it or externally name or explain it has impacted me significantly. I felt like a misfit whenever I attended a school without other TCKs. The consciousness of knowing I was different grew more distinct after I left the international school system: In college, I told a roommate moving around so much as a kid influenced who I was romantically compatible with, but couldn’t explain why.
The longer I was away from my TCK-filled past, the more I felt an isolation I didn’t know how to talk about. I felt like I found myself in an abandoned city with signs of fresh activity but no one there to talk to.
As a tribe, however, we tend to go back to our individual identity compartments when it comes to aging, sudden disability, racism, economic struggle, etc. Yet our global nomad background can have as much relevancy on these matters as it does on “Where is home?”
Discovering the term that explained my experiences and knowing others could relate to me validated I was experiencing an identity and not an abnormality I had to fix.
The answers didn’t come until my 30s, when a colleague called me a “Third Culture Kid,” which led me to TCKid.com. These words were keys that opened new doors for me, most importantly of understanding. As I illustrated in “the significance of words” (page 4 of the book “Refusing to Be Erased“), discovering the term that explained my experiences and knowing others could relate to me validated I was experiencing an identity and not an abnormality I had to fix.
More personally, the career dream I wrote about in my college applications was to help people who grew up moving around like me. I knew there was a need before I knew there was a language for it. In 2011, within six months after I discovered the term, TCKid, an online community forum created by Brice Royer, became a bridge to that dream. He passed onto me the online community three years after he created the forum. I formalized TCKid as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.
Today, the organization, which now goes by TCKidNOW, has continued helping more TCKs connect and expand its global reach, and provides trauma-informed educational outreach as part of community care services under development. TCKidNOW addresses the question after the initial discovery of the TCK identity: “Now, what?” — the space where intersectionality and privilege are relevant.
There have been great discussions around the common TCK experiences, i.e. finding home, being a hidden immigrant, etc. As a tribe, however, we tend to go back to our individual identity compartments when it comes to aging, sudden disability, racism, economic struggle, etc. Yet our global nomad background can have as much relevancy on these matters as it does on “Where is home?”
TCKidNOW recognizes being an adult TCK intersects with other identities, i.e. race, gender, class, aging, passport country, citizenship status, etc. TCKidNOW designs its services mindful of how the intersection of identities ties to varying levels of access to resources, or privilege.
Privilege: The uncomfortable but necessary conversation
Privilege can be an uncomfortable topic that can easily cause a little tension or division, but it doesn’t have to. In expat communities, we do not all usually enjoy the same luxuries, such as paid private school tuition, luxury cars or rich neighborhoods. It’s part of what expats sign up for.
The differences in privilege themselves aren’t a cause for tension. What can be is when a majority of resources, events, accolades as well as standards and recognitions of admirable accomplishments and leadership do not acknowledge or include a true diversity of TCKs by the time we’re all adults, such as:
• The centering of individuals from developing as well as developed countries,
• People with working- or lower-income-class experiences as well as those from consistently upper-middle-class or higher background,
• People of color from all over the world as well as the universally perceived face of the Western World,
• Community-focused work under leadership that has an understanding of the multiple intersections of struggle and marginalization, as well as the cosmopolitan entrepreneur who symbolizes a successful jet-setter lifestyle, and
• Individuals who identify fluidly across spectrums of class, gender, sexuality, racial, passport and other privilege.
The default representation of TCKs has been more reflective of the latter half of scenarios above when a community survey TCKidNOW conducted from July 2018 to January 2020, N (sample size) = 340, found that approximately 50% self-reported having lower or working-class experience within “the past five years.” TCKidNOW’s survey also found 21% more participants “strongly disagree(d)” than “strongly agree(d)” that they have “a safety net or sufficient resources for unforeseeable circumstances.” This was before the COVID-19 global pandemic.
The differences in privilege themselves aren’t a cause for tension. What can be is when a majority of resources, events, accolades, and standards and recognitions of admirable accomplishments and leadership do not acknowledge or include a true diversity of TCKs by the time we’re all adults.
At the time of the survey, TCKidNOW could not find a survey dedicated to class variances among TCKs. This is an example of the impact of having more privileged individuals or organizations serving as gatekeepers of who is acknowledged, applauded and supported. Gatekeeping creates a vicious cycle of privilege in representation and narratives on our collective identity, values, needs and priorities.
Clarifications on increasing access
Setting a price for services, having a successful small business, or recognizing a person’s accomplishments are not, of course, negative. What would be negative is if we in the field of TCK work do not collectively work together to widen access to resources, recognition and inclusion. Individuals with experiences from less-privileged backgrounds in roles with program and research design decisions and leadership can open new windows of insight. Individuals from less-privileged backgrounds must be the decision-makers, not given a spotlight temporarily to benefit the career of someone else more privileged, e.g. in academic research, business entrepreneurship or innovative projects.
The professional practice that validates our approach
The social workers code of ethics at socialworkers.org states that social work is guided by the core values of: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity and competence. TCKidNOW follows these core values along with the systems theory, which explains human behavior as influenced by multiple subsystems, i.e. an individual’s school, family, economic class, cultural identity, friendships, etc. that operate interrelatedly within a larger system.
Addressing an individual’s problem would then require looking at how the various subsystems are affecting each other as well as the individual directly. TCKidNOW also embraces the social work value of a person’s right to self-determination. The persons experiencing issues have within themselves solutions as the experts of their own lives, not a passive passenger of a clinician or coach who knows better.
Individuals from less privileged backgrounds must be the decision makers, not given a temporary spotlight to benefit the career of someone else more privileged, e.g. in academic research, business entrepreneurship or innovative projects.
How you can help — The TCKidNOW community mental health network
Informed by my less than economically-privileged seasons in my life and stories from other TCKs about limitations in accessing resources, I conducted a survey designed to measure certain privileges.
The results of this first community needs survey confirmed class variances within the TCK population, usually thought to be mostly upper middle or upper class. The below infographic shows some findings and an overview of the TCKidNOW Community Mental Health Network, which aims to gather TCK/cross-cultural focused mental health service providers willing to charge sliding-scale fees according to income/cost-of- living context for TCKs who cannot afford standard rates. Please consider joining the network. We are also seeking donors and businesses interested in sponsoring this program who would like exposure on our TCK and Cross-Cultural Kid social media platforms.
Please see more details/register here.
In closing, I want to say that I am so grateful to see how far we’ve come as a tribe since the days when TCKs were still not considered a “valid population.” We all as a tribe did this! The International Therapist Directory has played a major role in healing and I hope that this network will provide an avenue for us all to worker together to spread even more love!
Follow TCKidNow on Instagram and Facebook @TCKidNOW, or visit TCKidNOW.COM.
(Editor’s Note: This information was originally published at InternationalTherapistDirectory.org.)