TCK Life is a Great, Big…Canvas (Part 1 of 3)

What defines a TCK?

Lynnie Wright was born in Liberia and moved to the United States in 8th grade. The cultures were vastly different. “I don’t even know how to explain it,” said Wright, a Third Culture Kid (TCK) at Colorado State University. So we explain it with paint strokes.  

A TCK is someone who is raised outside of their parents’ culture or culture on their passport for a significant part of their early developmental years. The term describes the lifestyle many TCKs have but it doesn’t fully capture the feelings and dynamics they experience. “Home is more of a feeling for me, not a place,” said Wright. “I don’t remember the last time home was actually a place.”

A 2011 online survey by Denizen, a publication targeting TCKs, found that most Third Culture Kids first moved before the age of nine. Most also had degrees and 85% spoke two or more languages. Because of this, TCKs are often more culturally aware and develop broader perspectives. They find it easier to adapt in situations, a quality many employers look for.

A Lack of Roots – Difficulties for TCKs

However, the journey for a TCK is not all butterflies and rainbows. Life as a TCK can create a sense of restlessness and even homelessness. As TCK Author Ruth Van Reken explains, home is “everywhere and nowhere.”

For Wright, being thrown into a new culture was thrilling and also daunting. She lived in Ghana, Cambodia, Sierra Leone, and Liberia before moving the U.S. Then, she went to school in Maryland and Nebraska before settling in Colorado. “As I walked the halls to find my locker, everyone looked at me but it felt like no one knew me.”

When friendships become central to development at around age nine or ten, life as a TCK is even more difficult. “It was overwhelming at times,” said Wright. “People didn’t understand why I sounded the way I did or why I wore bright orange wigs,” Wright said. “Most looked at me like I was an alien,” Wright said. That’s the thought behind the drawing below, which reflects her experience and xenophobia of many Americans.

How one TCK feels - half seen but known as an "alien"
How one TCK is looks on the outside vs. the “alien” her peers see her as – Illustration by Ellie Green

These types of judgments towards a TCK may have negative consequences. “If an individual has had a difficult experience in childhood and hasn’t been able to make sense of that, that can be carried into adult life,” said Kate Berger, director of the Expat Kids Club, which works with schools and families handling international transitions.

Branching out: Welcoming Cultural Knowledge

But it doesn’t need to be so difficult for TCKs. These individuals bring valuable insight into the various cultures around the world. For example, how much Wright respects her elders and her views on the differences between racism and colorism are important in today’s society. Even her fashion style and gumbo she makes for dinner are intriguing. Rather than shun that knowledge, we should be more considerate of it.

“There are the obvious differences of language and food and dress,” said Wright. “But the nuances of how people treat one another and the aura of a different country is something that can’t be explained in textbooks.”

Branches and roots symbolize the journey of a TCK.
TCKs often have roots in many different cultures, and it’s time for us to branch out as well. Illustration by Ellie Green
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