Cross-cultural transitions: The experiences of Third Culture Kids

The origins of the term Third Culture Kid (TCK) can be traced back to the 1950s, when American sociologist and anthropologist Ruth Hill Useem used it to refer “to the children who accompany their parents into another society”. More recently however, the term is associated with another American sociologist David C. Pollock, who used the term to describe a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture, growing up in a highly mobile and cross-culturally diverse environment.

In collaboration with Ruth Van Reken, Pollock’s book ‘Third Culture Kids: Growing up among Worlds’ (2009) draws on the experiences of the TCK individuals, showing that although growing up in a culturally diverse world is certainly enriching, it also implies some real challenges along the way. The authors note that challenges are not necessarily liabilities, in the sense that challenges can have debilitating as well as stimulating effects on reaching one’s goals, depending on how these challenges are managed.

Naturally to TCKs’ mobile lifestyle, one of the book chapters discusses transition as a significant factor, defining the main challenges of the highly mobile lifestyle within cross-cultural settings as “finding a sense of personal and cultural identity and dealing with unresolved grief” (p. 64).

Although, the book’s main focus is on the perspective of TCKs, I believe that the discussed topic of transition is very relevant also for the more ordinary international assignee population, because every kind of mobility can be classified as transition. Overall, it is quite challenging to objectively define what a transition is, as this is a very individual experience, hence transition should be seen as any occasion that is perceived by a person as a change. The authors argue that physical moves from one place to another may undergo the following 5 steps: involvement, leaving, transition, entering and reinvolvement.

Partly reflecting Oberg’s (1960) stages of cross-cultural adjustment that were reviewed in one of my last year’s blog posts, Pollock and Van Reken’s conceptualization sheds light on the process of transition, identifying the up’s and down’s of the experience.

Transition begins with the involvement stage, which precedes any location changes and constitutes the ‘normal’ part of life, when an individual is settled in some place, integrated and involved in life of the local community.

The leaving stage starts when one learns that he or she will be leaving and hence begins one’s mental and physical preparations for the transition. During this stage people start loosening their emotional ties and detaching from their relationships and responsibilities. To take quite a common example, we may think of a situation when changing a job: The moment the decision to leave the organization is made, the performance may change, and the person becomes less involved, less caring and in a sense ‘mentally checks-out’ of the organization before the actual day of separation. Apart from these detachment factors, the authors propose that during this stage there are different forms of denial that are meant to make the leaving experience as painless as possible. More specifically, people tend to deny feelings of sadness or grief, either by trying to reappraise the value of what will be left behind, or by focusing only on what is anticipated; they deny feelings of rejection, which may occur when the future plans of colleagues and friends do not include the person-to-leave anymore; they deny any ‘unfinished business’, meaning that these individuals are less likely to reconcile conflicts, assuming that ‘distance’ will heal it; and finally they deny any expectations, as the fear of unfulfilled hopes or the acceptance of too low expectations make the preparation stage even harder. However, the authors note that there is also something positive within this period, as the community gives special attention and recognition to the leaving person.

Next is the transition stage itself, which can be described quite simply as chaotic. To name a few, there are multiple changes in schedules, people and expectations, the old roles and relationships are gone but new ones are not yet structured – in other words, people are placed out of their comfort zone. The authors argue that this sense of chaos makes people more self-centered than normal, problems get exaggerated, and coping strategies alter. The routines of the old places become stressing novelties of the new. The authors suggest that such drastic changes to everyday habits and learnt practices may also negatively affect one’s self-esteem. Specifically, when such ‘common’ tasks as, for example, paying the bills or paying a visit to a doctor become difficult in a new location a person may find this detrimental for her sense of self-efficacy and self-confidence. On the other hand, from the host community’s point of view, no matter how welcoming they may be a newcomer is still exactly that person who by definition does not yet fit in. The knowledge and experiences of a newcomer are not yet understood and shared by the local community, nor are the newcomer’s specific roles and status. As a result, being new in a country may lead to feelings of alienation, which may trigger anger, unwillingness to try to make friends, and thus withdrawal from the new community, which in the end turns into a vicious circle.

All in all, however, at some point life starts to return to normal. The entering stage starts. During this stage the feeling of total chaos of one’s life begins to diminish. People begin to accept where they are and start acting towards settling down and integrating into the local community and lifestyle. This period is still full of ambivalence, which creates a need for mentoring by someone who knows more and can teach ‘the everyday life’ to the newcomer. Thus, little by little one becomes accustomed to the host surrounding, works out necessary roles and routines, gets to know the new location, and eventually feels capable and efficient again.

Finally, the reinvolvement stage resurfaces. The authors note that this stage is widely recognized and possible in any type of transition, be it a cross-cultural move or something else, but that it simply requires time and genuine willingness to adapt. The reinvolvement stage involves the acceptance of the new place, new roles and the new community; it induces feelings of belonging, intimacy and security.

Summing up, the book ‘Third Culture Kids: Growing up among Worlds’ among other topics gives a good illustration of the transition process, highlighting its challenges and implying that these challenges and their overcoming is a normal part of it. It is also an important reminder for expatriates and international assignment program managers alike to consciously manage these challenges and develop strategies to attain the positive outcomes for both individuals and their organizations.

Further reading:

Pollock, D. C., & Van Reken, R. E. (2009). Third culture kids: growing up among worlds. Rev. Ed.. London: Nicholas Brealey.

11 thoughts on “Cross-cultural transitions: The experiences of Third Culture Kids

  1. Adults encountering these kids can assist their transitions by creating comfortable environments within peer groups where they can share their concerns with others and realize that what they are experiencing is normal. Opportunities to reinforce good decision making skills are also helpful.

  2. really a great post i request my author to help me find out the book Third culture kids so that i can explore my knowledge.Also i am bookmarking your post so that my friends too get the interesting article.Thank you very much

  3. TCK is never a reality than now. This phenomenon of course can be obviously attributed to constant migration to other countries by people. Though this is out of the scope of the subject, I think TCK will increase as more and more people hop from country to country, producing kids growing in different culture than their parents did.

  4. Real TCK remain isolated cases, I refer to kids moving a lot because of their parents job. It is true that it can be a source of struggle regarding identity but in the other hand those kids take a lot of benefits from such life. Adaptability, open mind, better understanding of society etc.

  5. TCK is definitely more apparent than ever. Myself I can safely say I am a TCK and it is interesting to reflect upon some of the things written in this article. I think one should be careful with generalizing, however there is certainly a lot of truth in this post and Im gonna make sure to get a hold of the book. Thanks for the great article!

  6. Its such as you read my mind! You appear to know a lot about this,
    such as you wrotee the guide in it or something. I believe that you just
    cann do with a few % to pressure the message house a bit, but instead of that, this iis grrat blog.

    An excellent read. I’ll definitely be back.

  7. El año pasado lo arrendé por 3 meses a un matrimonio extranjero que viene a pasar
    el invierno, el hecho es que en ningún momento publiqué anuncio
    de ningún género en tanto que ese matrimonio
    estaba interesado en arrendar y fueron los que se pusieron en contacto conmigo.

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