Third Culture Kids often come to a place in life when they return to their passport country only to find that they don’t belong. They can’t seem to fit in with those who have only lived in the passport country and thus begin to feel like an “other.” It feels as if everyone around them is a “duck” and no matter how hard they try to think like a duck and act like a duck there is just something that doesn’t feel natural and right. Like the story of the Ugly Duckling, they realize that they are actually not a duck at all, but a swan. A different breed entirely. A Third Culture Kid. No wonder they didn’t fit in with the other ducks!
But then what?
Being a Third Culture Kid is a wonderful identity, but it can become a very isolating identity. The TCK realizes that they are different and unique, but at some point, most are still required to live in a “duck world.” How can they thrive and avoid the serious issue of terminal uniqueness? How can parents set their TCKs up for success in this area?
Here are some thoughts and ideas to get you thinking…
1. Unique is not better. TCKs have a sigma of being arrogant. This is an unfortunate, but true reality and it most often comes into play when the TCK moves back to their passport culture. They realize they are different and have had significantly different life experiences than others their age who are not TCKs. It is easy for them to conclude that their upbringing was superior. Be intentional about fostering humility in your TCKs from a young age and reinforcing that there are benefits and challenges of any lifestyle (living in one place, moving around, living overseas, etc.)
2. TCKs are individuals. TCKs so often get pigeonholed into a category that they begin to forget that they are individuals outside of the TCK label. While it is important to address and focus on TCK challenges (especially during the high school and college years), it is equally as important to continue to remind your TCKs (and yourself!) that they are unique individuals who have talents, skills, likes and dislikes, and personal opinions and struggles that may be (or not be!) related to their overseas upbringing. Being a TCK absolutely has an impact on who they are, but it is not all of who they are. If your TCK feels so tied to their TCK identity, this can be a recipe for terminal uniqueness because they forget that they are simply a person like everyone else.
3. TCKs are human. Going back to the duck analogy, the ugly duckling was really a swan, not a duck, which is why he didn’t completely fit in with the ducks. However, they are still all waterfowl and still all birds. TCKs, while having distinct differences from those who have not lived outside their passport country, are still human. TCKs who feel terminally unique often also feel sub-human. They forget, or decide not to believe, that there are similarities between themselves and others who have lived a different lifestyle. They have a strong “us vs. them” mentality and unfortunately often miss out on making what could be amazing friendships because they believe that they are so fundamentally different from “them” that they could never truly be friends.
4. Give it time. TCKs are inherently good at adapting to new cultures and situations, but seem to have a more difficult time using this skill when returning to their passport country. I have found that those who feel terminally unique are often subconsciously surprised when they didn’t adapt to their passport country as easily and quickly as they have to the other cultures they lived in. Because of this, they conclude that they never will fit in and they give up on trying. They isolate, stop trying to make friends, and sadly often resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with their loneliness. Address your TCK’s subconscious expectation that they will quickly jump into life and relationships in their passport culture and continually remind them: it takes time, stick it out, keep spending time with that potential friend, don’t give up!
Making the decision to live overseas does mean that your children will likely feel like a misfit in their passport culture, but this challenge doesn’t have to be debilitating. In fact, this challenge can be an incredible growing experience. TCKs who have learned to successfully live in their passport culture have a deep understanding of who they are as a person, have learned to take a stance of humility, and have learned to patiently invest in relationships with people who are not TCKs. While they may never feel that they completely fit in, this uniqueness becomes an asset to their relationships, career, and other areas of life instead of a terminal “disease” that causes deep loneliness and a wealth of other heartbreaking issues. Whether you are raising TCKs, working with TCKs, or are a TCK yourself, take heart that there is hope. There is a way to be a TCK and avoid or overcome the feeling of terminal uniqueness.