I first heard the term Third Culture Kid or “TCK” in high school, and simultaneously found out that I was one. While many reject being labeled, I personally found much solace in finally feeling like something explained the rootlessness and lack of belonging that I felt. I have always worn the TCK label proudly and have, for better or for worse, lived up to the typical TCK expectations- moving often, having difficulty developing deep friendships, feeling restless, not wanting to settle down. However, three years ago, my husband and I moved to Portland, Oregon. This three year stretch has been the longest period of time that I have lived in one place since elementary school, and the scariest part? We have no intention of leaving anytime soon.
I write a lot about TCKs and settling. I have said that, “The healthy TCK realizes that they have a need for change and knows that they are more comfortable with the adapting process than with the settled life. However, they have learned how to control the need for change instead of letting it control them. They are willing to be somewhat uncomfortable so that they can live a settled life in the necessary areas. “
In the past three years, I have learned to “settle in the necessary areas.” I believe that this has made me a healthier and happier individual, but, it has also brought a deep, unknown fear to light- the fear of becoming less of a TCK.
This fear surfaced when we bought our house about a year ago. While I knew it was the best decision for us, in the back of my mind I kept thinking, “But TCKs don’t do this!” I would remind myself that we were calling it a “5 year house” and could go anywhere in the world after that (even though 5 years still seemed like a ridiculously long time). Part of me felt like the purchase of our house signaled the death of part of my TCK identity.
Shortly after buying our house, my husband and I were at a craft fair and found this little wooden sign that said “Home” with the “O” in the shape of Oregon. Something inside me said, “You need to buy this. You are learning to settle.” So we purchased the sign and it now sits on a shelf in our living room. Every time I look at it, I feel a slight pang of guilt. “TCKs don’t have a home. Especially not one in America. I am loosing my TCK-self.”
I recently came across a quote from David Pollock and Ruth Van Rekken that says, “While parents may change careers and become former international business people, former missionaries, former military personnel, or former foreign service, no one is ever a former Third Culture Kid. TCKs simply grow into being adult Third Culture Kids because their roots grow out of the lives planted in and watered by the third culture experience.”
I think that perhaps, for many adult TCKs, the fear of settling doesn’t just stem from the uncomfortableness of wading into that uncharted water, but also from the fear of loosing part of their TCK identity. We subconsciously think, “If I can see myself happily staying in one place (especially in my passport country) for a long period of time, I must not be a TCK anymore.” Thankfully, I have found that this is not entirely true.
My life overseas shaped me in countless ways, many of which are similar to the tendencies of other TCKs. Those experiences will always impact my life, but as I am learning to settle, I am learning that I need to let go of some of my TCK identity. The part that says, “You will always be rootless”, “You will never have a home”, “You will never have deep friendships with non-TCKs.” In the past three years, those beliefs have begun to be chiseled away at bit by bit. Allowing myself to settle here in Oregon is not betraying my TCK-self, nor does it make me less of a TCK. In fact, as I look around my house, I can see fingerprints of my overseas upbringing in so many places- my world map on the wall, my cupboards full of African foods and Indian spices, my African-themed guest room, the shuka (Masaai fabric) that I take as a play-mat/picnic blanket/towel/blanket for nearly every outdoor activity, African carvings and books in Swahili all around my living room. My third culture experience has played a role in shaping the way that I think, the things that I enjoy, the areas that I am passionate about, and what want to spend my life pursuing.
Settling and adapting does not undo my TCK identity, it just allows it to show up in different ways. In many ways, it surfaces in healthier, less destructive patterns. I am learning to let go of my fear of being less TCK, and learning to let the ways that my TCK-self comes out change and shift as I grow and learn to adapt and to settle.