Third Culture Kids

Two weeks before Christmas I packed up my ten year-old daughter’s bags and took her to Heathrow Airport to fly to the UAE. Unaccompanied. Seven hours on her own in a plane. No one to tell her to eat some veg or maybe to stop watching TV for a bit. All. On. Her. Own.

She wasn’t at all worried about travelling alone. As a child who, for most of her life, had been brought up overseas, air travel was more normal than taking a train.  She was going back to her old home, to see her old friends, visit her old school and go to her old haunts. If we had moved from London out to the Shires, we would be doing the same, probably more regularly, but still keeping in touch with an important period of her past. It’s just that to do that now involves a seven-hour flight and a four-hour time difference.

She was beyond excited. This beat, hands down, the thrill of her newfound independence walking unaccompanied to the local newsagents. I, however, suffered sleepless nights and frequent heartburn. But that’s what you have to do when you have a third culture kid.

“Third Culture Kid”, or TCK, is a term defined by David C. Pollock, co-author of the book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. Pollock describes a TCK as “a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any.” His book is a fascinating exploration of what it means to be a TCK and is available on Amazon (click the link here)

Bringing up a child in another country requires some effort and an awareness of the differences between their “normal” and your own; bringing them up in your home country once you return produces a whole other set of challenges: being aware of their differences, and in some cases, nurturing them.

I suppose I was quite naive when we first moved back to the UK. I assumed that that this would be easy: they had spent every summer here, they spoke the language, were familiar with the popular culture thanks to the TV. It’s not that I was ready to forget our time in Abu Dhabi, and I was committed to keeping in touch with the great friends we made there, but I was very forward-focussed. It was all about settling in here; making new friends; getting used to a new school. Our eight years in Abu Dhabi were an amazing experience, but that was it. It was over.

The truth is Abu Dhabi will always be part of our lives.For now, its significance is greater given the proportion of the children’s lives lived there. As they grow older, and friends leave Abu Dhabi, the pull will wane but there will always be a connection.

Whilst they are unlikely to suffer the classic TCK’s feeling of rootlessness given they are still young, Abu Dhabi will continue to be important as a place where key events in their childhood happened. They had all the normal experiences of growing up, they learned to swim and ride bikes, but just in a very different place in the midst of a very different culture.

Their experiences will mark them out as slightly different from their peers: they’ve camped in the desert, been accustomed to having a live-in maid and a gardener, picked mangos from the garden, and played with princes and princesses.

There are occasions in my daughter’s speech when her expat past will reveal itself. The influence of American culture in Abu Dhabi means she is more likely to call a shopping centre a “mall” and her little finger is a “pinky”. Remembering all the feral cats of Abu Dhabi, which they were warned on pain of death not to approach, she has an abiding wariness of any cat she sees here.

I’ve tried to fill any gaps in their UK knowledge since we came back: explaining voting, post men, house-to-house bin collections. The most unexpected though, was after a recent visit to the doctors when my daughter, slightly panicked, said, “Mummy! You forgot to pay!”: explaining the benefits of a universal healthcare system.

The additional demands of bringing up a TCK will doubtless rear their head from time to time as the children grow up. Solo international flights are probably just the start. I need to be on guard for lapses in their knowledge and lack of cultural reference points, whilst encouraging their more international outlook and acceptance of different cultures.

So this is why, at the start of the Christmas holidays, my daughter embarked on the first of what I expect will be many trips to her past and I started reading about TCKs, and planning a family trip back to Abu Dhabi very soon.


More great writing on the need to reawaken the feminist in us (see November blog “No Complacency”) : read Suzanne Moore’s piece in the New Statesman: (click here)



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