How would you identify yourself if you grew up in several different places? This is the first in a series of posts about the TCK experience. Third Culture Kids spend part of their childhood outside their parent or home culture. In this post, I’ll take a look at how young adults who grew up as TCKs, understand their identity construction.
“I moved to three different schools and in each one I actively changed my identity. Not to fit in, but to make the transition easier.”
We identify ourselves in a way that is complex and fluid. We like to take comfort in the security of defining ourselves and others in absolutes; but it’s really not easy to pin down essentialist ideas. We are multifaceted and don’t always fit into confined pigeonholes. We change over time and in different social environments. The way that we now exist as part of a globalised world, adds layers of complexity to identity construction.
“… identities are never unified and, in late modern times, increasingly fragmented and fractured; never singular but multiply across different, often intersecting and antagonistic, discourses, practices and positions.”
I interviewed three young adults who have migrated across nations and cultures as children- A Danish national, an Australian and a Dutch citizen of mixed Dutch and Mexican ethnicity. They grew up as Third Culture Kids (TCKs), young people who followed their parents as they worked in different countries. I wondered how these former TCKs, now adults, identity themselves. Did they change themselves as they changed their perception of ‘home’?
The interviewees made it clear that defining themselves is complicated. “It’s not simple”, a former TCK stated, “I would be a completely different person if I had grown up in one place”. And when asked if it is more difficult to work out your identity as a TCK, the interviewees answered yes, “It’s harder than the average person. I know what I’m not and I know what I am, but it’s not so clear-cut” and “I’ve changed a lot in different countries”. The TCK adults agreed that they created their own identity and this self-construction occurred in different contexts, “I moved to three different schools and in each one I actively changed my identity. Not to fit in, but to make the transition easier.”
I was also interested in how their identity relates to nations. In 1916, Dewey stated that the late 19th Century emphasis on nationalism and nation building passed onto education. This tendency has been maintained in education systems, where children are taught to be good national citizens. What about Third Culture Kids who grow up in several nations?
“I can still feel Australian but I think a lot of that is just because I held onto it. ”
There was an acknowledgement from the interviewees that nation and identity are consciously manipulated, “ Yeah I’m Australian. Not fully Australian… but it is the part of my identity that I wanted to cling onto… I made an effort to make contact with other Australians. I can still feel Australian but I think a lot of that is just because I held onto it”. The Danish TCK adult felt very connected to the nation, attributed to spending a longer significant period of childhood in Denmark, but at the same time questioned the essentialism of national identity, “I still feel like I’m 100% Danish…. I don’t know what it means to be Danish…Are you Danish because you like Danish food? It really depends on where you are from in Denmark”. And when it comes to choosing a passport identity, it’s a pragmatic decision “I have a Dutch passport because it’s easier.”
Identity is evidently something that happens discursively, in flux, and can happen in different ways, even while identifying others. We tell stories about ourselves in forming our ever-shifting identity. These narratives are multiple, stitched together and altered in different contexts. For the adult TCKs interviewed, their identities have moved and narratives changed in their many contexts.
Dewey, J. (2004). Democracy and Education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York, N.Y.: Dover Publications.
Hall, S & Du Gay, P. (Eds.). (2015). Questions of Cultural Identity. London: Sage.