Third Culture Kids (TCK) are children who are raised in a culture other than their parents’ or the culture of their country of origin for a significant part of their childhood. I am a mother of two TCKs who were raised in 4 different countries before high school. I’ve witnessed the positive traits learned by living abroad in this unique subset of children that are helping them during the COVID-19 crisis.
The first thing any proud expat parent will tell you is that their children are more resilient because of the experience. TCKs adapt to change easier; they are quick to adjust to new routines. They know that with every unorthodox transition flows a pattern: preparation, honeymoon, culture shock and adjustment. While many kids may have felt like the rug was yanked out from underneath them with the cancelling of sports and classes, TCKs understood the setback and course corrected accordingly. It can feel like a foreign country when you move your life inside your home. New routines are needed, new learning habits, new rules … all feel familiar to those who have moved abroad. Those who have gone through the experience knew they had to prep first, then potentially felt like it was an extended vacation, and moved into understanding the new norm quicker than the average quarantined family with less panic.
I saw the difference almost immediately. I was touched when I picked up my daughter on the last day of school before a planned month of distance learning began. Groups of middle schoolers swarmed along the outside pick up line in tight knit groups, hugging each other with long goodbyes before being whisked away to their lockdown location. The near-tearful farewells were bittersweet. But my daughter got in the car and eyerolled at the spectacle. As a TCK, she’s use to goodbyes and knows that the “see you later” could be indefinite. The comfort in this has made her a bit calloused at times but in this crisis, it’s beneficial. TCKs have learned the critical survival technique to part ways knowing that it’s the beginning of something new instead of the end of something sorrowful.
Many TCKs have been here, in a mess like this, before. Stuff happens while overseas. In March 2011, we lived in Tokyo and held on while the 9.0 quake shook us. We watched as expats were evacuated from other nations out of fear of a nuclear meltdown while those who stayed stocked up on toilet paper (sound familiar?). Whether it’s day after day of purple Air Quality Index days in Shanghai when all outdoor play and sports are cancelled, or daily threats of being carjacked in Sao Paulo, TCKs have developed skills that mitigate the panic. They know that the world is full of historical events and that we are part of the story if we just hold on tight and ride it out.
Because of the hardships that come with living in a foreign country, our family is bound tighter than ever before. Being locked inside with each other is not a struggle. Sheltering-in-place feels a bit like landing in a new location where we are all that each other has for entertainment and companionship, for better or for worse. We know how to lean on each other heavily, and maybe even more importantly, we know when space is needed. We are tapping into our super powers now and waking up each morning like it’s the first week of immigration.
The compassion doesn’t stop in the family. TCKs also have more consideration for diversity as they have been the minority, the one with the thick accent , or the one who makes a cultural blunder. Some TCKs have lived where the outbreak began and their hearts are with their once host country. Some have visited where the country seems to be losing the battle on the virus and can recall the sites, smells and sounds of the cities now in isolation. These global citizens can reference locations with personal stories and feel more empathetic for those afflicted. They still have friends all around the world and are hearing first-hand how Spain or Korea is handling the situation. These aren’t faraway places with nameless faces; these are their communities and once upon time homes.
And lastly, they’ve been communicating with family and old friends through their devices for a decade. We stayed in contact with our family while in Japan via Skype when that was the only platform offering face-to-face, real-time communication in 2009. Online communication was nearly part of the starter guide for expat life. From Instagram to Zoom, FaceTime to HouseParty, TCKs are physically distancing but socially connected as if hardwired into their being.
These TCKs know how to push the reset button and for this I’m grateful. I hope they are leading their friends now in the confidence to start fresh as each week gives us a new adventure. To all the TCKs out there, keep leading by example with your sense of calm and ease during this time. The world needs your rare experience and global kindness more than ever right now.
14 thoughts on “The Kids are Just Fine: Why Third Culture Kids Will Manage the COVID-19 Crisis Better”
Crista it was great to hear your voice yesterday. This article is so well written and from the heart. Thanks a million for sharing more of your finely observed and felt insights. keep em comin👍
Thanks Julie! Always insightful to catch up with you!
Hi Christa!! Just read your article through the ASIJ newsletter. Wow, you are spot on!! My husband and I have noticed the adaptive and resilient behavior in our children that you write about. I look forward to sharing your article with fellow expat families, friends and our family. Hope you are well!! Marianne xx
I was so honored that ASIJ picked it up! And really kind of you to share it! Hope your beautiful TCKs are all rising above the messy situation. Arigato!
Totally agree with this 100%! I recently told my 10 year old she was such a loyal, kind and caring friend she was. And that her friends should never forget how much of an inclusive, wonderful and caring friend she is. How she welcomes new children into her world without a care and makes them feel secure. Being a new kid to the group and having to start over a few times in life and school has, I’m sure, taught her this very important characteristic. We’ll all get through this but I’m confident ourTCK will get through this differently than their peers/cousins.
I myself am not a TCK. In fact, I’m quite the opposite having never moved while in school. I envy how adaptable they became, like your daughter. It’s a bit of a super power that not everyone has figured out, especially at the tender age of 10. Best wishes to her as she manages all her feelings and new ways.
I realize that my comment – we’ll all get through this might come off insensative and there is not edit button. It was NOT not my intention to come off that way. I realize many will lose their lives and love ones – including a close friend of mine.
No worries … my headline might lead some parents to complain that their children are resilient as well yet not TCKers. Completely plausible especially military kids, kids who have overcome medical issues, foster kids, differently abled kids, etc. My point is, we can’t control other people’s thoughts. 🙂 You are just fine too!
I am a very old TCK who also lived in four countries before high school. Then I lived in 3 more countries as an adult. I have to say this is mostly true. But there can be consequences of the type of resilience you describe. People who learn to say goodbye so easily can eventually find it difficult to make new friends because they know they are not forever. The adaptability to change can mean there is never a normal, and never an ability to put down roots. The compassion for people in so many parts of the world can become a heart-breaking burden of grief. And grief that is unrecognized and unmourned never goes away. Each new grief opens the door for remembering and reliving all that old forgotten grief. For me the lockdown does not create a new normal. It locks me in the old, too familiar normal of feeling isolated and alienated in the secluded bush of West Africa, feeling unconnected to all the world. It is an old grief, but I feel it just as deeply as I did when I was a child. I just don’t talk about it very often, because the normal people never understand.
That’s totally understandable, Cynthia. When you were a TCK child, technology advances weren’t available to help you stay connected. I truly believe today’s TCKers are a different breed than say 1980 TCKers. Do you feel your experience was enhanced as an adult with technology versus your childhood experiences? I would find it difficult to be abroad when letters and delays in communication were the only tether to home.
Cynthia, I can so feel you!! It’s my firm believe that what you are feeling, the grieve from old fare-wells is not only there due to lack of technology, but is rather part of a personality trait. Some TCK learn to guard themselves against disappointment, might also balance this out with a deep pride in their special skills, or simply aren’t as firmly attached, and others (I see myself and my daughter there) bond deeply every time in a new home thus leaving behind part of themselves (my feeling). I also firmly believe that one can heal and cherish the times in the process. I am still working on this…
Cynthia, perhaps this is the time to write down your feelings about your experience in West Africa and allow mind , body, emotions and soul to heal fully from that time the way they need to. Just let it happen.
I have lived in 5 countries and moved house 18 times. My boys have lived in 4 countries. One thing that helped me was to do a Soul ties exercise. 2 columns… one things you want to remember/ enjoyed and one column for those things you want to leave behind.
For all TCKs or their parents out there….
The other sort of exercise I was encouraged to work through with my youngest who was struggling with friendships was to sit down with him and ask him who in the world was his best friend/buddy, ( didn’t matter where they were in the world) , write that down .. best friend. X, then ask who is your very good friend, write that down ( maybe more than one),
Repeat for good friend/s and repeat for just playmates. This really helped my son to realise that it was ok not to have a best friend in the country where we were living but in his home country and he realised he had at least one vg friend where he was living . Other names for the other categories helped him step back from the situation and learn to live with and see that he did have friends in each category and that was ok. I shared this with his ex school’s teacher and she did a writing exercise in which every child in his old class wrote him a letter on coloured paper. This was in 2001 so even with some technology around this was v touching and my son was overjoyed to receive each one and wrote back answering their questions.
He was in an international school , gets on with all cultures and now is a teacher in a school where the children are mainly immigrants. He understands how they feel. It helps.
I thought the original article was excellent and summed up how I feel about my boys now adults in this situation. I can see they adjust more readily and are more resilient because of their experiences. Thank you and it is great to share these things with others with expat experiences. Thank you.
I received the article from my cousin’s wife in US, whose children are TCKs too. Hope you don’t mind me commenting.