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.