I met a young woman at a dinner party last week whose demeanor and poise were markedly different from all the other educated, smart New Yorkers her age at the table. She was friendly, outgoing and unusually curious, with an intrigung sort of detachment. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until she told me she had lived abroad for many years as a child, following her father’s corporate relocations around Latin America. She lived in Panama and Costa Rica until she moved back to the U.S., to Miami at the age of 13. A Caucasian, she hated Miami, was heartbroken, disoriented and desperate to go home — to Panama.
Her manner was typical of a TCK — a third-culture kid — a phrase she had never heard before but immediately understood when I told her more.
This sort of nostalgia for another country, or several, despite owning a U.S. passport, is typical of third-culture kids, like President Obama, Treasure Secretary Timothy Geithner and Obama’s closest advisor Valerie Jarrett, those born in the U.S., but who leave it for a significant period of time during their childhood or adolescence, later returning to what is, technically their country, but often one they know little, if at all, a country with a very different culture and values from where they’ve grown up.
As a result of moving around the world and making friends over and over, adapting to new ideas constantly and reaching daily across languages and cultures, TCKs are unusually comfortable in a wide range of situations, able to coolly handle challenges their peers can barely imagine — the woman from Panama described daily confrontations by soldiers armed with M-16 rifles as an accepted part of everyday life. It’s returning to the U.S.’s materialism, individualism and inward focus that often hits them hardest. Kids at school don’t get their references, nor do they necessarily know the same songs and TV shows. TCKs and their peers have lived in places that some of their teachers, professors, colleagues or neighbors can’t pronounce or even locate on a map, let alone appreciate the returning TCK’s favorite foreign food or music or beach. Their unusual and sophisticated memories are harder to share. As a result, TCKs can move through life forever feeling a little dislocated, never quite fitting in anywhere.
When Obama was running for President, many commented then — and some still do — on his cool affect, “no drama Obama.” This sort of emotional detachment is pretty much second nature to TCKs, who typically follow their parents around the world doing military, missionary, corporate or NGO service, and TCKs quickly discern, and value, this quality in one another.
I wrote a story about TCKs for a now-dead magazine and was most struck by one man’s story of growing up a young black boy in the 1960s in Saudi Arabia, surrounded by kids of all colors and nationalities — and never being able to understand the bitterness felt by his grandparents living in the American South, a place poisoned by racial strife. His childhood was, he said, coccooned in a corporate compound, protected and idyllic, a place where ethnicity didn’t matter. Like many TCKs, now working in public relations in St. Louis, he has since worked overseas.
I lived in England and Mexico as a child and the latter experience, while brief, marked me for life. I speak Spanish, have returned there many times on vacation and feel at home in that country — even as a blue-eyed blond — in a way that still surprises me. In a world where we rely more heavily every day on global commerce, trade, diplomacy and shared ideas, I think TCKs able to think through complex issues through the varied lenses of multi-cultural experience bring an invaluable perspective.
Are you a TCK? Where did you live and how has it shaped you?