Welcome to the second issue of Multicultureland and a warm hello to my squadron of twelve subscribers ;) This week I share what I found out about the current state of research on TCKs and muse on the situation in relation to my own experiences and the future. If you have any questions or feedback to share I would love to hear from you!
Since starting a newsletter exploring ‘modern identities’ I dove back into the science journals. It’s been a very, very long time and the first thing I look for is a summary of the latest research on Third Culture Kids (TCKs). Surely the people dedicated to researching us will have the answers to my late-life cultural identity crisis! Just like in the university days I fire up Google Scholar and enter in the search bar: "third culture kids" AND "review".
It turns out that three researchers got together last year to conduct “A systematic review of third culture kids empirical research” (Tan, Wang and Cottrell, 2021). In a nutshell there have been just 31 empirical studies published between 2000-18 about TCK ‘psychosocial’ issues. It’s fair to say that the bulk of the world's understanding of TCKs comes not from research but from books, memoirs, blogs, films and TED talks.
To no surprise ‘identity development’ is one of the top three most researched TCK domains. Alongside the ‘emotional/psychological’ and ‘social/relational’ categories, these surely feel like the most salient issues that TCKs face. Common experiences in TCKs include culture shock/adaptation, relocation stress and unresolved grief. I look forward to examining research on TCK 'identity negotiation' and 'identity strategies' and hope to find some practical, evidence-informed advice.
The TCK identity struggle is beautifully captured in a book published in 1999 referred to as the ‘TCK bible’, by Pollock and Reken (2017, 3rd ed):
“They are the stories of lives filled with rich diversity and amazing experiences but often conflicted by the underlying question of where they really fit in.”
“The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCKs life experience, the sense of belonging is [often] in relationship to others of similar background.”
The truth is there hasn’t been enough research on TCKs, yet the challenges they face are undeniable based on the growing body of creative work alone. Not all TCKs struggle with their life or identity but this should not take away from the difficulty that so many of us face. Not only do I speak from personal experience as a TCK, I have seen eyes light up in numerous people the moment they find out they are TCKs (often far too late in life).
The weight lifts. They suddenly feel understood. They belong somewhere. There is a Name for their experience and we have gone through it. This marks the beginning of a whole new chapter of self-discovery. Except the problem is that there is so little guidance and information out there. Sharing stories helps but what the world desperately needs is research to make sense of a largely unknown, mysterious and challenging phenomena. Research is what drives effective, systematic interventions for mankind. We still live in a world where most educators, organisations and therapists are not trained to help with the range of social, psychological and emotional TCK issues. This pains me because I recognise how lucky I am to have gotten help and the profound impact it has had on me.
My journey to receiving specialist cultural counselling was a random accident a year and a half ago. As part of a volunteering project where I helped review exercises for a TCK youth organisation, I was gifted with a year of counselling from one of their employees, Lana, and every week she dutifully put an hour aside to coach me to a higher plane of understanding. I was awakened by many realisations of the ways in which being a TCK might still be affecting me—such as my shape-shifting cultural identity—it changed my life. And incredibly our relationship brought to reality the intimate and wistful vibe from one of my favourite teenage books Tuesdays With Morrie, by Mitch Albom.
This chance encounter revealed to me that unfortunately, people can’t get help if they don’t know that they need help. My whole life, being a TCK has not been a strong part of my personal narrative, I shoved it to the byline of my story (“Yeah I’m a TCK, so what?”). As humans we have a natural inclination to avoid the discomfort that comes along with introspection. TCKs are used to holding a buffet service of unresolved feelings that accompany them as they move between unfamiliar and confusing cultural settings. For example, in Hong Kong I’m labelled a ‘banana’; white on the inside and yellow on the outside. In England people often assume that I need a visa to stay in the country. In both settings I have felt misunderstood. At some point I stopped feeling frustrated by choosing not to answer back. My experience has shown me that it doesn’t have to be like this for TCKs but we each need to put in the work to understand how it has uniquely affected us. Ultimately, we need to do more research in order to get more funding. In the future TCKs will be better equipped to handle the unique cultural challenges they face across the life spectrum.
We are living in a unique time in history where the rate of 'cultural mashups' is accelerating due to greater mobility (thanks to technology), yet the degree of impact of cross-cultural experiences on the basic stages of human development is not widely acknowledged or understood in depth. My hope for this newsletter is to create a pathway for storytellers and researchers to come together so we can build a future with more cultural sensitivity and tolerance.
We're only just getting started. Maybe one day there'll be a Global Third Culture Kid Day for us to celebrate together. Thank you for joining the ride!
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About this Newsletter
Multicultureland is a weekly newsletter written by Beccy Lee about modern identities, dedicated to helping you become who you are. Beccy is a Third Culture Kid* and Occupational Psychologist specialising in culture & personality.
“Who Am I?” is a deeply introspective question that we all ask at some point in our lives. This newsletter is for people like me who are keen to figure it out. I believe we all have hidden stories to uncover that have the power to transform us and our relationships.
Multicultureland aims to educate and entertain readers—Beccy writes personal stories, shares lessons and exercises that she has found helpful for self-discovery and personal development. Where social science meets wisdom, Beccy is a 'psychologist on a mission' to raise the collective unconscious in the modern world.
*Official definition of TCK: “A person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture.” - David Pollack, 1989.