Psychologists throughout history have hypothesized on the means by which one attains one's identity. Society and culture undoubtedly play a large role in this process but new lifestyles have gradually emerged that lead us to an enticing question: if an adolescent has been raised in more than one society, more than one culture, how does he form his identity?
As such situations have become more commonplace new terms and definitions have arisen to help our understanding. The "third culture kid" (TCK) is defined* as an "individual who, having spent a significant part of the developmental years in a culture other than the parents' culture, develops a sense of relationship to all of the cultures while not having full ownership of any." When we look at theories of normal identity development, we see that when a TCK is establishing his identity, he undergoes a process similar to that for any monocultural adolescent but more intensely and more acutely. In a monocultural young person's world, an identity crisis is experienced when he or she must come to terms with practices in a religion, society or family that contradict the individual's instincts and/or reasoning. This could be, for example, not drinking before the legal age or taking responsibility as an individual. In the world of TCKs the same issues take on a whole new intensity. Perhaps their parent's cultures advocate legal drinking at the age of 21, while adolescents in their host culture drink at 16 and can legally smoke marijuana at 18. This is just the tip of the iceberg. One culture may advocate the importance of a conformist community while the other strives to form assertive individuals. For certain TCK's, three or four cultures may exert their influences equally upon the individual. The extent of the contradictions experienced by TCKs is limited only by the differences between two cultures from any two parts of the world.
Furthermore, once surroundings change for TCKs, maybe from the host culture to parents' culture, the dominant values change and multiplicity sets in. TCKs find themselves, "being pulled in at least two directions for every thought, feeling and behaviour." Moral values are no longer etched in stone. And so, TCKs find themselves stranded, with no common family path for them to walk. Conclusions are eventually reached, but they often contradict one or more of the person's various value systems: decisions may become either x or y, or neither, but never both.
In order to reach these conclusions, TCKs learn how to think critically about the contradictory perspectives their cultural experiences have provided, as well as about monocultural issues. TCKs must apply a cultural context to their decisions and moral judgments. For example, where a monocultural American may see a Dutch person as rude and objectionable, TCKs might recognise this, yet see it merely as Dutch with no negative connotation whatsoever owing to their changing cultural frame of reference. (The Dutch person may see himself as honest and straightforward, while the American is overbearing and superficial. Once again, due to shifting cultural frames of reference, the American is merely American to TCKs, with no negative connotation attached.)
In almost all studies concerning identity development, emphasis has been given to the role that a peer group plays in helping individuals ascertain their identity. "I am an engineer", "I am a conservative", "I am a Catholic" are all statements in which one states ones identity through membership to a certain peer group. Monocultural persons' peer groups surface easily. They can say, "I am British" and feel totally comfortable with everything that implies. Conversely, TCKs have no single culture or nation that shares their values. Finding a peer group to identify with becomes much more difficult - but not impossible.
It is this process of naming the TCKs peer group that has been shown to constitute a large part of the developmental process. Once a TCK discovers that the peer group he or she belongs to is that of the third culture kid, and not of any one specific culture, being comfortable with marginality becomes much easier.
As we peel back the layers of identity development for both TCKs and monocultural students, we see that the conflicts TCKs face are very different. TCKs move from one stage of development to another in the same manner as monocultural young people, going through an identity crisis, but with the addition of a cultural identity crisis. Furthermore, the fact that TCKs do not have a similar sized peer group to support them adds to the challenges faced by TCKs. However, this situation is slowly changing.
The number of TCKs is constantly growing. It is thanks to the world becoming more multicultural, with the establishment of international schools and international educational programmes such as the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, as well as to increasing globalisation, easier travel and exchange of information through media, particularly the Internet. This growth is accompanied by an increase in the support provided for TCKs. Furthermore, as greater emphasis than ever is placed on cross-cultural relations, the skills developed by TCKs during their searches for identity will become increasingly sought after by others. A few generations from now, third culture kids may see themselves as the norm rather than members of a third culture. The skills they possess could be vital tools used by themselves and others in diplomacy, business, and above all, in people's understanding of themselves and the world around them.
*(Schaetti, BF. 1995. The Global Nomad Profile. Transition Dynamics)
Editor's note: Chris Lewin, born in Australia in 1983, has just completed his IB Diploma at the American Community School, Hillingdon, United Kingdom. Chris had previously studied at the International School of Stavanger, Norway for 4 years and the American School of The Hague, Netherlands for 3 years. His essay, "Effects of globalisation on adolescent identity formation" is based on his personal experiences. It reflects some of the unique opportunities as well as difficulties he has met.
This article was first published in the February 2001 edition of IB WORLD.
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