Published in the September 2009 issue of (in)sight Magazine.
It Isn’t Always Easy Being A TCK.
By Nadia M. El Abdin
For Karim and others like us.
I’m sure you are wondering what the TCK stands for. I will tell you shortly but first let me tell you what inspired me to write this piece.
On several occasions during my weekend visits to Alexandria to visit my family, I have bumped into a young university student who like me is of mixed ethnicity. The topic of conversation during our random meetings, while out with our mothers assisting them with their weekend grocery shopping always revolved around how my sister and I coped with being of a mélange cultural heritage. These conversations brought back so many memories for me and It became clear that this young man was going through some, if not the same dilemma’s I had experienced not too long ago.
I write this piece for Karim and others out there who may be experiencing the same internal turmoil that their Parents, Teachers and Friends may not be able to relate to. I hope to shed some light on their situation and give them comfort in knowing that they are not alone.
TCK stands for’ Third Cultural Kids’.
FaceBook Group description and definition of a TCK:
You’ve heard this ‘textbook’ definition of a TCK before: “A third culture kid is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture. The third culture kid builds relationships to all the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the third culture kid’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of the same background, other TCKs.”
I personally prefer to describe and differentiate TCK’s in to two categories. Children raised away from their parents place of origin for most or all of their childhood. People who would fit under this category would be diplomat kids, army brats, children whose parent’s work for companies that are constantly relocating and moving them from state to state, province to province or from one continent to another.
Another form of TCK would be children born into mixed marriages. For example, having an American father and a German mother. The culture inside the home would be a mix of both creating a third culture.
I fit under both categories. My mother is Irish and Catholic and my Father is Egyptian and Muslim. I was born in Canada and spent most of my childhood in Saudi Arabia where my father lectured. We lived on a compound with expatriates from all corners of the globe and attended mainly International Schools with students and teachers from diverse backgrounds.
It was during my young adolescence that other children teased and bullied me for being different. My first memory was of two young American boys, whose parents’ were friends with mine tormented me every day on the school bus because my Dad was Egyptian and would pinch me and spit at me. As you can imagine, I dreaded the morning and afternoon bus rides. I then went to an ‘Arabic’ speaking school so that I could learn the language, my religion and more about my culture. There some of the students and teachers openly made my life miserable by telling me that my mother was a ‘Kaafira”, (non believer) and that she was destined to spend an eternity in hell. The teacher’s would have a great time using me as a human target too by throwing their office supplies at me or pulling my hair out. I developed a distrust for teachers and a dislike for my Middle Eastern roots. On reflection I supposed it is safe to conclude that is where my cultural dilemma began. During my early teenage years my family moved to Egypt, where I am still residing. My sister and I were raised as Muslims and yet our house hold had a combination of both cultural traditions, values and morals. All of the things I have mentioned are factors which have contributed towards me being a TCK.
I am not an expert in the area and I can’t speak for everyone, but I can share my own personal experiences with how I grew to accept myself for who I am and what I have, In the hopes that I may be able to help someone else come to terms with their situation.
Being of mixed ethnicity for some people can be a difficult thing to deal with. Sometimes an internal conflict or clash between the two cultures takes place and your brain starts to question which side of the cultural pendulum you belong to. The trigger for this sudden cultural identity crisis, maybe due to external pressures of one of the cultures or the butting heads of the method their parents were trying to raise them .
As a child growing up, I was made to feel as though I was different by outside influences. At the time I didn’t have the vocabulary to express my feelings accurately or the knowledge to help me comprehend what it was I was going through. Sometimes I felt like one of the X-Men comic characters, I looked like everyone else on the outside but felt different on the inside, minus the super powers of course. I could get along with both Western and Middle Easterners and understood their cultural ethics. I was comfortable in the company of both and yet genetically although I belonged to both groups, I never really felt as though I fully belonged to either. I felt like an alien or a mutant among my own kin. There were moments when my cultural pendulum would swing back and forth between the two cultures and there were moments where it would remain motionless.
The times when my pendulum would be swinging and leaning towards the ‘Western’ side and my frame of mind and thinking process was all western I would often feel guilty for neglecting the ‘Middle Eastern’ side. The vice versa, of that was true too. At one given time I had consciously decided to disown one of my cultural heritages, the constant swinging back and forth between the two was getting to be too much for me. When I attempted to do that I felt as though I had amputated a part of my identity and lost a piece of myself and that I was no longer a complete person. I tried talking to my parent’s about it and they just thought I was still adjusting to the move and the new school. The school I was in at the time everyone was of the same nationality, so I couldn’t talk to my fellow peers either.
The turning point came when my mother had read an article about TCKs’ in Egypt Today (an Egyptian magazine, printed in English). The instant she had finished reading it she brought it to me and to this day I can remember her exact words ‘Is this you?’ I read the article and I cannot begin to describe the sense of relief and comfort that swept over me. The relief that someone else out there understood what I was going through and the comfort in knowing that I was not alone in the world was reassuring! I felt as though a dark cloud had been lifted.
When I had identified what I was and what I was experiencing, the road to acceptance began. The journey ahead was long, winding and turbulent. The pendulum continued to swing back and forth, it didn’t bother me as much as it had previously because I knew I wasn’t a candidate for the insane asylum. As time went on, I became more open about what I was and when I met other people who were like me, I wouldn’t shy away from asking them about how they dealt with being of mixed ethnicity. Some of the people I spoke to didn’t have the same experiences I did because their parents had decided to raise them as just one nationality, while others could related to how I felt and what I was going through. I continued to research articles and read books written about TCKs and with every word I read and conversation I had the more convinced I became that there is no easy, right or wrong way of being a TCK.
With my new-found knowledge, I slowly began to build confidence and become comfortable in my own skin and embracing being different. This didn’t go down well with lots of people because they believed that my father’s roots should be the dominate one. So, a lot of my friends changed, I decided that if people can’t accept me for who I am then they never liked me in the first place. The people whom I was most comfortable with seemed to be those who were very similar to me or who had lived abroad for a few years and had returned to Egypt to finish off their schooling. I noticed that we seemed to attract each other like magnets and have that “click” factor.
I have met other TCKs who couldn’t cope with being both, so they chose a culture to be their dominant one because it’s just easier for them to deal with. Is it wrong? I don’t think so. Why? Well, everyone deals with it differently and the best way to cope with being a TCK is whatever gives you peace of mind.
Personally, I have embraced my mixed heritage and decided that it is more a blessing than it is a curse. The advantages of being mixed, (in my opinion) is quite beneficial. We have the experience as well as the knowledge and understanding of different cultures, which makes us great teachers, leaders and cultural diplomats. It is people like us who can change the negative ideas and images people have about ‘Westerners’ being drunk, ignorant with high sex drives or ‘Middle Easterners’ who are extremists and trigger happy terrorists. We are also rich in heritage and can adapt and blend in to any environment we are thrown in to, we are like human chameleons. We have respect and appreciation for other Peoples beliefs, traditions and we often adopt some of their cultural traits and incorporate them in to who we are, which I believe makes us even richer. My group of friends and I have been dubbed ‘The Little United Nations’ because with our nationalities combined we could form our own U.N council.
My pendulum doesn’t swing as vigorously as it used to. However, It isn’t always smooth sailing. There are occasions where it sways back and forth and that can be due to temporary insecurities or something that is going on in my life, like when dealing with people who can’t think outside of the box and can only see one side of the coin or meeting a gentleman whom I may be attracted to, but find that it isn’t easy getting along with him because he doesn’t understand or accept my mixed heritage and mentality thus causing the pendulum to sway from one side to the other. Most of the time it is motionless and secure.
Now when I’m asked ‘where are you from?” I can’t help but smile because the answer for most is short and sweet and I know that when I respond to the question that I will tweak their curiosity and a conversation will start-up. (As it did with Chris Cuomo, one of the hosts of Good Morning America. (Yes, he’s just as good-looking in person as he is on T.V!)) With pride and patriotism I confidently answer; “I’m Canadian, Egyptian, Irish.” Without the three I just wouldn’t be me.
If you are in need of further explanation and want to learn more about TCKs, you can do a search on-line and numerous websites will pop up, you could go to your local books store and pick up a book titled “Third Cultural Kids”, The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds” by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken