Imagine you were born in Bali as the child of an American.

You grow up at the slow pace of island life. Your days are spent on the beach, swimming and playing in the sand.

Your friends are local kids and the children of other expats.

You go to an international school. There, you have an Australian teacher, and your peers are from all over the world.

How would your worldview change if you were the child of an expat who grew up not in your parents’ home country, but abroad in a foreign one?

You might just have a broader perspective.

This can make you an ideal zookeeper (i.e. teachers for foreign expats working and living in another culture).

Two Worlds

Taking in the above scenario, it’s probably safe to say that, at ten years old, you’ve become chummy with more nationalities than many adults have.

Even more interesting, you are a child of two worlds: with one foot in your host country and an intimate knowledge of your parents’ culture.

This is what’s known as a Third Culture Kid (TCK).

Researchers, John and Ruth Useem, developed this term in the ‘50s to classify children of American expats who were living and working abroad.

These children are gifted with a unique perspective and can make the best zookeepers for those who are adapting to a foreign culture. 

As quoted from Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds:

“While growing up in a multiplicity of countries and cultures, TCKs not only observe firsthand the many geographical differences around the world but they also learn how people view life from different philosophical and political perspectives. Some people think of Saddam Hussein as a hero; others believe he’s a villain. Western culture is time and task oriented; in Eastern cultures, interpersonal relationships are of great importance…”

TCKs have grown up with more than one culture: speaking English to their parents at home and Balinese in their host culture.

Celebrating Christmas at home and Galungan in the streets of Sanur.

Barbecuing hamburgers at home and eating Nasi Campur on the beach.

During their primary socialization, these children grow up knowing and respecting the values and norms of the host culture, while also knowing and respecting their parents’ values.

Presidential TCK

This was the life of someone who was, at one time, the most powerful leader in the world: President Barack Obama.

Obama grew up as a Third Culture Kid. 

Born in Hawaii, he lived some of his formative years in Indonesia, where his mother taught English and was a Microfinance consultant who worked in rural development. His father was Kenyan.

Like many TCKs, growing up with multiple cultural influences and worldviews gave Obama a unique perspective.

Obama describes the joys of his youth in Indonesia as well as the tragedies he observed there.

He explains:

“It had taken me less than six months to learn Indonesia’s language, its customs, and its legends…The children of farmers, servants, and low-level bureaucrats had become my best friends…There was the empty look on the faces of farmers the year the rains never came, the stoop in their shoulders as they wandered barefoot through their barren, cracked fields, bending over every so often to crumble earth between their fingers…”

Through his experience as a TCK, he learned from a young age that the world wasn’t perfect or just.

He also realized that not everyone was aware of this or able to confront it. He notably refrained from sharing the unjust bits of his experience in the letters to his grandparents.

“The world was violent, I was learning, unpredictable and often cruel. My grandparents knew nothing of such a world, I decided; there was no point in disturbing them with questions they couldn’t answer.”

It is this worldly perspective that TCKs are gifted with and that make them great zookeepers.

Not only does such an experience open their eyes to a broader world, it can help open yours too as an expat adapting to another culture.

We’ll talk more about that next week.

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