The TCK Barrier Between Parent and Child

For the most part, the Third Culture Kids produced in my generation were TCKs like myself. They were born to First Culture Kid parents, then yanked from that birth-culture and thrown into one or many different cultures throughout their development. At the time, if those TCKs-in-the-making were anything like me, they moaned and complained incessantly about always having to leave their friends. They cried and threw tantrums, made harsh exclamations of frustration, and spat empty threats at the prospect of leaving wherever they were to move somewhere different. But in the end, without fail, we always moved on, and our opinion of the matter meant little to nothing in the grand scheme of our parent’s expatriate lives.

Then one day, those TCKs grew up. We passed out of that bitter, hateful, aggressive teenage phase that everyone seems to pass through and became substantial members of society. We started being treated like adults, garnering respect for the things we said and the knowledge we had acquired throughout our lives; and that knowledge was impressive. Being natural cultural adapters, we had developed an eye that saw things that all but the most intuitive FCKs were blind to. And we did it naturally.

But there was something strange about it all, this internal belief that we were completely normal and yet, externally, we were regarded with incredible worldly knowledge and cultural intelligence, a feature of ourselves that we had always believed was a natural state of individual understanding. And when we realized in our early-maturity that what we had experienced wasn’t the natural state of affairs, we began searching for an answer as to why. In doing so, we were united with a world of TCKs that were scattered all over the planet who were so incredibly different to ourselves, who had experienced such vastly different things, but who truly understood exactly who we were and how we felt.

This, of course, is a highly condensed compilation of events, one that I will undoubtedly expand upon in greater detail in a later post, but it’s important to understand the development of our understanding before approaching the larger issue in our developmental realization; as we grew up, we realized that our parents who had spent all that time travelling the world with us didn’t understand a single thing about what we experienced.

My mother, who like all supportive parents is a regular reader of my works, called me from England where she’s been staying for almost a month now helping with post-funeral family situations to say that she had read my most recent post about being an expatriate everywhere. I thanked her, as usual, and asked how things were going back in the UK. Conversation continued along those lines before jumping back to the blog, where she said, with a hint of sadness in her voice, “Why don’t you write something happy about your experiences sometime?”

I paused for a minute, letting the words flow through me, and though I have always known it to be the case, and have in fact discussed it on multiple occasions in this blog and The Illusive Home, I realized just how disconnected from my experience she truly was.

Sure, we had traveled to all the same places, had seen all the same things, had gone on all the same tours and walked through the same foreign streets, but with every single trip we made, my perception of our travels was as different to hers as an apple is different to an elephant. She saw everything through the eyes of an FCK expatriate, a woman traveling the world with her family, always far away from home and the world she grew up in. She always had that stability, that memory of a lifetime of growth and development in a constant environment. She had memories of meeting her husband, my father, back in the UK, of getting married there with both sides of the family only an hour away from each other at most.  She remembers bringing two children into the world there, the first few years of our lives spent in that home that she had always known. And then she remembers leaving home, and always missing home, and always going back home to see the people she loved and grew up with.

And for me, the memories of my youth really began in Hong Kong. That home that she remembers so clearly was never a fundamental part of my life. I never had a stable set of friends that I grew up with. I never had grandparents that I spent years with and could escape to. I never had aunts and uncles and cousins that were right on my doorstep. I never had a place that felt like that word “home,” a word that means so little to a TCK. I never had the life she had.

Instead, I had a life of travel, of constant uprooting, of my formative and developmental years laced with culture after culture. I grew up transitioning from country to country that had starkly different political viewpoints, different caste systems, different streets, different smells, different laws, different educational systems, and different styles of general life. I had no stability, where she had an endless string of it.

So our unique perceptions of the world we experienced together were destined to be endlessly different, destined to be unrelated. And no matter what I said to her, she would never understand that what I write on these pages, when I say that I have no home and that I am endlessly tormented by the constant need to leave everything behind and travel, to give up the entire world I’ve created and move on to something new, that this isn’t in any way a sad thing in my eyes.

It is simply my life.

Sure, it’s a drastically different life compared to the incredible number of FCKs in the world. Sure, it’s completely odd to many and impossible to relate to for the rest. But in the end, it’s who I am, and who I am is a man of multiple cultures with the gift of a life that is full of understanding, respect, and appreciation for every corner of the planet.

So I responded with an explanation I knew she would never understand, one that would give her no happiness and would answer no questions. But it was one that I knew she would not be able to argue:

“It’s not sad, Mum. You just see it as sad because of something you know, something that I have never experienced. To me, it just is. And to the TCKs that read my words, they always see the pain, but in that pain they see the beauty. My need to move was grown from a seed you and Dad planted when I was very young, one that you watered with every single move. But that’s not the reason I travel today. It’s just the catalyst. The reason I do it now is because I need to continue to water that seed. I restart my life because of my unquenchable love for that next unknown culture. I travel because, while I simply cannot stop due to my conditioning, I can’t imagine a time that I would ever even want to stop. And sure, it causes me a great deal of pain and frustration, and sure, it causes me heartache and loneliness. But in the end, it gives me a life full of understanding, knowledge, and possibility. And why would I ever want to trade that for anything?”


The Author





Post by: James R. Mitchener

25 thoughts on “The TCK Barrier Between Parent and Child

  1. MaDonna

    Thanks for sharing your “answer”. Loved this phrase: “they always see the pain, but in that pain they see the beauty.”

  2. susangreeneye

    This is very interesting. I have a good friend who is a TCK but what is interesting about her is that her mother is also a TCK. My friend’s grandparents (originally Americans) moved to Brazil and raised their kids there (my friend’s mom and her siblings). They grew up speaking English in the home and Portuguese at school. The 3 kids (the mom and aunts) became adults and moved to the U.S. to attend college and then they all got married to American men and settled there. My friend did not grow up learning Portuguese (because both her mother and father speak English natively). Eventually (when my friend was 8) her parents divorced and my friend’s mom moved all of her kids to Brazil. They were all fully American and had to adapt to this new culture and language.This is unique because her mother has this self-made third culture (due to her in cultural limbo status). Think a TCK raised by a TCK. Does that make the second TCK like a FCK? 🙂 The way she acts is telling about her experience. I think growing up she often felt like she didn’t belong. Whenever we met other Americans or Brazilians (while traveling together) she absolutely HAD to tell them that she was half-American and half-Brazilian and always gave a rundown of her history. I always thought it was a bit ridiculous that she felt the need to “prove” to me how Brazilian she was. She never really seemed to try to prove to Brazilians how American she was. Perhaps she identified more with her Brazilian side. I don’t know. Anyway, sorry for the long response but reading through your post made me think of her. Also, my dream lifestyle is like a nomadic lifestyle. I have always dreamt of raising my kids partly in the U.S., partly in Brazil (where my fiance is from) and partly in Nepal or Egypt or some other random country but your experiences make me wonder whether uprooting them and throwing them into new cultures every couple years would be good for them. I always assumed that it would make them “cultural” and “worldly” but maybe it’s just too difficult to constantly have to adjust. Again, SORRY for the long post! Your post was just so so interesting to me.

      1. James R. Mitchener Post author

        Never apologize for a long post, dear. Comments are the fuel for this blog. It’s the discussions I have with others that make writing this worth every second of my time. I love the concept of TCK raising TCK. You make a great point about the FCK shift in that. I suppose at the base level, you are part of your parent’s culture, but I think that you still maintain the TCK title because while you are growing up all over the world like your TCK parent, you certainly aren’t experiencing it the same way they did. The places you grew up, the culture of the time at which you adopted it, the experiences you had there make it pretty different. Of course, I would assume that a TCK parent and child would have a much more understanding relationship than the more regularly seen TCK-FCK child-parent relationship. You could talk about things that actually made sense to each other, versus being stuck in that perpetual state of misunderstanding.

        About uprooting your kids, I’ve said this many times to many different people, especially in The Illusive Home. Your kids may hate it at the time, and it sure does produce an interesting adult, but then I’m must one TCK in a sea of TCKs. This blog is about the life of just one person who grew up everywhere, and while I get a great deal of positive responses from the things I say, I also get a lot of people telling me how they feel differently about different issues. But in the end, I have yet to meet a TCK that has turned adult who would trade in the life they had for an FCK life. It may be hard, but life is always hard. Our difficulties are just ones that don’t have as large of a support group. But growing up all over the world is, at its core, a gift. At least, that’s what I believe.

        Thanks again for the comment, I greatly appreciate it! Always feel free to write as much as you want. I love a good conversation.

  3. DrieCulturen (@DrieCulturen)

    Once again I can identify with what you write. There is a real difference between the experience of the third culture kids and their parents. It’s a completely different view, a different way of looking at things, the same experiences but seen from a different angle. Thanks.

    1. James R. Mitchener Post author

      Always a pleasure. I started this collection as the thoughts of just a single TCK. I wasn’t sure if what I did and what I thought was really that universal. The Illusive Home gave me a bit of an idea that it was, but I still wasn’t sure. And still with every piece I wonder how far off the base I am. Hearing I’m not off, and that others like yourself agree is extremely reassuring. Thanks for the comment. And I’m loving your blog!

  4. D

    Yup, its so true. I remember just this last Christmas I was sitting and talking to my mum about how I feel like I don’t have a home, because my home is every where and she looked at me and went “thats so sad.” I looked at her and told her that to me it’s not sad at all because to me my home is simply where the people I love are, but still to her it was something sad. My parents are first generation expats, so though they’ve had an international experience like me theirs is completely different especially because their plan has always included returning home. It’s a bit of a weird feeling at times, knowing your parents have a place they consider home but knowing that it is not necessarily a place you would call home unless under pressure to pick somewhere.

    1. James R. Mitchener Post author

      What really gets my parents, more specifically my mother, is the understanding that the house they own has never been “home” to me. When my parents moved house about four years ago, they asked me if I minded them leaving the place I called “home.” Instinctively, I just responded “That’s just a house, Lynn. It was never home. You can move wherever you want.” After a substantial pause, she responded “I suppose Granny and Grandad’s house is the closest to a home you have.” I left it there, because maybe it gave her some comfort in believing that to be the case, but the truth is that no house has ever been home. There are just people and places, and the lack of a solid home allows me to be in any of them whenever I need or want. To me, that’s just life. To her, a house and a place of constancy is life. We are just different fruits from different trees.

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  6. Jenny Tsu

    I’m new to your blog (sent here by Expat Educator) but it’s of great interest to me since I’m an expatriate FCK married to a classic TCK, and we are raising two ……. well, here’s where it gets difficult. How shall I describe my children? TCKs? Their lives have been perfectly stable so far even though we are living, in Hong Kong, far from my “home”, in the United States. Is it the constant uprooting and “home is nowhere so it’s everywhere” phenomenon is that makes a TCK tick?

    Do you think there is more in common among kids who moved around a lot (in different cultures or not) – or more in common among those who simply are living in a culture different from that of their parents’ origins, or in a mixed bag of cultures ?

    1. James R. Mitchener Post author

      Welcome to Third Culture Kid Life, Jenny! Excellent questions and points, all of them. I think the first one regarding your children is that, assuming they were born in Hong Kong (my favourite city in the entire world by the way, at least of those I’ve seen so far), that’s their home. America may be yours, and they may have a connection to it, but if stability has been built into their lives with Hong Kong as their base, that is home. Of course, assuming they weren’t born there and were moved to a stable environment, then the question remains in the air. I suppose it comes down entirely to what they connect to. If they have a base culture somewhere different to that of where they are currently living, but grew up in that second, foreign culture, then their minds are still absorbing and growing. It’s highly likely that you already have TCKs that just don’t know they’re TCKs yet. It’s a kid’s natural desire to find something they attach to. Unfortunately, when that final developmental push in your late teens kicks in, you start to realize that home may not be the home you thought it was. It may not be a physical place, or a even a group of people, but just an idea. Of course, with minimal moving, then perhaps they’ve built that home in Hong Kong. And if so, they’re lucky. I’d love to call that place home!

      In regards to commonality, I think that the most shared level of understanding comes from the kid growing up in a single culture, even if it’s not racially, religiously, or syntactically theirs. Age is absolutely essential to that level of understanding. When we are kids, we are still building and learning from our world. Sadly, as we grow, many of us become stagnant in our beliefs and practices. An adult that becomes an expat, like my parents, will never understand or see the world the same way a child growing up in those same places will, like myself when I was young. As for kids growing up in one culture that isn’t their parent’s birth culture, that doesn’t really matter to kids. Kids, when conditioned properly, don’t care about race or creed or gender or origin. They are just kids, and kids recognize their surroundings as normal regardless of how abnormal they are. A Chinese girl surrounded by little white English kids wouldn’t feel out of place unless a parent has conditioned their children to make her feel that way. Kids just don’t care. It’s our situational biases that ruin that experience for us as adults.

      That being said, the group I’m in is extremely understanding as well. We fit into any category, can slip almost perfectly into any group. But we don’t actually belong there. We understand the groups, but the groups don’t understand us. Or I suppose, TCKs understand how to fit into the groups, but many of the fundamental principals of that particular group or culture could be lost due to a stagnant upbringing that we’ve never experienced. But to other TCKs, we make perfect sense. We may have completely different cultures, but we just get one another. And this is what makes it true of a kid that may not physically belong to a culture, but has always lived there and grew up in it. They actually belong. That’s their culture, their home, and the people they are surrounded by are their people. TCKs just don’t have that stability.

  7. Patchwork Kid

    A couple good questions raised. Can expat parents understand their kids?

    I cannot say that my parents and I do not understand each other. Because I think that people who spend 10, 20 years abroad cannot exactly slide back into their home culture, just as TCKs/their children can’t. I would say it’s different for people who move every couple of years and return home frequently, since they have not been able to set roots elsewhere.

    But for people who do put down roots, I’ve seen expats return to their home countries and I’ve been in their houses, and what do you find? Furnishings, decorations, and traditions that they’ve brought back, they smell of the place they’ve left. And they’re not the same people they were when they left. And many choose to seek out migrants of that host culture within their own country.

    “Do you think there is more in common among kids who moved around a lot (in different cultures or not) – or more in common among those who simply are living in a culture different from that of their parents’ origins?”

    I think there’s commonality found in both groups—TCKs being a combination of high mobility and living in a different culture. Of my parents, one was a child of immigrants, the other moved within the United States a few times before adulthood, and they both traveled abroad through their adult life. I can say my experience combines both of theirs, and even though our experiences haven’t been exact, there’s enough commonality to feel like we’ve had a shared experience.

    1. James R. Mitchener Post author

      Extremely interesting. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea that this is entirely possible, to be that connected in an Expat/TCK split dynamic, but I am always drawn back to my psychology background and want to dive deeper into the human mind. It all comes down to that endless battle of what’s more powerful, nature or nurture? If we manage to establish that connection, is that just our brains pulling the TCK adjustment level and re-adapting to a unique situation, one we are very accustomed to given the time we spend with our families, or are we really that connected and understanding? Individual perception makes it impossible to experience anything the same way as anyone else, and from my experiences, it have seen that TCKs have a natural barrier in terms of understanding simply because of their lack of stability.

      You used a word I spend a lot of time defining in different ways. You said “expats return to their home countries.” Home. As a TCK, that word means nothing to me. I know I’m not alone, but then I have spoken to many TCKs that have found a home in other things throughout their lives. But that idea of home still isn’t what it is to someone that, during their early developmental years, had a consistent home in country, friends, family, and physical house.

      Of course, parents that have traveled in their youth lack many of these elements, making them more TCK than Expat. That distance grants a level of connection that isn’t usually reached in TCK-Expat families. Now, I’m not saying this is consistent across the board. Nothing in terms of the human mind is ever a consistent thing. But I think the majority falls along this line.

      However, it would amazing to not be the majority in this sense.

      1. Karissa (Patchwork Kid)

        I suppose I wasn’t clear who I meant when I said “expats returning home”– by your definition they would be FCKs. So yes, these are people born and bred in the United States who return “home” to the United States or wherever they came from however many years later. For them, home isn’t that ambiguous, otherwise we would not have a definition of FCK 🙂 My point is, however, that FCK expats are not unaltered by their experiences overseas, and while not to the level of a TCK who has not known anything different from moving around, after a significant time away like 20 years, many FCKs can also become cultural misfits in their home countries, and I feel I can connect with them almost as well as any TCK. This is probably more true among anthropologist and missionary circles–people who stay longer in one place and engage with the local culture.

  8. Nat

    Hi there,
    I just randomly found your blog today and loved it!
    I am a different kind of tck, my parents are from 2 different european countries and i was born in malaysia since they lived there at the time. Moving a few times between asia and europe has made me to the person i am today and i wouldn’t trade it for anything.
    The longest time i have spent in a country in the past 7 years would probably be a year and whenever people ask me where my home is, my answer is always the same: my home is where my suitcase is.
    The countries where my parents are from have never felt like home to me, even though just like you, i have 2 passports. My birth country isn’t my home either and i have yet to come across a country where i feel comfortable enough to stay for a longer period of time.

    What is the longest time you have lived in a country? and where have you felt the most comfortable? is it hong kong? Don’t you find that after the first excitement of having moved to a new place and had the chance of exploring and appreciating it, it just suddenly gets to small and you just feel the need to move on again?

    Also this will be a odd question, but have you read the book ” Third culture kids: the experience of growing up among worlds” by pollock and van reken? I highly recommend this book to any tck, adult tck and even the parents of tcks.

    Sorry about the random questions, but i just love finding out about other tcks experiences and feelings. 🙂


    1. James R. Mitchener Post author

      Welcome to Third Culture Kid Life, Nat! I’m glad you liked the blog, you have no idea how great it is to have fellow TCKs reading it and enjoying it. Also, never apologize for questions. I keep this blog for this very reason; human interaction and cultural understanding is the life-force that drives almost any TCK.

      Hong Kong was most certainly the most comfortable I have ever felt. It’s a city driven by expats, and with expats come a large line of TCKs. I spent two separate stints there at 2 years a piece. The longest I have been anywhere was 5 years in San Antonio, TX. Before that I lived in Houston, TX, but the cultural difference between the two cities was substantial enough that it helped keep me going. Once I graduated, I had finished my run in Texas, so now I live in Raleigh. I doubt I’ll be here for more than two or three years, because (and this answers another question) I can’t stay anywhere too long without getting itchy feet. I actually move apartments every 6-12 months to put that urge to move at bay. But that only works once or twice, and then it’s time for a change in scenery.

      I have not read Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, but I have had many recommendations to do so. I will have to grab a copy sometime soon.

      I love your answer to the question of “where’s your home.” I cycle between that and two others: “I’ll let you know as soon as I find it,” and “Airport terminals.” Both usually get me pretty great looks, and I try my best not to answer any further. Usually there’s someone around who will say “he’s lived all over the place, so he doesn’t really have one.” But if there isn’t I just let it stew and make them wonder. It’s more fun that way.

      Thanks for reading, and if you ever want to chat this TCK is always here just an email or skype call away. It’s a pleasure to digitally meet you, and once again, welcome to TCK Life!

  9. Julia Munroe Martin

    This is so interesting. As a TCK, daughter of FCKs who chose to travel/live abroad, I never really thought about why my parents couldn’t understand my POV. But reading this finally helps me understand. And I know exactly what you mean when you say “why would I ever want to trade that for anything”? Me neither. No matter what.

    1. James R. Mitchener Post author

      I’m glad I could be of assistance. I’m also extremely glad that you agree with my closing statement. To my mother, it still doesn’t really make sense. She pretends she gets it, but I know she doesn’t. It’s sort of like describing red to someone colourblind. They know there are colours, and they’ve seen them, but trying to explain how you see the colour is impossible. It makes me sad that she doesn’t understand, mainly because I think she worries a bit too much, but at the same time, with all the difficulty TCK life can produce, I would never give it up for anything. It is a door to a whole different perspective that so few are granted access to, and I am so proud to be one of them, even if I did hate my parents for dragging me around the world when I was a young little introvert! Thanks for reading, Julia. And thanks equally, if not more, for the comment.

  10. heidiyeung

    Thanks for this. It took me 25 years to find the term, TCK, and after that I was able to acknowledge that gap between me and my parents. It used to upset me that they can never understand why I feel the way I do, now it’s just a state of affairs that I’ve come to accept. (Unfortunately, they haven’t yet. I’m not sure they will, but that’s okay.)

    While it was a huge relief to discover the concept of TCK, finding this entry of yours provided a different type of relief. I didn’t want to be the only child who can’t, despite every effort I made, bridge that gap between me and my parents. I kind of felt like that was undaughterly, that it somehow made me selfish, distant, or inconsiderate as a daughter. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only TCK whose parents cannot understand or empathise with her/him.

    It’s strange that I should stumble upon this entry now, when you posted this back in April. I had just posted something very similar of my own:

    Anyway, have a good day 🙂

  11. Inveterate TCK

    James love your rants and the idea of an “illusive home”, sounds like it was a bit of a shock for your Mum….
    I am TCK and Father of 2 young TCK.. Kids change everything
    Maybe you’re a bit depressed in the US, and might be better overseas in an stimulating international environment….. try to maintain one base somewhere in the world, wherever you are, over the next 30 years.. Hope these suggestions won’t cause offence….
    The book is a good one Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, after I read it I understood why I am always travelling and my home passport friends always say when are you going to settle down ? (I was in another country for 12 years – I thought that was settling down!!) and my brother is in the home passport country and has been overseas only once in 20 years……!! mmmmh
    Boarding school is another dubious pleasure many of us had…..
    All the best

  12. Mallory

    I was uprooted constantly too and i hate my parents now as an adult. I built my own roots far away from them. I never got to have stability or community or closeness with anyone because of my parents’ choices, so why would i have a sense of closeness toward them now?

  13. Jessica

    For the last month I emerged myself into reading about TCK’s as I am raising 2 of them in China. See, we (the parents) are from South Africa, and while both my children are born in South Africa, they only spent a month each after birth in SA. We have lived in China for 7 years now, 4 of them without children, and the last 3 with them. I am always wondering what type of life we are creating for them, and as I stumbled across your blog for my masters assignments, I am truly happy to read what will one day be my own children’s views of the world! Thank you for giving me a look at the future Loots clan!


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