Identity Model

The stress for most TCKs is not from the multiplicity of cultures they experience in their childhood but comes when they try to repatriate or fit into some other cultural box which others expect them to belong to. Non-TCKs use this “cultural box” as their way of defining culture in racial, nationalistic, or other more traditional ways.

PolVan Cultural Identity Model 1

TCKs need to be able to acknowledge the reality that this world of multiple cultures they have experienced as children is a valid place of belonging, even if not rooted in one geographical place or ethnicity.

There are some common reactions that TCKs have as they try to sort out their identity issues. They might be a “Chameleon – trying to find a “same as” identity. Or, they might be a “Screamer”—trying to find a “different from” identity. Or they might be a “Wallflower”—trying to find a “non-identity.”

Ironically, when TCKs are in the foreigner or mirror box, who they are inside is what others expect them to be when looking from the outside. Their identity is clear and life is relatively simple. When, however, they are in the hidden immigrant or adopted box, life can become quite complicated. Who others expect them to be is not who they are because they have learned their cultural cues amid and among various cultural groups.

Go to Third Culture Kids (audio file only) to hear Ruth Van Reken and two TCKs discuss this topic further.

An Example Using the Identity Model2

Take this example of a girl from Chennai, Tamil Nadu, in south India whose family moved to work with a mission based in Delhi when she was 4 years old. Before leaving Chennai she mirrored the local community and culture—she was in every way a Tamilian.

In Delhi she found it very tough. At school as she was regarded as an outsider (from the south)—language, food, culture and ethnicity were all different in Delhi–she even experienced color racism at school. She had to learn Hindi, acquire a taste for new foods, and make new friends—and for some time she felt like a foreigner.

After several years in Delhi she made many friends, learned the language and customs and began to see herself more as a cosmopolitan Delhi-ite than a Tamilian; her roots were increasingly in Delhi and she felt adopted and at home in the Delhi community.

After finishing school she returned to Tamil Nadu for college; it was very tough, for although she looked Tamilian, she felt more like a Delhi-ite. She could speak Tamil, but her Hindi was better; she preferred north Indian food to idli-dosai; her social network, friends, and her roots were in Delhi, [and] she found herself questioned and not accepted by the more traditional and conservative students and staff—she had returned to her parents’ place but had become a hidden immigrant.

Another challenge for TCKs is that they may be changing boxes as their mobility takes them from one cultural community or environment to another. Depending on their circumstances, some TCKs never know what it is to live in either the Foreigner or Mirror boxes where identities are relatively clear but may always be in one of the more ambiguous boxes of the Hidden Immigrant or Adopted. The reality of the challenges many TCKs face begins to grow!

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