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When the Pillars of Cross-Culture Lifestyle Fall


Ruth Van Reken and David Pollock provide numerous theories regarding the cross-culture lifestyle in their book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. Amongst them is the theory about identity anchors or pillars (sometimes called tent-pegs). The theory relates to the Third Culture Kid’s capability of transitioning between three distinct cultures during their daily life; home culture, school / work culture and the local culture. The home culture would resemble, although not entirely mimic, the TCK’s passport culture. By living with one’s parents, the TCK will be subjected to a lifestyle similar to that of their parent’s home country. The language, cuisine and cultural norms will be practically the same. At school however, the Third Culture Kid will be expected to adhere to the norms of their school culture. In most cases, Third Culture Kids will either attend an American, British or International School, where many of their teachers will come from the same country and have the same values. Disciplinary measures, rules, activities, homework assignments, language, uniforms, cafeteria food, emphasis on academic achievements (or lack thereof) and parental engagement will all be determined by the values of the country that the school is related to. When moving between home and school, the Third Culture Kid will be subjected to a third culture, the local culture. When moving from one place to the next or whilst playing outside with their friends, the Third Culture Kid will take part of and experience the unique sights, sounds and smells of their surroundings and learn how to relate to it, both as a foreigner and as a local.

So why are these “pillars” important to us? – The answer is quite simple. Third Culture Kids feel a strong connection to most, if not all, of the cultures they have lived in. However, they do not feel as if they have full ownership of any. Therefore, Third Culture Kids tend to adopt the concept of the three pillars of a cross culture lifestyle, in lieu of a proper national identity. In other words, they replace a single national identity with the concept of being a Third Culture Kid.

So what happens when a “pillar” disappears? – A pillar usually disappears when the parents are forced to move, either through a new work assignment overseas or retirement, or when the Third Culture Kid is forced to move to further their education. In most cases, the Third Culture Kid will attend a university with the same curriculum as their previous school. In so doing, the local culture “pillar” of the Third Culture Kid experience will often be the one that falls down. This causes the TCK to enter into an identity crisis wherein he or she will adopt any of the four coping mechanisms most commonly used by ATCKs. In addition to this, most Third Culture Kids will return to expat life once their education is finished and form an addictive attachment to the cross culture lifestyle, often sacrificing career and life goals in the process.


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