Growing up Between Worlds: Raising a Third Culture Kid

Playing with the local kids in Assinie, Ivory Coast

Growing up Between Worlds: Raising a Third Culture Kid

By Beata Imans

At the beginning of the school year, my almost six-year-old son came home from school carrying a drawing of the Lithuanian flag. “Look mama, we had to colour the flags of the countries we are from today,” he said proudly. Lithuanian? Really?

I was surprised about my son’s choice of national identity, the first one he had to make. Born in Lithuania, to a Polish Lithuanian mother and a Belgian father, he moved to Burkina Faso at three months, then to Ivory Coast at a year and a half, for few months to Belgium and Lithuania in between, to finally settle in the Netherlands. We are raising a typical Third Culture Kid (TCK) – a modern product of globalization and easy intercultural mobility.

The TCK term first mentioned by the American sociologist Ruth Useem, was later defined by David C. Pollock and updated by Ruth E. Van Reken in their book “Third Culture Kids: The experience of growing up among worlds”. They describe a TCK as a person who spends a significant part of his or her first eighteen years of life accompanying parents into a country that is different from at least one parent’s passport country(ies) due to a parent’s choice of work or advanced training.

Frankly, I never felt quite Lithuanian myself. I grew up in Soviet Lithuania where nationality was not a topic, everyone was a Soviet citizen. Still, I was always rather exotic with my Polish name and heritage – I come from an ethnic minority that currently counts around seven percent of the population. We spoke Polish at home, I went to the Polish, then Russian school, and there was the Lithuanian language too. I desperately needed the sense of belonging that only deepened when I started university and was surrounded by Lithuanians. I was neither. In Poland I was not really Polish, in Lithuania I wasn’t really a Lithuanian, I was always in between. And now I had a child who seemed to feel the same way.

I grew up speaking Polish at home, so naturally I spoke Polish to my son. My husband, a spirited Flemish, always spoke Dutch to him. He spoke French with his nanny and he heard us speak English, so I thought teaching him Lithuanian on top of that just because of his passport would simply be too much.

I experienced first pangs of guilt when I had to explain at school why I speak Polish to him. I had this conversation probably hundreds of times by now and it usually goes like this:

“What do you speak to him?”


“Oh, so you are from Poland”

“No, I’m from Lithuania.” (Confused looks)

Fishing boats near Grand-Bereby, Ivory Coast

Then I usually go back centuries explaining the history of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth up until the very tumultuous interwar period and times after the Second World War, when Vilnius was disputed, fought for and passed around among Germans, Poles, Lithuanians and Soviets.

There were not only bad sides of growing up between cultures though. I spoke three languages fluently at the age of 5 and I’m multilingual now, it helped me become open minded, easily adaptable and mobile. Now I see the same in my son.

Him and other TCKs are what the American sociologist Ted Ward called “the prototype citizen of the future”. He took his first flight at five weeks, taking an airplane has become a mundane routine to him. We still remember his joy and excitement about taking his first train ride that still excites him way more than flying. He switches effortlessly between three languages and he can follow one more.

“Mothers worry, that’s what we do,” says Fiona James, a British expat living with her French husband and their two children in Dakar, Senegal. Born to British parents in France, she was sent to a boarding school in the UK, because her parents were worried she’d stop speaking English altogether. “I always felt like an odd one out,” she says. “While my school mates were going back to their parents in England and did things together on vacations, I went back to my parents in France, I felt I was missing out so much.”

This was the reason why she swore to herself she would do everything to give her children roots. “I took my kids for ten days’ vacation in England and we did everything I used to do as a kid. I was desperate for them to create the same memories and connect to their English roots this way,” says Fiona. Soon she had to acknowledge that she could not enforce her memories and that they would have to create their own. “I realized I should be less strict about it and that it’s a gift that my children feel belonging where they are.”

She doesn’t know what the future will bring for them, but she hopes that they will be tolerant, curious and will learn how to be a global citizen. “I realize they will never be traditional British kids, but I’m hopeful they will have a sense of where they come from,” she says. “They will have to answer the question where they are from on their own someday.”

“Whenever someone asks me to list the advantages and disadvantages of growing up as a TCK, I want to resist that, because I don’t want people to look at living abroad with their child as the right or the wrong thing,” says Sundae Schneider-Bean, an intercultural coach and an American mother raising two TCKs with her Swiss husband in South Africa.

She made a conscious choice to bring up her cross-cultural kids in a third culture and is convinced that they are growing and expanding, because they get to see the world and multiple ways of living, their boundaries are being challenged, they are being exposed to new things and learning new languages. “It is life changing for children to feel a part of this world and not see themselves and their identity in terms of simple national boundaries,” she says.

She admits that there are challenges and she would advise the parents to educate themselves on the realities of TCKs. “I would say don’t push a specific idea of what your kids have to be. My children are creating their own identity of who they are and I’m going to help them make meaning of their globally-mobile life as something rich to be cherished.”

A couple of days ago I asked my son a question normally disliked by the TCKs: “Where is home?” “In Lithuania, mama, because I can play X-box with my cousins every day and grandma makes my favorite dumplings.” Being a TCK at six is still easy.

[Images courtesy of Beata Imans.]   

Beata Grablevska-Imans, originally from Lithuania, has lived and worked as an expat and trailing spouse in Poland, Denmark, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast. Beata holds Master’s degrees in Foreign Languages and Political Sciences and is finishing a postgraduate course at the London School of Journalism. She speaks eight languages, loves reading and writing, traveling and exploring new cultures. She has a passion for food and enjoys studying cook books, cooking and eating, of course. Currently Beata lives in The Hague in the Netherlands with her husband and their six-years-old son and works as freelance journalist and communication consultant. For her LinkedIn profile click here.

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