Friday, 4 March 2011

Expat Excellence with Tanya Crossman

Following last month’s blog post Offshore Offspring- Third Culture Kids or Expat Brats? we began talking to Tanya Crossman who works closely with TCKs in China. Tanya is an Australian citizen who has lived in Beijing, China, for 7 years. She is a youth worker focussed on the children of expats and contributes to Youth in Asia blog Here Tanya shares her insights into what it’s like growing up across cultures.

Third Culture Kids

Tanya with TCKs from USA, Canada, New Zealand and Hong Kong at a TCK camp in Beijing (October 2010)
I have been mentoring teenagers for over 11 years. I started out in my home country, Australia, but since moving to Beijing, China, 7 years ago I have come into contact with a special group of youth: TCKs. I’ve been working with TCKs since 2005, both in Beijing and on several visits to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I wouldn’t trade my time with them for anything.

TCK stands for Third Culture Kid. It is a term that refers to kids who spend a significant amount of their growing-up years in a country outside their “home” country. The phrase “home country” can be a bit misleading – better to say “passport country”. Although many of my kids have more than one of those, too.

Stefan has dual citizenship - from the US, his mother’s country, and Singapore, his father’s country - but his entire childhood was spent in Beijing. He was homeschooled in English and while he speaks conversational Chinese he is not fluent. When he started compulsory National Service in Singapore his family moved to the US; his possessions are now in a home he has never seen.

His is just one of many stories I could tell of kids living between countries, languages, races, and citizenships. The term “third culture” applies to this place in between – it is the blended culture these kids inhabit, somewhere between where they’re from and where they are. It’s no wonder they have more in common with each other than with teens in the countries they live in or the countries they’re “from”.

TCKs are different to the children of immigrants in that they have no expectation of settling – they will one day repatriate, often to a country they have spent very little time in. Their experience is very different to that of their expat parents, in that the parents have developed an identity in the home culture before venturing out into the world. TCKs spend the years they are developing their identity living between worlds.

One of the most distinctive features of TCKs is an uneven maturity. Most of the TCKs I’ve known can fit in wherever they need to – with adults, with teens, in different countries and settings. They acquire external behaviours as they do languages. Body language is just another language to add to their repertoire, with different dialects for different countries. Many TCKs can mimic maturity on the outside – they know what words to use, the facial expressions required, subtle gestures of confidence or submission or interest... whatever will project the image required in a specific situation.

In most monocultural teens, these external behaviours are acquired gradually, over time, as they grow in emotional maturity. In TCKs, these external behaviours are NOT signs of internal emotional maturity. The internal and the external are quite separate. This gulf between internal life and external behaviour creates a great loneliness in many TCKs. Many say that they feel no one understands them – except, perhaps, other TCKs. This makes the pain of the frequent goodbyes to close friends that much more painful.

I feel that one of my “jobs” in working with TCKs is to help them become aware of the areas where they are lacking, where they don’t have answers, where they feel hurt or sad or lonely inside. I try to create a safe space for them to express their internal life. I try to convince them of the importance of growing on the inside, not just looking good on the outside. One way I do this is by being vulnerable before them about my own hurts – exposing my own inner life.

TCKs have great potential. I truly believe their strengths outweigh their disadvantages. With some guidance from caring adults, to help them integrate their inner and outer worlds, TCKs are poised to do great things. I for one cannot wait to see all the wonderful things the hundreds of TCKs I’ve worked with will do in coming years.


  1. Beautiful article. I was a TCK and am now raising TCKs and I completely agree about the often huge gap between the 'outer ease' and the 'inner fears'. I wouldn't change my past for anything, but I do occasionally feel jealous of people who have lived in the same town all their lives, perhaps for generations.

  2. Great post, Tanya! You've really learned the heartbeat of TCKs. I'm glad your kids have you!

  3. I don't see how complaining about your own life helps them to be open about their own, but alright!

  4. "One way I do this is by being vulnerable before them about my own hurts – exposing my own inner life."

    Many TCKs feel the need to project an image of perfection to the world - but nobody is perfect. Being vulnerable isn't complaining, it's simply showing my own imperfection. Sharing my struggles and mistakes with them, showing them the ways that I am growing as a person, gives them permission to do the same.

    Sanda - it's funny how we're always curious about or jealous of the experiences of others. As a child, I was very jealous of friends who had parents or grandparents from overseas, I thought their lives were so much more interesting than mine :)

    Sheryl - thank you!


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