Are Global Nomads The New Norm? – Third Culture Kids losing their Competitive Edge

Megan Ng

As I said in the first part of Are Global Nomads the New Norm?, this analysis is not meant to be a preaching session of “Why you should be a global citizen”; instead, it is an op-ed piece intended to make you conscious of your surroundings and aware of the benefits that come with becoming a better global citizen.

Access to information in a global landscape

I am but 1 in 7 billion, literally. In essence, we all are. Given our digital age, and our ability to quickly access information, we are more capable now than ever in retrieving up-to-the minute information on current events.  We are more aware now than ever. Global events flash before us whether briefly on twitter, in depth on online magazines, and even in our curriculum. In the professional world, being culturally competent has grown to be a new world norm. Knowing about the world around you is essential.

This is especially true as the population of the world continues to grow. Generation Y and future generations continue to be exposed to more people and ideas as a result of a decrease in physical and virtual space. Yes, we are more likely to encounter someone from a different culture when travelling, but the reality is immigration patterns continue to develop globally and understanding these cultures, and each other, will be essential to our future. This understanding goes beyond knowing how to pronounce Pho (‘fuh’) when ordering from a Vietnamese restaurant and it certainly does not refer to one’s ‘worldly’ or ‘elitist’ perspective by simply visiting “exotic” destinations.

In fact, that is the very reason I rarely discuss my upbringing or refer to myself as a Third Culture Kid or TCK/3CK anymore. The term is defined as someone who has spent a significant amount of their formative development years (childhood and adolescence) in culture(s) other than their country of birth or their parent’s culture.

The label was first coined by social scientists in the 1950s to describe the adjustment of Caucasian American children living in India. TCKs are often moved due to one or both parents’ occupational choices. Examples include Missionary Kids (children of religious missionaries), Military Brats (Navy and Airforce families are included as well), Business Families (Oil brats and/or Construction brats), and Diplobrats (children of diplomatic ambassadors). these types of TCKs are often found in international schools all around the world.

Third Culture Kids losing their Competitive Edge

In recent years, the term has been expanded to include CCKs or Cross-cultural kids who for reasons other than their parents’ occupation spend time in a different ‘host’ culture. CCKs are individuals who have backgrounds as biracial and/or multi-racial children, international adoptees, refugees, or are domestic TCKs/”hidden” immigrants – people who move around often within one’s birth country as opposed to between countries. TCKs are often mistaken as ‘elitist’ though when they try to speak about their past to others who may not share their same experiences of growing up as a ‘global nomad.’

However, I feel that as international borders become more porous, new countries continue to be formed, and as more Generation Yers continue to travel for study abroad, gap year or more personal or career related reasons, the very idea of an ‘expatriate’ or even TCK may soon become obsolete. In the near future, I foresee everyone as being part ‘TCK,’ as more Generation Yers also participate in the ‘passport culture’ via personal travel. As sociologist Ted Ward has stated “TCKs are the prototype citizens of the future.” I believe that future is now as we see world leaders continue to emerge with TCK backgrounds.

Being a Third Culture Kid does not Guarantee Success

Global figures such as Barack Obama with his biracial heritage who spent time living in Hawaii, Chicago and Jakarta. He is conversationally fluent in Bahasa Indonesia in addition to English. His TCK identity evident in his ‘show me your birth certificate’ scandal during his first presidential campaign where accusations about his American citizenship were levied against him.

Tom Cruise is a domestic TCK having moved around within North America often as a child. Kobe Bryant spent his childhood years in Italy, Switzerland and the United States and as result learned to speak Italian and Spanish in addition to English while training in basketball camps and attending school. Uma Thurman with her unconventional childhood spent time in India and the United States. Her father, a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies named her Uma which means “Bright” in Sanskrit. Finally, myself, having lived in Canada, Hong Kong and Singapore as I am so fabulous and famous that I sparkle with glitter.

Jokes aside, I firmly believe that TCKs are not the only individuals limited to becoming so called global figures. And I certainly do not mean to suggest that being a TCK is a recipe ticket for success. What TCKs have that make them ‘special’ are their often unusual experiences while growing up that allow them to build such unique skills. I believe Generation Yers will also gain those very same skills as they continue to travel abroad and encounter new ideas and people. TCKs are said to understand culture and languages, have intercultural skills, and to be more accepting of other cultures.

However, I do not believe these skills to be unique to only to TCKs either. In my opinion, the main difference between TCKers and non-TCKers is the mere exposure to different cultures. Thus, I believe TCK and Generation Yers will be overlapping labels and they will grow to share similar experiences in the future so that the differentiating labels become unnecessary.

Billy Joel tried to relay that America did not start the fire. It was always burning since the world’s been turning indeed. But if America didn’t start the fire? Then who did? Prometheus when he brought fire to humankind? Agni, the Hindu diety and eldest son of Brahma when he graced humanity with his presence? Or does it even matter? Leonardo Da Vinci at the age of 87 wrote “Ancora Imparo,” the translation from Latin means “I am still learning.” My hope is that we all get to do the same. Mr. D’s class and Billy Joel’s song taught me the simple meaning of what it means to be a global denizen.

And that is making your mark on the world does not have to come about in super-hero like ways of grand display nor does it play the blame game. Instead of asking Whodunnit, understanding the processes leading up to world events are more important and look towards the Whats, Wheres, Whys and Hows questions. Perhaps it would be better to ask who were the people involved as opposed to the person involved.

But all of this understanding and discussion can only occur if we are simply aware of our shared history and the present because the world will still keep turning and fires will still keep burning even long after we are gone. It really does seem that global nomads are the new norm.