Sunday, January 23, 2022

Lost in transit

Move over ABCDs. There’s a growing tribe of children—third culture kids or TCKs—who belong “nowhere”

Written by Deepika Nath |
May 23, 2010 3:17:44 pm

Move over ABCDs. There’s a growing tribe of children—third culture kids or TCKs—who belong “nowhere”
Siddhima Gupta’s Indian passport is just a document that makes her an Indian “officially”. Ask her where she comes from and the 13-year-old is silent. Ever since she was born to a diplomat father,she’s lived a migratory life in places as diverse as Saudi Arabia,Russia and France. Two years have passed since her father was stationed in Delhi and he could be transferred soon. Not enough time to feel at home. “When we first arrived,I wouldn’t go out much. When I’d accompany my parents to the market,I would be lost. In Paris,there would be indoor markets,malls and closed shops. Here,stuff was being sold on footpaths and there were too many people everywhere. I didn’t know how to find my way around,” says Gupta.

As if the sudden rush of people wasn’t enough,Gupta was “scared” of the mountain of books she would have to study and the stricter teachers,typical of an Indian school. “I had heard a lot of scary stories of how much you had to study. Even the teachers were initially irritated because they had to deal with a new student in the middle of the year,” she says.
We may club Gupta’s experiences as adjustment issues that get settled over time,but her experience is not just a regular teenager’s angst. She’s a “third culture kid” or TCK (a term coined by American sociologist Ruth Hill in the 1960s),a child who’s moved from one country to another and experienced various cultures for short periods of time. In the process,she has integrated elements of those cultures and their own birth culture,into a new third culture. From that stems the feeling of not “belonging anywhere”.

When these children return to their country of origin,there are problems of disconnect. Psychologists call it “reverse culture shock” which one experiences when one returns to his/her own country. It is the reverse of “culture shock”,which you experience in a foreign culture. But it is more difficult,experts say,because you aren’t a foreigner in your own land and don’t look like one either,and yet you feel and are made to feel like an outsider.

Clinical psychologist and behavioral analyst,Dr Jayanti Dutta,says,“Most TCKs can easily adjust to new environments,except when they have to settle down in their native countries.” TCKs are similar to children of military officers who too have to constantly move to different regions. But unlike army children,they are often mocked at for their accents,clothes and any talk of their globe-trotting.

Ashima Bhardwaj,who came to Delhi for her undergraduate studies at Jesus and Mary College,in 2001,recollects the cold reactions she got at college when she’d talk about her friends in different parts of the world. “Most of my college friends had childhood buddies and they’d often talk about them. I had never been in one place long enough to experience that. And when I spoke of my friends around the world,people would make faces and say that I’m showing off,” she says.
The worst day in college or school is the first day,TCKs tell us. On his first day at Delhi University,Karn Singh Ranvir,who has lived in Australia and The Netherlands,greeted a girl by kissing her on the cheek,the “most widely accepted form of saying hello”,he tells us. Except that in his college,it was “such a cultural faux pas” that he was laughed at.

Ranvir’s first day may sound like an amusing sequence out of a Bollywood flick but TCKs certainly don’t find it funny. “People here are always quick to judge and mock you,” he says,as he relates how his peers thought he was a homosexual from a simple fashion statement. “While others would be sporting baggy jeans and loose shirts,I was following a more European trend of skinny jeans and well-fit shirts. People in my college thought I was gay,” he says.

Constant mockery only isolates TCKs further,making them more reserved,and thus,in the eyes of their peers “more snooty than before”. “There are a series of psychological needs that need gratification,of which the need for affiliation is the most important. And if it isn’t met,it can adversely affect their sense of security and achievement,” says Dr Dutta. If not dealt with properly,this can blow up to a bigger adjustment problem.

Most international schools have counsellors to help them,such as Lovika Jain,the counsellor at The British School,Delhi. “We have ‘third culture teachers’,who have been exposed to different cultures themselves and are thus sensitive to TCKs. We also have dedicated tools such as transition programs in which children talk about their adjustment issues,” she says. TCKs also use the internet for help. Websites such as and provide an outlet for TCKs to share their issues like identity crises and cultural imbalances.

Thanks to the internet and satellite television that have exposed Indians to foreign cultures,TCKs don’t face as much difficulty in adjusting as a previous generation of adults did when they were in school. “Now people travel around more frequently,they have more awareness about other cultures. When we came back,people didn’t know about kids like us. We were just expected to blend in and deal with all the mockery,” says Shilpa Kakar,who came to Delhi with her friend Ashima Bhardwaj nine years ago. She is now a 26-year-old who manages a golf course in Gurgaon.
It’s not as if TCKs never get used to their environment. Kakar has been married for two years and says it was once “difficult to comprehend the idea of settling down for good in one place”.

Sometimes,though,she still craves for change. “I had been moving around every three years ever since I was born. Even on good days,the itch for some change,to move on,creeps in. It’s not something I can change about myself; it’s too deeply ingrained,” she says.
Her friend Bhardwaj,on the other hand,doesn’t “want to settle down” “I don’t think I could stay in one place for too long. I like my job because I get to travel a lot. I don’t think I would have been able to stand the monotony of staying in one place otherwise.”

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