Where are you from? Third Culture Kids delve into complex answers at Clark University conference

Some of the students attending the TCK/Global Nomad Conference at Clark University gather in Jonas Clark Hall, March 16. Pictured, from left, are: Ian McCormick, Rebecca Masino, Maisha McCormick, Monica Marrone, Michino Hisabayashi, Fanikiso Kushatha, Aksheya Sridhar, Farah Weannara, and Justin Mangope.

"Where are you from?” is a simple question with a simple answer for most people. But for many “third culture kids,” it’s complicated and often fraught with social and emotional challenges.

This and other questions relating to the growing ranks of so-called TCKs were among topics discussed at the “Third Culture Kid/Global Nomad Conference,” on March 16 at Clark University.

The conference was sponsored by the University’s Office of Intercultural Affairs, which last fall helped welcome the largest international undergraduate class in Clark history.  (Nearly 120 entered in fall 2012.) But not all international students are “third culture kids” or transnational persons.

The daylong conference included a series of sessions that addressed issues important to TCKs and intercultural affairs and training professionals on college campuses around the country.

“Most people on campus are not aware of the TCK experience and its uniqueness. TCKs are a growing population and it’s critically important for us to be aware of these students and be able to address their needs as well,” said Amy Daly Gardner, director of the OIA at Clark. She and Tina Quick, founder of International Family Transitions, led a conference session geared toward faculty and administrators who work with Third Culture Kids. They shared questions and ideas about supporting and learning from TCKs, who are often outstanding students.

Clark University senior Maisha McCormick led an interactive discussion on the pros and cons of being a Third Culture Kid.

Quick is the author of “The Global Nomad's Guide to University Transition,” which offers this explanation of what it means to be a TCK:

Third culture kids/global nomads have typically interacted with two or more cultures during their developmental years - those years that shape who they are as human beings. As they go about living their normal highly mobile, cross-cultural lives, they have no clue as to how they are being impacted. But one day they have an experience that wakes them up to the fact that they are different from others. This commonly takes place upon repatriation for college or university when they are surrounded mostly by those who have never ventured away from their home country or culture. What results is the feeling of cultural imbalance, not fitting in, inability to connect with their home-country peers. They feel like a "fish out of water" in their own country. This can lead to isolation and depression.

Clark University TCK students and alumni led several sessions during the Saturday conference. In “Stupid Things People Say to TCKs,” Clark senior Maisha McCormick engaged the students in a candid and lively discussion about shared experiences and coping mechanisms they use when responding to comments from uninformed peers, staff and professors.

McCormick is a U.S. citizen who was born in Vermont, moved to China then back to Vermont. From age 10 to 14, she lived in Jamaica then in Botswana. From Botswana she came to Clark, and her family is planning a move to Tanzania. Using humor and personal candor, McCormick presented several categories of comments, ranging from innocently curious to mildly discomforting to downright ignorant and hurtful.

Clark University first-year Farah Weannara led a conference session where she shared insights on being a bi-cultural TCK.

Participants began by discussing the most common, seemingly benign question: Where are you from? “I get frazzled every single time,” McCormick said. She and other students talked about the inevitable inner monologue that precedes their answers. “It’s complicated.  Will I ever have an easy answer? I don’t think I ever will, and they might not want to know the whole story.”

Some other comments the group discussed include:

Oh, so you’re really from (insert passport country).

You can’t be (race/ethnicity). You don’t look right!

Well, I’m (insert race/nationality/ethnicity), so how can you be too?

Where’s your passport from?

You speak English so well! You don’t even have an accent!

Are you adopted?

 “I can’t be mad for something someone hasn’t experienced. No one’s at fault. I try to be very ‘Zen’ about it,” McCormick said. “Being a TCK has opened more doors for me than it has closed. It’s a really good filtering tool, and that is fine!”

TCKs who are also bi-cultural face other unique challenges. Clark first-year student Farah Weannara, whose father is Thai and mother is Dutch, shared her experiences and ideas on how to understand the ways TCKs fit into this world and stay connected to those they love. Weannara has immediate family members who come from and live in different countries, as well as speak multiple languages. Before coming to Clark in 2012, she had lived in Thailand, Vietnam, Kuala Lumpur, New Delhi, and Paris – with cherished summer stays in The Netherlands. She grapples with different religious identities, sustaining her language fluencies, keeping in touch from abroad – all while juggling the social and academic demands of being on her own as a college freshman.

Like all young college students, Weannara struggles to claim her identity. Talking about travels and international education can leave some people thinking TCKs are being pretentious or showing off, Weannara says. “I’ve always had to explain myself,” she says. “People often don’t know what to do with me. Or, it’s ‘Oh! A shiny toy!’ ”

Like others, Weannara said, she asks herself, “What about my future? Will I settle down? What will my children be?” The possibilities for her and other TCKs seem less clear, yet somehow also more numerous.

Other sessions at the Clark conference included “Growing up Internationally and How It Shapes a Child,” presented by Williams College Professor Gene Bell-Villada, a literary critic, novelist, translator and memoirist, who spoke about the peculiarities of growing up as a TCK and on the culture shock of coming “home” to one’s passport country. He examined the various kinds of TCKs and offered anecdotes from his own life. Finally, he considered the effects of globalization on TCKs and how they have affected that shift.

“Exploring the Experience of Returning to Your ‘Home’ Culture” was offered by Mika McInnis, Ph.D., who is a clinical Intern at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology. McInnis explored the cultural disorientation that can be an inherent part of the TCK’s childhood, as well as what it means to relearn a culture. Participants also took a look at how the breadth of experience that a TCK has changes the way he or she perceives the world.

A panel of Clark University alumni talked about how their TCK experiences have influenced their lives after college. They shared tips on how to leverage this unique background. Presenters included: Ian McCormick ’09, FEMA Corps Team Leader, and Sameed Quasem ’09, now a student at the Graduate School of Management at Clark.

Founded in 1887 in Worcester, Massachusetts, Clark University is a small, liberal arts-based research university addressing social and human imperatives on a global scale. Nationally renowned as a college that changes lives, Clark is emerging as a transformative force in higher education today. LEEP (Liberal Education and Effective Practice) is Clark’s pioneering model of education that combines a robust liberal arts curriculum with life-changing world and workplace experiences. Clark’s faculty and students work across boundaries to develop solutions to contemporary challenges in the areas of psychology, geography, management, urban education, Holocaust and genocide studies, environmental studies, and international development and social change. The Clark educational experience embodies the University’s motto: Challenge convention. Change our world. www.clarku.edu