Why it’s Helpful to be an Adult TCK in the Covid-19 Pandemic

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Unquestionably, the pandemic is affecting individuals and families very differently based on factors including, but not limited to; race, social class, nationality, ability, relationship/family status, living conditions, and age. During one of my many quarantine reflections, I found myself pondering how adult Third Culture Kids (TCKs) have developed a particular skill set that, in many ways, proves beneficial in these utterly bizarre times.

To start, I am by no means a traditional TCK. For those of you who are new to the term, authors Pollock and Van Reken (1999), define a Third Culture Kid (TCK) as:

A person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK builds relationships to all of their cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of the same background.

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I did not move around countries constantly throughout my childhood, nor did I attend international schools. I have always had a home-base in Denver, Colorado. However, as a 10-year-old, I had a very formative experience living in Ecuador, Peru and Chile for 6 months with my parents; and as an adolescent and young adult, I had multiple opportunities to live, study and volunteer abroad. As an adult, I made the intentional choice to live outside my passport country and moved to Brazil where I currently reside. Therefore, I share a lot of TCK characteristics and consider myself an adult TCK.

So, why is it useful to be an adult TCK during the pandemic? In short, because we’ve developed flexible global mindsets and have experienced previous cultural transitions and adaptations.  In an effort to remind myself, and hopefully help others in the process, I’ve compiled a list of useful adult TCK qualities:

1.   We maintain relationships across distances

Everyone is missing social gatherings and informal encounters. From the casual small talk pre-workout at the gym to more organized birthday parties and family outings—we find ourselves suddenly, without. As a result, our relationships suffer.

For adult TCKs, being “relationally uprooted” is nothing new, and we’ve learned to be proactive about when and how to reach out. TCKs don’t have any singular cultural reference point, such as one long-standing friend group from grade school, and therefore have had to develop other types of relationships and maintain them across distances. For example, while it’s awful not to be able to see my parents, who live in the US, we have an over 15-year habit of regular, meaningful, long-distance phone conversations. During the pandemic, we quickly recognized the need to increase the frequency of our calls and have managed to stay tightly connected and up to date with each other’s lives.

2.   We are no strangers to uncertainty

Yes, it’s awful not to know what comes next, to have no predictability, or know how to act. However, while we may have never been in this exact circumstance, as adult TCKs, we have a plethora of lived multi-cultural experiences to help guide us. Having broad cultural contexts gives us options for how to think about Covid-19 and choose how we want to show up in our lives. 

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Early on in the pandemic, I felt trapped and out of control. It was paralyzing. One day, after a stress-relieving bike ride with my partners, I realized it was time to start a garden. In a moment livid with ambiguity and instability, we focused on one small project that we could manage. With optimistic energy, we researched homemade compost bins, and DIY garden beds, and got to work. We involved my mother-in-law in planning from a distance, which helped me feel more connected to her. The project also met my need for self-sufficiency, as I knew we were doing something beneficial for our health and for the earth. For me, our garden grew out of developing and utilizing cultural intelligence to deal with uncertainty.

3. We are familiar with grieving what has been lost

As with all transitions, moving cities and countries in childhood brings a wealth of gifts and an equal amount of loss. Every move is full of goodbyes, from the tangible—friends, places, routines to the intangible—parts of our identity, language usage, cultural forms of expression. The intercultural field describes these experiences as “hidden losses” and “unresolved grief,” terms that may be helpful in describing feelings during the pandemic.  

With the Covid-19, everyone has been forced to modify their lives and as a result, has experienced losses and gains. Adult TCKs have developed multiple self-and-collective-care strategies based on our multicultural identities. Maintaining a reflective journaling habit is one way I create space for my own grief and loss.  I also practice active listening and stay present with my partners, friends, and family members as they express their losses throughout the pandemic. I hold that there is no one right way to do anything and try my best to honor my feelings and others’ feelings while navigating this unprecedented transition.

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In summary, this is a really rough time, and we’re still in the storm. I am by no means thriving the way I would like to be during this pandemic. Like everyone else I know, I’m sick and tired of staying home, not being able to socialize in-person with loved ones and friends, and feel nervous about the state of the economy and the pandemic’s repercussions on the world. However, I’m channeling my adult TCK skills, and in an effort to make the most of this challenging time, welcoming new opportunities and personal growth.

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