Being a Third Culture Kid is like visiting the distorting mirrors at a carnival. For those who haven’t been to one, these mirrors are built with different curves in them, so that the viewer sees out-of-shape versions of himself or herself reflected therein.
As each mirror reflects back a different distorted version of the viewer, so each culture that a TCK participates in reflects back a different distorted view of the TCK.
Lois Bushong in her wonderful book “Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere” talks about cultural identity being formed by messages about ourselves that we absorb from society around us. In a stable mono-cultural society, a child will absorb a consistent set of messages about his or her self as reflected back by the society the child participates in. The messages might be different from different people in that society (for example, the crusty old neighbour as opposed to the bubbly sweet-shop owner), however essentially they are consistent.
However, as Lois states, TCKs have it different. They experience several cultural environments in their childhood, each reflecting back different messages about the TCK, resulting in inconsistency in how the TCK perceives self. TCKs are essentially robbed of a clear consistent mirror that reflects who the TCK is, inside and out. This results in cultural confusion.
The important point here is consistency, or lack thereof. A single mirror, distorted, doesn’t result in cultural confusion. Multiple distorting mirrors do.
Taylor Murray, another TCK, writes eloquently about this in her article ‘Five Mixed Cultural Messages that Mess Up TCK Identity.‘ She is spot on. Everything can be perceived differently from a different cultural point of view – from superficial appearances through to life skills and relationships.
Note: I wrote a draft of this post titled ‘Mirrors of the soul’ in 2011, and parked it as I didn’t seem to find the right words to describe cultural confusion. My thoughts now have form thanks to Lois Bushong’s book and Taylor Murray’s article above.
Parents of third culture kids need to be especially aware of cultural confusion and its effect on self-identity and work with their children to understand and integrate the differing and confusing soul-mirrors that they encounter.