More and more Americans consider themselves "hidden immigrants"
When Lindsay Downer introduces herself, she usually leaves out the most distinct aspect of her life. “I have found mainly that no one wants to hear about it unless they have been through it,” Downer said. “Maybe it makes people uncomfortable because they have nothing to add to it.”
Downer, 26, is not talking about a disease or the death of a loved one. She's talking about the sense of loss she felt growing up as a “third-culture kid,” or TCK, in Virginia. As the daughter of State Department workers, she spent much of her life overseas, moving from Senegal to the Sudan to Burma and to Hungary. She feels right at home in Africa and Europe, yet in America she often feels, well, foreign.
“Most people I meet never find out I lived overseas, because I never bring it up,” she said.
But Downer is not alone. Countless other Americans consider themselves adult third-culture kids and face difficulties in adjusting as they return “home” or as they move their own children from one region or culture to another.
According to a recent survey by Mercer Human Resources Consulting, 44 percent of multinational companies have reported an increase in international assignments since 2004. The survey of 200 corporations also found that short-term assignments were becoming more common, increasing the number of individuals and families forced to relocate each year. This means there are millions of children and adults who don’t have a home in the traditional sense of the word.
“They live in a world between worlds,” said Ruth Van Reken, co-author of "Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds." Van Reken is the daughter of an Iranian-American and was born in Nigeria and lived there until she was 13.
Returning “home” to the United States, Van Reken felt that heavy sense of loss. “When I was 13, I didn’t know the rules like everyone around me. I didn’t know who Elvis was. I didn’t know the styles. I looked like my peers in America, but I was this hidden immigrant,” she said.
Then, as a high school student in Indiana, she read an article by Davis Pollack, a psychologist who had popularized the term “third-culture kid.” Years later, she collaborated with Pollack in writing the book. “I didn’t do it because of a Ph.D.,” Van Reken said. “I did it because I lived it.”
Though the census does not keep track of repatriates living in the United States, Van Reken estimates that the number must be in the millions.
Lena Andersen, 27, studies clinical psychology on Long Island, N.Y. Her English is perfectly American. She knows pop culture references and shares the fashion styles of her peers in her doctoral program because she adapts so well to her surroundings.
“It’s almost like a chameleon,” said Andersen, a Danish citizen and daughter of diplomats. “You can adapt to different environments, but you have no one color that’s your own.” She has adjusted to life in Japan, Lebanon, England and Taiwan before moving to America five years ago.
“It was when I moved to Denmark that I knew I wasn’t fully Danish,” she said. “It’s very hard to find people to relate to, especially when you’re supposed to be home.”
Dr. Ruth Useem coined the term “third culture” 40 years ago for children who have relocated from one culture to another, often several times, blurring their own identity.
Van Reken explains: “Every time there’s transition, there is loss. So when people are feeling strange about their situation I ask them, ‘What did you lose?’ Because where there’s loss, there’s grief. And when there’s no language for it, it comes out at your boss or in your marriage.”
As companies become more global and expect employees to relocate, families are increasingly resistant to making moves, according to Atlas Van Lines, an international moving company. According to a survey conducted by the company in 2001, 50 percent of its employees refused relocation assignments and cited family adjustment as a major reason.
In a 1995 survey of American companies by the National Foreign Trade Council, 65 percent of those people refusing relocation cited family adjustment as the top reason for wanting to stay put. By 2005, that number had grown to 88 percent.
Still, the number of Americans who feel like strangers in their own homeland continues to grow, according to Margie Ulsh, editor of Among Worlds magazine, which writes about the experiences of third-culture kids. Since its founding in 1988, it has grown from a two-page newsletter to a 28-page glossy magazine, adding 50 new subscribers each year.
“We have tripled our readership,” Ulsh said of the nonprofit quarterly. The reason, she says, is simple: “We are addressing a line of people that has been ignored.”
And the resources for this group is growing as their numbers grow: There are books, Web sites and international conferences. Since 1998, the Families in Global Transition summit meeting has provided networking opportunities and support for military, corporate and diplomatic families dealing with security and cultural transitions. The next conference will be held in Houston in March.
Downer knows firsthand that third-culture kids are their own community. In her high school lunchroom in Arlington, Va., she said, the tables were divided by ethnicity, and one was reserved for the six new kids--all of whom were, like her, children of military or State Department families who had recently moved from overseas.
“No one else would talk to us,” Downer recalled. “It was crazy to me. But you know what? I’m still friends with those same people today.”