The Evolution of the TCK - Stage One: The Cultural Sponge

Category: Third Culture Kids

I am often asked about the process an individual goes through to become a Third Culture Kid.  To be honest, I am not sure how long it takes, but I do know that it doesn’t happen overnight. And to become what I call a “completed TCK”, it could take years.

So what does it mean to be a “completed TCK”?  In my thinking this is the Third Culture Kid who has reached a point in his life journey where he can objectify his own experience. He is not possessed by it nor does he disavow his experience.  He also does not project his TCK experience onto other TCKs and does not expect other Third Culture Kids to respond to their life experience the same way he does. He sees his experience as his own.

As I mentioned before, becoming a “completed TCK” does not happen over night. The process is a long one, yet a somewhat predictable one. I call this process "The Evolution of the Third Culture Kid".

Over the next several weeks I would like to blog at bit about each of the four stages in the process.  As I share my thoughts, I would love to hear your own as well as your observations on the subject as my train of thought progresses; so please feel free to join the conversation and comment at the end of each blog.

Stage One: The Cultural Sponge

This evolutionary journey begins during the formative years of life, from birth to about 18 years old. This is the stage of life where life scripts are written on the brain. It is during this time a child learns the meaning of normal by observing and participating in the culture around him. This would include not only the family culture, but the host culture, friendships, etc.

SpongeImagine with me that a child’s brain is like a dry sponge. When a dry sponge is placed in water it soaks up every drop it can. After all, the sponge is thirsty, and it is designed to soak up the liquid it comes into contact with. Now let’s say the water is blue and after all the blue liquid is gone the sponge is placed in liquid that is green, then red, and so on.  At some point, no one knows when, the sponge reaches it’s capacity to take in more liquid. The sponge is at its “fully saturated” level.

Now if that sponge could talk and if I asked it what part of you is red or blue, etc. it is very likely it could not tell you. It may be able to tell you all about the red color or the blue, or any of the colors it has been exposed to, but to differentiate the colors within it would be next to impossible, since all of the colors have come together in the sponge and they are now all part of what that sponge is. So it is with the formative years of the Third Culture Kid.

The TCK in this first stage is in the ‘soaking up the world around him’ phase of life. And if the world around him changes often this child soaks up multiple cultural colors. He may be able to identify aspects of the worlds around him, but rarely can he see how individual cultures have affected him. He may not even see cultural characteristics he has adopted into his own behavior. The Cultural Sponge phase is the genesis of the TCK like. One could argue that in the early beginning of this stage the child is not a TCK at all, but he is definitely on his journey towards becoming one.

It is difficult to know when the TCK moves from The Cultural Sponge Stage, into The Cultural Chameleon, the second stage of this evolutionary process but it happens sometime in those 18 years of developmental growth.

Do you have interesting observations from this first "Cultural Sponge" stage? Have you been able to identify this stage in yourself or Third Culture Kids you know? What does this stage look like in your experience?


Image courtesy Flikr Creative Commons, by sparkieblues

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