The Evolution of the TCK - Stage Two: The Cultural Chameleon

Category: Third Culture Kids

A few weeks ago I began a short series on the behavioral evolution of the Third Culture Kid. The first of the four stages is the Cultural Sponge. This is the initial phase of Third Culture Kid development that ushers in cultural learning and begins the etching of what is normal in the TCK’s growing up experience.

Today I would like to explore with you the second stage of “The Evolution of the TCK”.

Stage Two: The Cultural Chameleon

Cultural ChameleonAs I mentioned in my last blog, it is difficult to say when this stage begins. But we know that to be in this phase, significant mobility and/or exposure to cultural diversity has to have occurred. As a Cultural Sponge, the child is merely soaking up culture. During the Cultural Chameleon stage however, not only is the TCK experiencing new cultural events, he is beginning to process them as “different” to the ones before and he is now in a place of trying to piece it all together.

The essence of this stage is cultural exploration, adaptation and change combined with developing personal patterns of transition as well self-awareness and self-preservation in the midst of his changing worlds.  Just as a child soaks up culture every time he moves, he also learns how to live in those particular cultures, as well as between cultures. This is the time when a child becomes aware that with every move, he needs to make adjustments not only to the way he interacts with the culture around him but also to who he is as an individual. Just like the chameleon in nature, the TCK to varied extents, takes on the persona of the host country or community he is living in so he can blend in as much as he can though he and others may know he is just adapting to their world. The more often this happens the more chameleon type behavior seems natural and normal to him.

The timing of this knowledge is critical. After all, he is learning cultural adaptation during the developmental years of his life…those critical years that determine normalcy and predictability. This is often a very rich part of the TCK’s life. It is here when worldview is developed, language is learned, preferences are decided upon and much more that contributes to the TCK identity. It must be said that it is also the stage in which the TCK becomes very aware of the losses attached to the mobile lifestyle and grief becomes part of his developmental experience.

As I write this I am reminded of a situation that happened to me when I was working at a TCK boarding school in Europe. One of my students was returning to his home for Christmas break. When talking about his vacation plans I mentioned I was going to the French Rivera for holiday. He immediately expressed a desire to show my friend and me around the Rivera city where he lived. He asked me to come to his home to meet his family and then he would take us on a tour of the city.

When we arrived at his home, I saw a completely different young man.  Oh, he looked exactly the same…it was his manner…his speech…his confidence level. All were different. His mother told me how excited he was to have us come, but she was confused as suddenly her son was not acting his normal self. I had a suspicion this young man was experiencing internal cultural warfare. Suddenly, two of his worlds had come together in the same room and he was caught off guard.

On our city tour I talked to him about my observations and he full-heartedly agreed. He realized for the first time that he unintentionally creates a different persona in whatever culture he is in, based on the demands of the culture. When confronted with two of his cultures at once he wasn’t sure how to respond.

TCK chameleonDuring this chameleon stage, the child is fixed on adapting. In some cases the adaptation is so deep the child himself may actually see himself as a bonified member of the culture when he is not.  Others may find themselves merely adapting to the point where they can live successfully in the culture for the time they are there fully realizing the next move in never too far away. In either case the critical learning piece for the developing TCK is “I must change…I must adapt to the circumstances and culture around me” The identification of identity is therefore relative and “who I am “ depends on where I am, and often is dependent on external expectations.

This stage has great potential for dynamic growth in the TCK identity. At the same time it can be the stage where his quest for self-understanding is met with unanswered or unacknowledged questions and self-doubt.

Next time, I’ll talk about Stage Three: the Hidden Immigrant. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you! Caregivers and parents, have you seen the cultural chameleon behavior in Third Culture Kids in your care? TCKs, do you remember times when you where the cultural chameleon, striving to adapt to each world. Maybe you were “caught” between two of your cultures? What were some things you were able to learn from this stage?




Images courtesy Flikr Creative Commons, by dtron and lambatofa

To learn more about the 3 "Third Culture Kid" Cultures, go here!

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