Third Culture Kids: Everywhere and Nowhere
Updated: Jun 6
We’ve all heard of the “army brats”: the children of military families that have been plucked from their homes numerous times in order to be relocated on another base, at another school, in another country. They are considered to have a better grasp on the today’s global environment and therefore a better shot at getting future jobs due to their international experience. However the term “Third Culture Kid”, 3CK, or TCK is not so well known. Encapsulating a broader group than just military families, these students of the world move with their parents into a new culture and couple it with their own in order to create a “third” culture. Interestingly enough, the out-of-the-ordinary foundation of their lives has attracted researchers and psychologists alike to test what kind of person this lifestyle creates. What is most fascinating is that these “kids”, even now adults, fall into an amazing in-sync pattern with one another. From social tendencies to the types of jobs they tend to acquire after school, the TCK population is one that produces a different kind of American citizen.
In the 1950’s ex-patriot Ruth Hill Useem wrote an article about the effects of relocating her family, specifically her children, to India over two different time periods. Coining the term “Third Culture Kid”, she went on to research and publish information on this niche of the population (of which notables include Barack Obama and John Kerry), their common characteristics, and importance to society today. She first laid out a groundwork to define a TCK: Mainly, they must have lived with their parents outside of their culture for a significant part of their developmental years, “integrating aspects of their birth culture (the first culture) and the new culture (the second culture), creating a unique "third culture".
Families even today are generally sent abroad due to the father’s profession, location dependent on the decision of the sponsoring company. Some families are not given a choice and the children many times are not given the time to reconcile and say goodbye to the people and the place they have been living in. The majority of the families are military based, followed by governmental and then business oriented. The students or post-students who according to The Washington Post have made an average of eight major moves before even graduating high school. This fragment of the population is surprisingly unknown to most of the United States. With the increased need to coordinate, cooperate, and communicate with nations due to increased globalization and interdependence, this two percent of the American population, or about four million, have within them a link to the international system that could prove a major asset to the essential channels of communication. In fact, the traits that make the TCK an outsider to American society are the same ones that make them such an asset to the country.
There are certain characteristics identified with third culture kids of which Useem and co-researcher Ann Cottrell touched upon within their articles. To begin, TCKs are known for their quick ability to create new relationships. Within them they tend to play mediator roles in cases of confrontation, provide support for uneasy acquaintances, and often participe in activities in order to form new ones. They hold their ability to get along with almost anyone in high esteem, however their own lives tend to suggest a trend of isolationism - always keeping one hand in their ulterior international lives. Maybe it is this unstable inclination to have feet in different locations that makes depression and suicide rates amongst them higher as well.
In forming an education, it is estimated that a TCK is four times more likely to earn a bachelors degree than a non-TCK, and eight times more likely to earn an advanced one afterwards. The majority veer away from larger corporations and governmental jobs, choosing rather to work in the arenas of education, medicine, linguistics, and other professional positions that can provide a more hands-on approach with a population. These global nomads form a pathway of their own, rather than following in the corporate footsteps of their parents.
A family changes shape within the international lifestyle, also very important to understanding a TCK. In choosing an employee to live abroad, sponsors will hire their most credible hands in order to protect their investments overseas. For this reason the family of a TCK will regularly include at least one member who has earned a college degree or higher. Thus, many of these families are not only educated, but successful. However even the most educated cannot fully be prepared for the intensity, difficulty, and loneliness incorporated into moving to a new country, nor aware of how tightly these conditions bring a family together. With no community support upon arrival, cultural barriers intensify the need for the family unit to remain unbroken. This is one of the reasons that these families have lower rates of divorce. If within good communication, this can be a blessing for everyone. If otherwise, many times the knot around the members can become to tight, creating inescapable friction and problems that can emotionally or even physically damage the child.
There exist numerous international French, German, Spanish, and other language schools around the globe. The most typical of these are part of the International School System, which offers an International Baccalaureate program to students from any country. Taught in English, it provides a framework in which students have the accessibility to interact with students such as themselves and even jump around from one to another over the years. This also gives many TCKs the option of learning English as another language that will be highly beneficial to their future in the work force. This interaction with other TCKs as well as some local residents that enrol creates a community of commonly understood values, understanding and acceptance of cultural differences that cannot be paralleled in their home country. It is a social network system that can last throughout their lifetimes.
For a non-TCK, the cultural partition of these kids is a hard concept to grasp, often leading to misunderstanding. The very definition of culture is a “set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes a… group.” These children who are moved around, though following similar trends, are all equipped with their own goals and values. A TCK from one country will have very different values than one from another state. Even if both share the same country of habitation, that only accounts for an assumed half of the culture that they themselves have within. Tourists who wander the streets of foreign lands take snapshots of the cultures, just like ex-patriots living there observe and attempt to understand them, and immigrants who do not plan to move again attempt fully integration. A TCK can neither be an observant, nor a member. Knowing that where they are located is temporary, “the TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership of any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCKs life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of a similar background”.
The result of cultural ambiguity mixed with a heightened understanding of other cultures leaves third culture kids with a remarkable “chameleon” capability to easily blend in and identify with many cultures. Tolerant and patient to understanding the differences each human being possesses, they can choose exactly how much of their diverse persona they desire to exhibit to surrounding peers. Since their dissimilarities are accepted as a non-native, it is often easier to make mistakes in their newly found cultures. As one TCK puts it:
“If I make a mistake, they just say that is because I am a crazy American.
In the U.S. I don't appear to be different, so if I openly deviate from my
friends in my attitudes, opinions, ambitions, or even leisure pursuits, they don't
say that it is because I am a crazy TCK who grew up in India, they just say I'm nuts".
This is a common identity struggle in which 90% of TCKs feel “out of sync” with peers whose experiences differ significantly, obstructing many levels of communication. On the other hand, it leads to a distinctive independence of character as well as an empathy and willingness to help others they see struggling to cope in a new environment.
Unfortunately for the global students who must return home, these aspects have proven to be a barrier in communication with individuals who share the same passport. Non-TCKs find it difficult to understand and accept someone who can speak their language and should be able to relate to them on a nationality level, but in whom a half is rooted in a culture they neither know, nor understand. The cultural completeness in a native highlights the incompleteness of the other, making the TCK feel left out on the edges of social circles. Depending on one’s character, this can lead to withdrawal from social situations or the creation of relationships in which the TCK is ‘accepted’ as an outsider. Due to the increased awareness of other cultures and the many experiences retained by the end of adolescence, a more mature teenage group emerges out of the TCKs. This is often mistaken for a high and mighty attitude in which peers and family members see them “as having champagne tastes on beer incomes, as not being able to make up their minds about what they want to do with their lives, where they want to live, and whether or not they want to "settle down, get married, and have children…[what is called] prolonged adolescence".
Another area of interest is what happens to these culturally and socially sensitive “children” after they grow up? Upon arrival back in the US, many suffer bad cases of reverse culture shock and homesickness for the country they have been living in. According to research, the Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) can never really fully integrate into daily life in the US, many reverting to their jet-setting ways towards the TCK lifestyle they belong in. This can detrimentally isolate a person further, allowing evasion from intense relationships that many attempt to steer clear of. Many follow career paths that mimic their childhoods: travel, languages, and international activities in general. Some learn to overcome culture shock while others remain forever struggling under its heavy burden. This may account for the higher number of ATCKs who settle down versus those who have the itch to move consistently. Both groups tend to keep in contact with their companions made abroad.
In general though, their focus on their isolation and uniqueness tends to subside with age, and most agree that the path their lives have taken is a positive one regardless of the challenges. “How long it takes them to adjust to American life is: they never adjust. They adapt, they find niches, they take risks, they fail and pick themselves up again. They succeed in jobs they have created to fit their particular talents, they locate friends with whom they can share some of their interests, but they resist being encapsulated”. This group of children and adults are a part of American society that is not very well understood, and it is a shame. For with all of their seclusion from social situations, they retain the memories and capacity for the perception of other people that far surpasses what they would possess without the experience. This is a lucky gift, and one that should always be used to its greatest abilities.
Written while I was a student at The American University of Rome, Italy.