Third Culture Kids – Tough and Adaptable Diamonds in the Rough

Where are you fr3-girlsom?” is a question many third-culture kids (TCK) can get tired of hearing, mainly because there’s no simple answer.

These are the kids – whose numbers are growing as mobility expands – that some refer to as “global nomads.” Or, as the Clark University website puts it: “A person of any age or nationality who has lived a significant part of his/her developmental years in one or more countries outside his/her passport country because of a parent’s occupation.” These parents can be military personnel, employees of government and international agencies, missionaries, etc.

Sociologist Dr. Ruth Hill Useem, widely regarded as the founder of TCK research, coined the term “third culture kids” to describe how they integrate aspects of their birth culture (the first culture) and the new culture (the second culture), creating a unique “third culture.”

Although many may consider TCKs privileged, TCKs don’t always agree. Many feel they are without roots, have an undefined cultural identity, and a general sense that they don’t quite belong. Because they’ve moved around so much, they often experience educational gaps and feelings of loss and grief.

In their article Third culture kids: expatriate children, John and Diane Larsen examine these challenges further, focusing specifically on missionary kids (MKs), a TCK subgroup. They note: “MKs are not able to meet the psychological need to be rooted in a community of persons similar to themselves. The longing to belong and painful sense of not belonging are ever present.”

There are, however, benefits to being a TCK, especially as the world grows smaller and cultures become more diverse.

As authors David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken observe in their book Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, “While growing up in a multiplicity of countries and cultures, TCKs not only observe firsthand the many geographical differences around the world but they also learn how people view life from different philosophical and political perspectives. …[TCKs] have lived in other places long enough to appreciate the reasons and understanding behind some of the behavioral differences rather than simply being frustrated by them as visitors tend to be.”

This high degree of cultural literacy gives TCKs a considerable edge as they become adults and seek careers in today’s global economy. (Consider President Barak Obama, who was born in Hawaii to a Kenyan father and American mother, attended school in Jakarta and Hawaii, and eventually relocated to the contiguous United States.) Not only can they more easily connect with others across cultural boundaries, they’re also more adaptable and adventurous.

But, as noted, some TCKs don’t focus on these advantages, but more on their sense of rootlessness and disconnection. For these individuals, or any TCK wishing to connect with like-minded others, there are numerous resources. Clark University, for example, offers TCK support services and a TCK student coordinator who organizes activities for the community. There are also many websites devoted to TCKs and blogs where TCKs can meet others with similar backgrounds and, perhaps, find a greater sense of belonging among those who share their experiences.

Please feel free to share… Thanks Nick

Nick Roylemsi