Third Culture Kids

Third Culture Kids (TCKs). Does this term sound familiar? Sociologist Ruth Hill Useems came up with it in the 1950s as a way to describe children who grow up in a country (or countries) different from where their parents were raised.

Military kids, international business people’s kids, and diplomats’ kids are the primary livers of such a lifestyle. These youth have an upbringing much different than most kids in the world.

Further defining TCKs

In the book Third Culture Kids, part of co-author David Pollock’s definition of TCKs explains that “the TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any.“ This suggests that such children have no cultural roots. They are neither part of their parents’ culture (whether or not the parents come from the same culture) nor the culture in which they live. The result is a sort of detachment from any culture, a sense of being lost. These global nomads (a term sometimes given to TCKs) aren’t from anywhere yet fit in everywhere.

Their closest „compatriots“ are others who share the same lifestyle and upbringing as them, creating somewhat of a sub-culture. This sub-culture is in constant flux as TCKs move to and from new continents, new countries, new cultures, new homes, and new schools. They are continually defining and re-defining who they are, who their friends are, and where they are from.

Where are TCKs from?

„Where are you from?“ is a common question to  ask when meeting someone new. While most people have a simple reply, it’s not an easy one for TCKs to answer. Their response can become rather convoluted since it is likely that a TCK has at least two passports, was born in a country different than where those passports say he/she is from, and now lives or has lived in a completely new country/countries. Thus, TCKs may tell you where they were born, where they were primarily raised, what nationality(ies) they are, where their parents are from, where they have lived,  or where they are living now.

Over time, this difficulty in answering others leads TCKs to ask the same question to themselves;  „Where am I from?“

It seems an odd question, but TCKs may not really know. Much of a person’s identity is shaped by where they come from.  But TCKs come from more than one place. They come from different places at diffeent stages of their lives. This uncertainty about where they come from makes it even more difficult for TCKs to define where is home.

European kids. Photo: Unni Holtedahl.

European kids. Photo: Unni Holtedahl.

Where do TCKs call home?

For most people, the definition of home—a place where strong roots, memories and relationships are set — is clear and stable: A house, a neighborhood, a town, a culture, a country. But for TCKs, life is in constant transition. Such a place doesn’t exist because none of these aspects of home are permanent. They experience them in a variety of places, but only for a relatively short time. And then they move on. None of them hold an attic full of keepsakes. Instead, TCKs have different ways of creating a sense of home.

Some are like their ancestral kin –desert nomads – and carry their homes in their hearts and minds. These TCKs consider the world their home. They feel comfortable most anywhere surrounded by most any type of people. Other TCKs have a place in their past which they define as home. This is most often due to positive experiences and memories of that place. It has less to do with time spent there and more to do with the emotional attachment they made with the place. It’s the place TCKs would most like to revisit regularly.

Needless to say, the experiences of TCKs are vastly different from those that most people have growing up. These “children who accompany their parents into another society” (Ruth Hill Useem) tend to live seemingly rudderless lives. They don’t stay in one place very long; nor do their friends and classmates. It’s a life of constant change, rich in experiences, but also endless in hellos and goodbyes. Hence, TCKs have a unique set of rewards and challenges to deal with while growing up.

By Dan Franch, July 2013. Dan is also a columnist and cartoonist for wort.lu/eng.

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