Once we are no longer accountable uniquely to ourselves, living as expats forces us to examine our choice not only to live abroad, but also raise a family outside our culture of origin. Even long after a host country becomes "home", you routinely debate seemingly small things (especially if you share different cultural foundations with your partner), like the necessity for Marmite, the relevance of punctuality, or which day marks the beginning of the week.
Must I really start writing the day before the month? Just what is the "right" personal space distance, and are bisous obligatory? Most of us have yet to resolve some of these cross-cultural conﬂicts with our partners (and some never will), but just how will it inﬂuence our children— will they be caught between two worlds?
Ruth Hill Useem, a sociologist and anthropologist, is credited with coining the term “Third Culture Kids”, or TCKs, in the 1950s after conducting field research in India. Drawing from observations of her children’s cross-cultural realities while living abroad, Useem strove to understand the experiences and dynamics of global expat families. Now considered one of the founders of Third Culture research, her discoveries have been expanded upon by experts such as David Pollack and Ruth Van Reken.
David Pollack, co-author with Van Reken of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds (2017), describes TCKs as: "[...] a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is often in relationship to others of similar backgrounds."
TCKs are considered to inhabit a host country and culture other than that of one (or both) of their parents. Moreover, the languages employed by their families to communicate amongst themselves may be different than the one used with the host culture, while the shared dominant language may be non-native for one or both parents.
Despite being exposed to each of their parents’ cultural realities (eg traditions, customs, foods, friends), TCKs may understand and/or relate to one, both, or neither. TCKs often struggle to develop a clear, individual sense of identity, especially when confronted with implicit and/or explicit pressure to assimilate to their parents’ culture(s) or those of their host countries. Considering this fluid sense of place and belonging, they may have the most in common with other TCKs — people who tend to share common experiences and challenges, regardless of their backgrounds or country of origin.
As global societies become exponentially interconnected, parents, educators and helping professionals alike must continue to consider the needs and challenges of TCKs. Despite being excellent cultural chameleons, it can be crucial to help TCKs deal with transitions, grief (or their sense of loss) and/or other issues, increased access to environments and educational opportunities capable of understanding their experiences while allowing them to discover and develop their identities. Local TCK communities or expat Kids Clubs may provide networking options for TCKs and their families; however, as the individual needs may differ, no one-size-fits-all approach exists. An increasing number of resources, starting with Pollack and Van Reken’s Third Culture Kids can help you navigate the challenges you may be witnessing or experiencing.
You are not alone!
The personality traits and experiences of TCKs may be categorised as a balance between a variety of benefits (left column of chart below) and challenges (right column), including but not limited to:
More information on TCKs, or how to prepare/parent your TCK:
A fact and resource website connecting visitors to blogs, books, and other online communities about TCKs.
* Expat Teens Talk: Peers, Parents, and Professionals Offer Support, Advice, and Solutions in Response to Expat Life Challenges as Shared by Expat Teens, by Dr. Lisa Pipman and Diana Smit.
The online home for TCKs, with descriptive information on Dr Useem’s research and links to articles to understand the experiences and trajectories of TCKs worldwide.
Dr Paulette Bethel, a TED partner discusses “issues of identity, transition, cultural fusion, and repatriation, common themes amongst TCKs.
* Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds (3rd ed), by David Pollack and Ruth Van Reken