Growing Up Overseas

Have you ever known anybody who grew up overseas or lived in a country that was not their parent’s home culture? That individual may be a “Third Culture Kid.” First used in the 1960’s, the term “Third Culture Kid” was coined by Ruth Hill Useem, a social scientist contracted by the University of Michigan to travel to India to study the expatriates living there. In the course of her research, she began to notice specific enduring personality traits among the children of these families that were not shared by the parents despite the commonality of living overseas.

So what did she mean by “Third Culture Kid?”  A TCK (Third Culture Kid) is an individual who, having spent a significant part of the developmental years in a culture other than the parents’ culture, develops a sense of relationship to all of the cultures while not having full ownership in any. Elements from each culture are incorporated into the life experience and personal identity of that individual.  The following example may make this clearer. An American family with two children moves to the Middle East for the father to be employed as a helicopter pilot for an oil company. The American culture is the “first” culture represented in this family and the Middle East country they reside in is the “second” culture. The amalgamation of both of these cultures, embedded within the children’s sense of self, view of the world, and personal identity is the “third culture.” The cross cultural experience must occur between birth and 18 years of age - the period of time when that child’s sense of identity, relationship with others, and view of the world are being formed in the most basic ways. TCK’s have incorporated different cultures on the deepest level, as they have several cultures embedded into their thought processes and their way of being.  Common populations where one might find TCK’s are families whose parents have had careers in international business, the diplomatic corps, the military, or religious missions. Others have parents who have studied abroad.

The two circumstances that are key to becoming a Third Culture Kid is growing up in a truly cross-cultural world, and high mobility. Instead of observing cultures, TCKs actually live in different cultural worlds. By mobility, it means mobility of both the TCK and others in their surrounding. The interplay between the two is what gives rise to common personal characteristics, benefits, and challenges. TCKs are distinguished from immigrants by the fact that TCKs do not expect to settle down permanently in the places where they live and are also different from individuals who may live in another country as an adult. While the latter may experience some degree of cross cultural adjustment and difficulty, their personality and sense of self is, for the most part, already solidified and stable.

TCKs also tend to have certain personal characteristics in common. TCK’s are often tolerant cultural chameleons and highly adaptable. As a result, TCKs develop a sense of belonging everywhere and nowhere, leaving them with a deep sense of not knowing where they belong and sometimes appearing wishy-washy. Asking a TCK, “where are you from?” can spark deep confusion albeit underneath the surface. Additionally, while TCKs usually grow up to be independent and cosmopolitan, they also often struggle with the losses they have suffered in each move, leaving them struggling with feelings of unresolved grief. Having to say goodbye to one’s African nanny at the age of nine never to be seen again, can leave a tremendous emotional impact, especially if one’s parents do not assist in negotiating those sad feelings.  Moreover, TCK’s frequently experience confused loyalties. Because they deeply understand the complexities of their cultural influences, questions related to poverty, politics, and world issues are not always clearly defined. A TCK raised in Africa and living in Kansas, for instance, may experience some opposing feelings related to issues between the Western industrial powers and those of Third World Countries.

The above mentioned characteristics of TCK’s are in no way exhaustive but can provide the reader an accurate initial impression. Underlying issues of unresolved grief, the impact of broken attachments with early caregivers , and how concepts of identity and worldview have been impacted by cultural and mobility issues is worth considering.