Third Culture Kids
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Feature Article - 
"Third Culture Kids", by Lesley Lewis

As more cities and companies become increasingly international, there is a growing number of children that are creating thier own sub-culture.  Often referred to as TCK's (Third Culture Kids) or Global Nomads, these students have a tremendous impact on the global community.  They are "raised in the margin of mosaic" and learn to balance worlds from within.


So who are these Third-Cultured Kids?  They are not a new phenomenon.  As one looks back over history, there is a realisation that certain groups of people have led highly mobile lives, a key factor in describing TCK's.  They often relocate to new home and/or countries.  They are exposed to new cultures and to other people in the community who also move constantly.
Dr. Ruth Useem, who received her Ph.D. in Sociology, Anthropology, Social Psychology, and Psychology from the University of Michigan, was the first person to coin the phrase Third Culture Kid.  Dr. Useem's study of Americans living in India led her to define TCK's as "Children whose parents work abroad to live".  (Useem, 1960).  More recently, she redefined TCK's as "Children who accompany their parent's into another culture". (Useem, 1970).  David C. Pollock and his co-author Ruth Van Reken, describe a TCK as
"A person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents' culture.  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 TCK's life experience the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of a similar background."
(Pollock & Van Reken, 1999)
TCK's represent many countries and cultures.  Their numbers extend into the hundreds of thousands and are increasing.  Ease of travel and constant relocation of people through multinational companies and global business links contribute to this trend.  The following points are helpful when identifying the Characteristics of TCK's:
  • A life filled with high mobility - TCK's know an airport better than most people
  • Traveling is a way of life - many holidays are taken outside the home country
  • Politically astute - TCK's tend to read the newspaper and watch the news more often than other children.  They are great debaters.  They are often aware of the background of political decisions and implications for the people concerned.
  • Speak more than one language - often 3 or 4. English may be one language they function in, but they can think and feel in several.
  • Establish relationships quickly - they cut through many of the initial levels of diffidence when forming relationships.
  • Prefer to socialise with other TCK's as they enter adulthood - often become expatriates themselves.
  • Privileged lifestyle - their socio-economic lifestyle tends to be higher due to the expatriate status offered by some companies or the advantages of relocations (eg. they have access to helpers, drivers, club memberships and money).
  • Converse well with adults.
  • More mature in their social skills.
  • Culturally astute/cross-culturally enriched, less prejudiced.
  • Adapt quickly to unfamiliar countries and people.
  • More welcoming of newcomers into a community.
  • Educational achievers - a high percentage will attend university and obtain advanced degrees.
  • Live more in the present/live more for the moment(Pollock, 1999)
  • Make great culture bridges - they have multiple frames of reference.
  • Excellent observers of other people -  often TCK's become too observant and sensitive

These are characteristics that are generally attributed to TCK's but should not be used to sterotype them.  Even though the world of the TCK often appears glamorous, exotic and sometimes unreal, there are some challenging developemental issues that need to be considered:

  • The Challenges of being a TCK:
    The elusive concept of Where is home?  The sense of belonging everywhere and nowhere.
  • Difficulty with commitment to people, places, schools, or school systems as these constantly change.
  • Uncertain cultural identity.
  • Problems with decsion-making.
  • Loss of relationships, loss of community/school = loss of their world.
  • Feeling different from others, difficult in forming peer relationships; occurs more often at university level or when returning to "passport" country, where they are misunderstood by their fellow countrymen.
  • Rootlessness and restlessness.  The frequent need to change countries and homes.
  • Powerless - A feeling that they have no control over events and that these are often taken out of their hands anyway by the inevitability of the move.
  • A crisis of identity - "Who am I?"

The question "Who am I?" is frequently asked by TCK's.  They have accumulated a host of cultural identities, lived in many countries and have been introduced to a variety of global people.  They are not the culture of their parents.  TCK's position themselves by integrating a huge pool of values, norms, behaviours, beliefs, mannerisms and thoughts in order to identity self.

As you enter into the world of TCK's, one might suspect they are no different. But it is clear, after spending only a short time with them, that they bring a deep knowledge from within and a special ability to compare international and local issues.  They are the future cross-culturalists and hopefully future politicians, diplomats, multi-nationals, government employees and educators.  TCK's have a deep understanding of human rights.  They certainly encounter a differeing lifestyle compared to their mono-cultural peers but we can draw on their global and professional lives.  So, whatever one chooses to label the international students as TCK's, Global Nomads, Expatriates or Global Souls, we will reap unbelievable rewards and a true sense of satisfaction.

Colors by Whitni Thomas, MK (1991)

I grew up in a Yellow country
But my parents are Blue.
I'm Blue.
Or at least, that is what they told me.
But I play with the Yellows.
I went to school with the Yellows.
I spoke the Yellow language.
I even dressed and appeared to be Yellow.
Then I moved to the Blue land.
Now I go to school with the Blues.
I speak the Blue language.
I even dress and look Blue.
But deep down, inside me, something's Yellow.
I love the Blue country.
But my ways are tinted with Yellow.
When I am in the Blue land,
I want to be Yellow.
When I am in the Yellow land,
I want to be Blue.
Why can't I be both?
A place where I can be me.
A place where I can be green.
I just want to be green.


Lesley Lewis has an M Ed in Psychology, a Masters in Cross-Cultural Psychology and a Bachelors in Public Adminitstration.  She is an education psychologist who studied in the US. She's been living in Hong Kong for over 16 years. She works in private practice as a personal, maritial and family therapist and is a consultant and trainer to private business and gov't agencies.  She has been working with TCK's for over 30 years. She is now researching the adjustment of TCK's in in'tl schools. She is a founding partner of Global Sage Alliance, a company specialising in executive coaching, leadership/assertiveness training and cross-cultural development with a focus on individiuals within the context of organisational developement.