An increase in global mobility has seen more children being born or raised in countries that neither of their parents are from. These so called “third culture kids” often struggle to identify themselves with one nationality or culture.
What is a third culture kid?
The term third culture kid (TCK) describes “A person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture.” The TCK builds relationships with all of the cultures they experience, 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 and Van Reken).
In short, third culture kids grow up experiencing different cultures for substantial periods of time. As a result, they end up having a culture of their own.
Where are third culture kids from?
The hardest question for a third culture kid to answer is simply, “Where are you from?”. The most typical problem TCKs face is not completely identifying with just one nationality.
Some third culture kids often testify that they don’t feel completely bound to their host country’s culture. This is either because their families have raised them as close to their original culture as possible, or because the locals still see them as foreigners.
Going back to their ethnic culture doesn’t seem to fix the problem. The same people say when they go back to their home country they don’t feel a complete connection to the local way of life either. It is possible that people who live there see them as “foreign” and treat them more like a tourist rather than a compatriot.
And it is not just how others treat them. Third culture kids have a hard time themselves deciding where they really belong. Even though they claim they feel like a part of their host country’s society, in many cases they act and think in accordance with moral and ethical norms of their home country and vice-versa.
Benefits of being a TCK
Several studies have been conducted on American TCKs to determine how growing up in another culture affects them personally. These studies found:
- 90% of TCKs feel they understand other cultures and people better than the average American.
- Teenage TCKs tend to be more mature than their non TCK peers, but take longer to focus on their goals in their 20s.
- TCKs are much more lingustically able than their average peers (not true for military TCKs)
- Education, medicine, management and other highly-skilled professions are the most common career paths for TCKs.
There were some negative findings from the research. Depression was found to be comparatively more prevalent among third culture kids. Nearly 90% of TCKs reported feeling “out of sync” with their peers.
Understanding third culture kids and how they see the world is important. It is even more important that the people closest to a TCK should help them understand themselves. Third culture kids need to be taught not to feel depressed about who they are and where they come from. But rather embrace their unique background and learn to appreciate and enjoy the benefits it brings.