Third Culture Kid

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Third Culture Kids (abbreviated TCKs) is a term for children who have lived a significant portion of their lives in a country that is not their passport country, usually because of parents' work obligations. A synonym for this is "global nomad" (or "global citizen").

I am a TCK and have lived in, stayed in, travel to or through 56 countries to date (see: World Travels). The following sums up my experience:

  • Mother is from country A, father is from country B, living in country C.
  • Born in country A, raised in country B, living in country C.

except, for me, "raised in country B" should read "raised in countries B, C, D, ..."


TCKs share some common characteristics amongst the sub-categories such as multilingualism, tolerance for other cultures, a never-ending feeling of homesickness for their adopted country, and a desire to remain in close contact with friends from their adopted country as well as other TCKs that they have grown up with.

Many TCKs take years to readjust to their home countries and often suffer a reverse culture shock on their return to their homeland. There are some online resources to help TCKs deal with issues as well as stay in contact with each other.

The term, Third Culture Kid, was coined by Ruth Hill Useem in the early 1960s. She and her husband studied children who grew up in two or more cultures (including their own children) and termed them simply "third culture kids". Their idea was that children from one culture who live in another culture become part of a "third culture" that is more than simply a blend of home and host cultures.

Children (and adults) of the third culture share similar identities. Useem defined a third culture kid as

"[A] person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents' culture. The third culture kid builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the third culture kid's life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of the same background." (Pollock & van Reken, 2001, p. 19)

Two circumstances are key to becoming a third culture kid: growing up in a truly cross-cultural world, and high mobility. By the former, Pollock and van Reken mean that instead of observing cultures, third culture kids actually live in different cultural worlds. By mobility, they mean mobility of both the third culture kid 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 other immigrants by the fact that TCKs do not expect to settle down permanently in the places where they live.

Third culture kids grow up in a genuinely cross-cultural world. While expatriates watch and study cultures that they live in, third culture kids actually live in different cultural worlds. Third culture kids have incorporated different cultures on the deepest level, as to have several cultures incorporated into their thought processes. This means that third culture kids not only have deep cultural access to at least two cultures, this also means that thought processes are truly multicultural. That, in turn, influences how third culture kids relate to the world around them, and makes third culture kids' thought processes different even from members of cultures they have deep-level access to. TCKs also have certain personal characteristics in common. Growing up in the third culture rewards certain behaviors and personality traits in different ways than growing up in a single culture does, which results in common characteristics. Third culture kids are often tolerant cultural chameleons who can choose to what degree they wish to display their background.

As a result, Pollock and van Reken argue, third culture kids develop a sense of belonging everywhere and nowhere. Their experiences among different cultures and various relationships makes it difficult for them to have in-depth communication with those who have not experienced similar conditions. While TCKs usually grow up to be independent and cosmopolitan, they also often struggle with their identity and with the losses they have suffered in each move. Barbara Schaetti has proposed a developmental model for TCK identity development based on earlier identity literature, primarily on nigrescence, in which a number of different mechanisms are explained for the wide range of identity outcomes that TCKs may have. Some may feel very nationalistic toward one country, while others call themselves global citizens.


  • "To thine own self be true." — Polonius, Hamlet
  • "Cogito ergo sum." ("I think, therefore I am.") — Descartes
  • "Some people say they haven't yet found themselves. But the self is not something one finds; it is something one creates." — Thomas Szasz
  • "My identity is what prevents me from being identical to anyone else." — Amin Maalouf (2003)
  • "Identity — what makes each of us unique — has been a fundamental question of philosophers from Socrates to Freud. Identity is the crucible out of which we come: our background, our race, our gender, our tribal affiliations, our religion (or lack thereof), all go into making up who we are. All too often, however, the notion of identity — personal, religious, ethnic, or national — has given rise to heated passions and even massive crimes . . . I want to try and understand why so many people commit crimes in the name of identity." — Amin Maalouf (2003)
  • "A life spent writing has taught me to be wary of words. Those that seem clearest are often the most treacherous. 'Identity' is one of those false friends." — Amin Maalouf (2003)

External links


  • Maalouf A (2003). In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong. Penguin Group (USA). ISBN 0-14200-257-7.
  • Pollock DC and Van Reken R (2001). Third Culture Kids. Nicholas Brealey Publishing/Intercultural Press. Yarmouth, Maine. ISBN 1-85788-295-4.
  • Hess DJ (1994). The Whole World Guide to Culture Learning. Intercultural Press, Yarmouth, ME.
  • Kalb R and Welch P (1992). Moving Your Family Overseas. Intercultural Press, Yarmouth, ME.
  • Kohls RL (1996). Survival Kit for Overseas Living. Intercultural Press, Yarmouth, ME.
  • Pascoe R (1993). Culture Shock: Successful Living Abroad. Graphic Arts, Portland, OR.
  • Shames GW (1997). Transcultural Odysseys: The Evolving Global Consciousness. Intercultural Press, Yarmouth, ME.
  • Storti C (1997). The Art of Coming Home. Intercultural Press, Yarmouth, ME.

Print Media

  • Austin, Clyde (1987). Cross Cultural Reentry: A Book of Readings. Abilene Christian University, Abilene, TX.
  • Austin, Clyde (1983). Cross-Cultural Reentry: An Annotated Bibliography. Abilene Christian University, Abilene, TX.
  • Bell, Linda (1997). The Hidden Immigrants. Cross Cultural Publications, Inc., South Bend, IN.
  • McCluskey, Karen Curnow (1994). Notes from a Traveling Childhood. Foreign Service Youth Foundation, Washington, D.C.
  • Pascoe, Robin (1994). Culture Shock! Successful Living Abroad—A Parent's Guide. Time Books International, Singapore.
  • Smith, Carolyn (1991, 1994). The Absentee American. Aletheia Publications, Bayside, New York.
  • Smith, Carolyn (1997). Strangers at Home. Aletheia Publications, Bayside, New York.
  • Storti, Craig (1997). The Art of Coming Home. Intercultural Press, Inc.,Yarmouth, Maine.
  • Taber, Sarah (1997). Of Many Lands. Foreign Service Youth Foundation, Washington, D.C.
  • Useem, Ruth Hill, John Useem, Ann Baker Cottrell and Kathleen A. Finn Jordan, research on adult TCKs, reported in NewsLink, International Schools Services, Princeton, NJ, January, May, September, and November 1993, and March 1994.


  • America - A Different World. Washington, D.C. Produced by the Department of State's Family Liaison Office and Office of Overseas Schools, 1989.
  • Global Nomads: Cultural Bridges for the Future. Produced by Alice Wu, Lewis Clark, Marianne Bojer and Illan Barzilay, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1994.
  • Raising Children Abroad. Washington, D.C. Produced by Department of State's Family Liaison Office, Office of Overseas Schools, and Office of Security Awareness. 114
  • Reentry. Washington, D.C.: Produced by Department of State's Family Liaison Office, Office of Overseas Schools, 1989.

Other References

  • College Preparation and Guidance in Overseas Schools Assisted by the U.S. Department of State, The College Board, Washington, D.C., 1997.
  • Gratto, Eugenia E., "Coming in for a Landing," Notes from a Traveling Childhood, Foreign Service Youth Foundation, Washington, D.C., 1994.
  • Eakin, Kay Branaman, "Educating the Special Needs Child Abroad," Expatriate Observer, Winter, 1996.
  • Hormuth, Stefan, "Psychological Effects of Geographical Mobility on Adolescents," University of Heidelberg, Heidelberg, Germany, 1988.
  • Iwama, Hiroshi.F., "Factors Influencing Transculturation of Japanese Overseas Teenagers," Doctoral dissertation. Pennsylvania State University College of Education, University Park, PA, 1990.
  • Kilham, Nina, "World-Wise Kids: Special Qualities Mark These Global Nomads," The Washington Post, page, B5, February 15, 1990.
  • La Brack, Dr. Bruce, Global Nomad Profile, presentation at the Global Nomads International Conference, Washington International School, Washington, D.C., November 1, 1997.
  • Mary Elizabeth Langford, "Internationally Mobile Pupils in Transition: The Role of the International School," unpublished dissertation, University of Bath, Bath, England, October 1997.
  • Lankenau, Linda, "Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, Nothing Remains Quite the Same," unpublished field study focus group report, November 1997.
  • Lefkow, Leonard L., "Cultural Confusion on a Global Scale," Notes from a Traveling Childhood, Foreign Service Youth Foundation, Washington, D.C.,1994.
  • McNichol, Tom, "The Wanderers: Kids Who Grow Up in Exotic Cultures Can Easily Become Strangers in Their Own Land," In Health, Vol. 34, July/August, 1991.
  • Mines, Cecile M., "Ice Breaker for Kids," unpublished field study report, Fall 1997.
  • Pollock, David, "Swans, Ducks, and other Valid Creatures," Notes from a Traveling Childhood, Foreign Service Youth Foundation, Washington, D.C., 1994.
  • Pollock, David, "Welcome Home! Easing the Pain of MK Reentry," Evangelical Missionaries Quarterly 23, 1987. 115
  • Pollock, David, "Reaching Out to Third Culture Kids," Trans World Radio 8, No. 5, November/December, 1987.
  • Poulson-Larson, Vicki, "How to Prepare Children for an International Move," Mobility, November 1996.
  • Rambo, Beth, Notes from a Traveling Childhood, Foreign Service Youth Foundation, Washington, D.C., 1994.
  • Steinglass, Peter and Martha E. Edwards, Family Relocation Study: Final Report, Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy, New York for the U.S. Department of State, 1993.
  • Thompson, Michael G., "Peer Pleasure, Peer Pain," Independent School, Fall 1997.
  • Thuermer, Kitty, "Fast Times at Hindi High," Foreign Service Journal, April 1989.
  • Wallach, Joel, and Gail Metcalf, "The Hidden Problem of Reentry," The Bridge, Winter, 1980.
  • Wallach, Joel, and Gail Metcalf, "Ten Minutes Out—For Those About to Return Home," Foreign Service Journal, June 1982.
  • Wallach, Joel, and Gail Metcalf, "Safe Kids—Involved Parents," from Notes from a Traveling Childhood, Foreign Service Youth Foundation, Washington, D.C., 1994.
  • Werkman, Sidney, Bringing up Children Overseas, Basic Books, Inc., New York, 1977.
  • Whitley, Kathi, "Teen-agers behind the wheel," USAA Magazine, January-February 1998.