Third culture kid
is a term coined in the early 1950s by American sociologist and anthropologist Ruth Hill Useem
Ruth Hill Useem was an American sociologist and anthropologist who introduced the concept of Third Culture Kid to describe children who spent part of their developmental years in a foreign culture due to their parents' working abroad...
"to refer to the children who accompany their parents into another society". Other terms, such as trans-culture kid
, are also used by some. More recently, American sociologist David C. Pollock
David C. Pollock was an American sociologist, author, and speaker known for his expertise on Third Culture Kids ....
developed the following description for third culture kids:
TCKs tend to have more in common with one another, regardless of nationality, than they do with non-TCKs from their passport country. TCKs are often multilingual and highly accepting of other cultures. Although moving between countries may become an easy thing for some TCKs, after a childhood spent in other cultures, adjusting to their passport country often takes years.
Before World War II, 66% of TCKs came from missionary families, and 16% came from business families. After World War II, with the increase of international business and the rise of two international superpower
A superpower is a state with a dominant position in the international system which has the ability to influence events and its own interests and project power on a worldwide scale to protect those interests...
s, the composition of international families changed. Sponsors are generally broken down into five categories: missionary (17%), business (16%), government (23%), military (30%), and "other" (14%). Some TCK families migrate for work independently of any organization based in their country of origin.
Origins and terminology
Dr. Useem coined the term third culture kid
after her second year-long visit to India with her fellow sociologist/anthropologist husband and three children. In 1993 she wrote:
She describes the third culture as a shared, or interstitial
An interstitial space or interstice is an empty space or gap between spaces full of structure or matter.In particular, interstitial may refer to:-Physical sciences:...
way of life lived by those who had gone from one culture (the home or first culture) to a host culture (the second) and had developed their own shared way of life with others also living outside their passport cultures.
Kay Eakin adapted this term and described a TCK as "someone who, as a child, has spent a significant period of time in one or more culture(s) other than [their] own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture".
Because culture by definition is something that must be shared with others, David C. Pollock's definition recognizes the reality of what Eakin is describing but takes it back to Useem's idea that, as with any culture, the "third culture" is a way of life shared with others.
Others have used different expressions to describe this same population. Currently they include 3CK
or trans-culture kid
. Around 1985, Norma McCaig used the term Global Nomad
essentially to define the same group because (1) she didn't like being called a kid when she was grown up and (2) she wanted to make clear for future research purposes that this experience happened because of a parent's career choice (which was the case with the TCKs in Useem's first study, although Useem didn't mention this), not refugees or immigrants. McCaig did not want the nuances particular to each type of experience to be lost. For this reason, Ruth Van Reken is now suggesting a more comprehensive term, Cross-Cultural Kid
(CCK), for all types of cross-cultural childhoods.
Research into third culture kids has come from two fronts. First, most of the research into TCKs has been conducted by adult TCKs attempting to validate their own experiences. This research has been conducted largely at Michigan State University, where Dr. Useem taught for over 30 years. Second, the U.S armed forces has sponsored significant research into the U.S. military brat experience. Most TCK research on adults is limited to those people whose time in a different culture occurred during the school age years.
Research into TCKs has either studied students currently living in a foreign culture or years later as adults. Since the only way to identify somebody who grew up in a foreign culture is through self-identification, scientific sampling methods
Scientific method refers to a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of...
on adults may contain bias due to the difficulty in conducting epidemiological
Epidemiology is the study of health-event, health-characteristic, or health-determinant patterns in a population. It is the cornerstone method of public health research, and helps inform policy decisions and evidence-based medicine by identifying risk factors for disease and targets for preventive...
studies across broad-based population samples
In statistics and survey methodology, sampling is concerned with the selection of a subset of individuals from within a population to estimate characteristics of the whole population....
While much of the research into TCKs has shown consistent results across geographical boundaries, some international sociologists are critical of the research that "expects there to be one unified 'true' culture that is shared by all who have experiences of growing up overseas".
The parents of TCKs are often highly educated, successful in their careers, and are not likely to divorce. When a group (whether it is the military, a business, government, church, etc.) decides to send somebody to a foreign country, it is making a significant investment. The group wants to send people who will represent it the best, and provide the most value for the investment. TCKs will thus have a higher probability of coming from a family where at least one parent earned a college degree and often an advanced degree. "Almost all" TCK families are deployed to foreign countries as a result of the father's profession, and very few families live in another country primarily due to the mother's occupation.
TCKs also tend to come from families that are closer than non-TCK families. They will also have a smaller likelihood of having divorced parents (divorced parents are unlikely to allow their former spouse to take their child to another country). "Because the nuclear family is the only consistent social unit through all moves, family members are psychologically thrown back on one another in a way that is not typical in geographically stable families." It has been observed that TCKs may be more prone to abuse as the family can become too tight knit. "The strength of [the] family bond works to the benefit of children when parent-child communication is good and the overall family dynamic is healthy. It can be devastating when it is not.... Physical, sexual and emotional abuse ... may go unnoticed or unacknowledged by others for a variety of reasons, such as misguided notions about 'respecting privacy', or fear of repatriation or family disgrace with colleagues".
TCK's exposure to foreign countries depends largely on parent's sponsoring organization. The sponsor affects many variables such as: how long a family is in a foreign culture, the family's interaction with the host country nationals, how enmeshed the family becomes with local practices, and the family's interaction with people from the home country.
A military brat describes people who spend their childhood or adolescence while a parent serve full-time in the armed forces, and can also refer to the unique subculture and lifestyle of American military brats, the term refers to both current and former children of such families.Lifestyle: The...
s are the most mobile of TCKs and spend an average of 7 (seven) years abroad while growing up. While overseas a majority of non-infant and non-toddler military brats live off-base, due to budgeting priorities of military bases, whereas bases tend to house more singles and families with very small children. Approximately 59% of military brats spend more than 5 years in foreign countries. Because military bases aim for self-sufficiency, those military brats who only live on base tend to be exposed the least to the local culture compared to other TCKs, but a high percentage of military brats have lived off base overseas for years at a time. Also, because of the self-sufficiency of military bases and the distinctiveness of military culture, as well as the rootless lifestyle of moving constantly while growing up, even those military brats who never lived abroad can be isolated significantly from the civilian regional cultures of their "home" country.
While parents of military brats had the lowest level of education of the five categories, approximately 36% of USA military brat TCK families have at least one parent with an advanced degree. This is significantly higher than the general population.
Nonmilitary government TCKs are the most likely to have extended experiences in foreign countries for extended periods. 44% have lived in at least four countries. 44% will also have spent at least 10 years outside of their passport country. Their involvement with locals and others from their passport country depends on the role of the parent. Some may grow up moving from country to country in the diplomatic corps (see Foreign Service Brat
In the United States a Foreign Service brat is a person whose parent served full-time in with the forces in a posting abroad during that person's childhood. The term brat is often thought of as derogatory; however, for some who have experienced this background, the term has a neutral feel and is...
) while others may live their lives near military bases.
Missionary Kids are the children of missionary parents, and thus most were born and/or raised abroad...
(MKs) typically spend the most time overseas, of any TCKs, in one country. 85% of MKs spend more than 10 years in foreign countries and 72% lived in only one foreign country. Of all TCKs, MKs generally have the most interaction with the local populace and the least interaction with people from their passport country. They are also the most likely of the TCKs to integrate themselves into the local culture. 83% of missionary kids have at least one parent with an advanced degree.
Business families also spend a great deal of time in foreign countries. 63% of business TCKs have lived in foreign countries at least 10 years but are more likely than MKs to live in multiple countries. Business TCKs will have a fairly high interaction with their host nationals and with others from their passport country. Many of these "business" families are from oil companies, particularly in the Arab world and in Latin America. Parents who work in the pharmaceutical business typically move to countries such as Switzerland, Singapore, India, China, Japan, or USA.
TCK families who do not fit one the above categories include those employed by intergovernmental agencies (for example, the Nuclear Energy Agency
The Nuclear Energy Agency is an intergovernmental multinational agency that is organized under the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development...
, the Commonwealth Secretariat
The Commonwealth Secretariat is the main intergovernmental agency and central institution of the Commonwealth of Nations. It is responsible for facilitating cooperation between members; organising meetings, including the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings ; assisting and advising on policy...
, and the International Agency of the Francophonie), international non-governmental organizations (for example, international school
An International school is loosely defined as a school that promotes international education, in an international environment, either by adopting an international curriculum such as that of the International Baccalaureate or Cambridge International Examinations, or by following a national...
s), and local organizations such as hospital
A hospital is a health care institution providing patient treatment by specialized staff and equipment. Hospitals often, but not always, provide for inpatient care or longer-term patient stays....
s. Other professions include the media and athletics (for example, Wally Szczerbiak
Walter Robert "Wally" Szczerbiak is an American former professional basketball player.-Early life:Szczerbiak was born in Madrid, Spain, while his father Walter was playing for Real Madrid, and spent much of his childhood in Europe during his father's playing career...
). This group typically has spent the least amount of time in foreign countries (42% are abroad for 1–2 years and 70% for less than 5). Again, their involvement with local people and culture can vary greatly. TCKs in this category also might live in an area with a certain ethnic majority other than their own, e.g. an Americanized Arab Muslim living in Chinatown
A Chinatown is an ethnic enclave of overseas Chinese people, although it is often generalized to include various Southeast Asian people. Chinatowns exist throughout the world, including East Asia, Southeast Asia, the Americas, Australasia, and Europe. Binondo's Chinatown located in Manila,...
TCK parents in this category are the most likely (89%) to hold an advanced degree.
Non-American third culture kids
Most international TCKs are expected to speak English and some countries require their expatriate families to be proficient with the English language. This is largely because most international schools use the English language as the norm.
Families tend to seek out schools whose principal languages they share, and ideally one which mirrors their own educational system. Many countries have American schools, French schools, British schools, German Schools and 'International Schools' which often follow one of the three International Baccalaureate programs. These will be populated by expatriate
An expatriate is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country and culture other than that of the person's upbringing...
s' children and some children of the local upper middle class. They do this in an effort to maintain linguistic stability and to ensure that their children do not fall behind due to linguistic problems. Where their own language is not available, families will often choose English-speaking schools for their children. They do this because of the linguistic and cultural opportunities being immersed in English might provide their children when they are adults, and because their children are more likely to have prior exposure to English than to other international languages. This poses the potential for non-English speaking TCKs to have a significantly different experience from U.S. TCKs. Research on TCKs from Japan, Denmark, Italy, Germany, the United States and Africa has shown that TCKs from different countries share more in common with other TCKs than they do with their own peer group from their passport country.
A few sociologists studying TCKs, however, argue that the commonality found in international TCKs is not the result of true commonality, but rather the researcher's bias projecting expectations upon the studied subculture. They believe that some of the superficial attributes may mirror each other, but that TCKs from different countries are really different from one another. The exteriors may be the same, but that the understanding of the world around them differs.
In Japan, the use of the term "third culture kids" to refer to children returned from living overseas is not universally accepted; they are typically referred to both in Japanese and in English as kikokushijo
and are Japanese-language terms referring to the children of Japanese expatriates who take part of their education outside of Japan. The former term is used to refer to children who have returned to Japan, while the latter refers to such children while they are still overseas...
, literally "returnee children", a term which has different implications. Public awareness of kikokushijo
is much more widespread in Japan than awareness of TCKs in the United States, and government reports as early as 1966 recognised the need for the school system to adapt to them. However, views of kikokushijo
have not always been positive; in the 1970s, especially, they were characterised in media reports and even by their own parents as "educational orphans" in need of "rescue" to reduce their foreignness and successfully reintegrate them into Japanese society.
Many TCKs take years to readjust to their passport countries. They often suffer a reverse culture shock
Culture shock is the anxiety, feelings of frustration, alienation and anger that may occur when a person is emplaced in a new culture.One of the most common causes of culture shock involves individuals in a foreign country. Culture shock can be described as consisting of one or more distinct phases...
upon their return, and are often perpetually homesick
Homesickness is the distress or impairment caused by an actual or anticipated separation from the specific home environment or attachment objects....
for their adopted country. Many third culture kids face an identity crisis: they don't know where they come from. It would be typical for a TCK to say that he is a citizen of a country, but with nothing beyond his passport to define that identification for him. Such children usually find it difficult to answer the question, "Where are you from?" Compared to their peers who have lived their entire lives in a single culture, TCKs have a globalized culture. Others can have difficulty relating to them. It is hard for TCKs to present themselves as a single cultured person, which makes it hard for others who have not had similar experiences to accept them for who they are. They know bits and pieces of at least two cultures, yet most of them have not fully experienced any one culture making them feel incomplete or left out by other children who have not lived overseas. They often build social networks among themselves and prefer to socialize with other TCKs.
Many choose to enter careers that allow them to travel frequently or live overseas, which may make it seem difficult for TCKs to build long-term, in-depth relationships. There are, however, a growing number of online resources to help TCKs deal with issues as well as stay in contact with each other. Recently, blogs and social networks including MySpace, Facebook and TCKID, have become a helpful way for TCKs to interact. In addition, chatting programs including MSN Messenger, AIM, and Skype are often used so TCKs can keep in touch with each other. The unique experiences of TCKs among different cultures and various relationships at the formative stage of their development makes their view of the world different from others.
They tend to get along with people of any culture, and develop a chameleon-like ability to become part of other cultures. Some TCKs may also isolate themselves within their own sub-culture, sometimes excluding native children attending their schools, or defining themselves in relation to some "other" ethnic or religious group.
As third culture kids mature they become adult third culture kids (ATCKs). Some ATCKs come to terms with issues such as culture shock and a sense of not belonging while others struggle with these for their entire lives.
| Type of Work
| Support (Secretarial/Technical)
| Work Setting
| Health/Social Services
| Self Employed
| Non-Medical Professional
Statistics (U.S. TCKs)
Research has been done on American TCKs to identify various characteristics:
- 90% feel "out of sync" with their peers.
- 90% report feeling as if they understand other people and cultural groups better than the average American.
- 80% believe they can get along with anybody, and they often do, due to their sociocultural adaptability.
- Divorce rates among TCKs are lower than the general population, but TCKs marry at an older age (25+).
- More welcoming of others into their community.
- Lack a sense of "where home is", but are often nationalistic.
Cognitive and emotional development
- Teenage TCKs are more mature than non-TCKs, but in their twenties take longer than their peers to focus their aims.
- Depression is comparatively prevalent among TCKs.
- TCKs' sense of identity and well-being is directly and negatively affected by repatriation.
- TCKs are highly linguistically adept (not as true for military TCKs).
- A study whose subjects were all "career military brats"—those who had a parent in the military from birth through high school—shows that brats are linguistically adept.
- Like all children, TCKs may experience stress and even grief from the relocation experience.
Education and career
- TCKs are 4 times as likely as non-TCKs to earn a bachelor's degree (81% vs 21%)
- 40% earn an advanced degree (as compared to 5% of the non-TCK population.)
- 45% of TCKs attended three universities before attaining a degree.
- 44% earned undergraduate degree after the age of 22.
- Education, medicine, business management, self-employment, and highly-skilled positions are the most common professions for TCKs.
- TCKs are unlikely to work for big business, government, or follow their parents' career choices. "One won't find many TCKs in large corporations. Nor are there many in government ... they have not followed in parental footsteps".
- Existential migration
Existential migration is a concept derived from phenomenological research into the lives of voluntary migrants who have chosen to leave their country of origin in order to live as foreigners in a new land...
Homesickness is the distress or impairment caused by an actual or anticipated separation from the specific home environment or attachment objects....
- Identity crisis
"Identity crisis is the failure to achieve ego identity during adolescence." The term was coined by the psychologist Erik Erikson. The stage of psychosocial development in which identity crisis may occur is called the Identity Cohesion versus Role Confusion stage...
The term nostalgia describes a yearning for the past, often in idealized form.The word is a learned formation of a Greek compound, consisting of , meaning "returning home", a Homeric word, and , meaning "pain, ache"...
Jason Hershey , better known as O-Shen, is a reggae musician, born and raised in Papua New Guinea. O-Shen resides in Hawai'i but still goes to PNG...
, an example of a Third Culture Kid
- Social alienation
The term social alienation has many discipline-specific uses; Roberts notes how even within the social sciences, it “is used to refer both to a personal psychological state and to a type of social relationship”...