Friday, 16 July 2010

Third Culture Kids
and the problems of
multicultural integration

(from the Wikipedia entry for TCKs - July 2010)

Third Culture Kid or Trans-Culture Kid (abbreviated TCK or 3CK) is a term that "refers to someone who, as a child, has spent a significant period of time in one or more culture(s) other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture."[1] Third Culture Kids are also referred to as Global Nomads.
Since the term was coined by sociologist Ruth Hill Useem in the 1960s, TCKs have become a heavily studied global subculture. TCKs tend to have more in common with one another, regardless of nationality, than they do with non-TCKs from their own country.[2][3]
The composition of American TCK sponsors (i.e. the organization that sends the family abroad) changed greatly after World War II. Prior to 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 Superpowers, 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%).[4]

Origins and research

Sociologist Ruth Hill Useem coined the term "Third Culture Kids" after spending a year on two separate occasions in India with her three children (Michael, Howard, and Bert)[5] in the early 1950s. Initially the term "third culture" was used to refer to the process of learning how to relate to another culture; in time, the meaning of the term changed and children who accompany their parents into a different culture were referred to as "Third Culture Kids".[6][7] Useem used the term "Third Culture Kids" because TCKs integrate aspects of their birth culture (the first culture) and the new culture (the second culture), creating a unique "third culture".[7]
Sociologist David Pollock describes 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."[8] In order to be a TCK, one must accompany one's parents into a foreign culture. Entering another culture without one's parents, such as on a foreign exchange program, explicitly does not make one a TCK.[9]
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 the Michigan State University, where Dr. Useem taught for over 30 years.[10] Second, the U.S armed forces has sponsored significant research into the U.S. military brat experience.[10] 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 on adults may contain bias due to the difficulty in conducting epidemiological studies across broad-based population samples.
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."[3]


TCKs often come from highly successful, intact, educated families.[11] When a group (whether it is the military, a business, church, etc) decides to send somebody to a foreign country, they are making a significant investment. They want to send people who will represent the group 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.[12]
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 ex 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."[13] 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."[13]


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.


Military brats, primarily from the United States, are the most mobile of TCKs but generally spend only a few years abroad, and sometimes none at all. Approximately 41% of military brats spend less than 5 years in foreign countries. They are the least likely TCKs to develop connections with the locals.[14] Because military bases aim for self-sufficiency, military brats tend to be exposed the least to the local culture.[15] Also, because of the self-sufficiency of military bases and the distinctiveness of military culture, even those military brats who never lived abroad can be isolated to some degree from the civilian culture 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.[4]

Non-military government

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 (seeForeign Service Brat) while others may live their lives near military bases.[14]


Missionary Kids (MKs) typically spend the most time overseas in one country. 85% of MKs spend more than 10 years in foreign countries and 72% lived in only one foreign country. MKs generally have the most interaction with the local populace and the least interaction with people from their passport country. They are the most likely to integrate themselves into the local culture.[14] 83% of missionary kids have at least one parent with an advanced degree.[4]


Business families also spend a great deal of time in foreign countries. 63% of business TCK's 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.[14] Many of these "business" families are from oil companies, particularly in the Arab world and in Latin America.


The "Other" category includes anybody who does not fit one the above descriptions. They include children of workers at intergovernmental agencies and international non-governmental organizations, educators (e.g., Steve Kerr), media, professional athletes (e.g., Kobe Bryant and Wally Szczerbiak), etc.[16] 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.[14] The children of Other can also mean living in an area with a certain ethnic majority other than your own, i.e. an Americanized Filipino living in a Korean-American neighborhood.
The parents of "Others" are the most likely of TCKs to have parents with an advanced degree (89% of families have an advanced degree.)[17]

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.[18] This is largely because most international schools use the English language as the norm.[18]
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, and 'International Schools' which often follow one of the three International Baccalaureate programs. These will be populated by expatriates' 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 than U.S. TCKs.[19] 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.[3]
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.[3] The exteriors may be the same, but that the understanding of the world around them differs.[15] 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, 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.[20]

Intercultural experiences

TCKs are often multilingual and highly accepting of other cultures. Moving from country to country often becomes an easy thing for these individuals.
Many TCKs take years to readjust to their passport countries. They often suffer a reverse culture shock upon their return, and are constantly homesick 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 or she is a citizen of a country but with nothing beyond their passport to define that identification for them. They 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 longterm, in-depth relationships. There is 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. TCKs can 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.

Third culture kid as a term

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 TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK's life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of the same background."[8]
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, TCKs actually live in different cultural worlds. By mobility, they mean 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 other immigrants by the fact that TCKs do not expect to settle down permanently in the places where they live.
TCKs 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. TCKs 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 TCKs relate to the world around them, and makes TCKs' thought processes different even from members of cultures they have deep-level access to, a phenomenon known as cultural jet lag. 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, TCKs 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. Some may feel very nationalistic toward one country, while others call themselves global citizens.

Career decisions

Type of Work[21]MissionaryMilitaryGovernmentBusinessOther
Support (Secretarial/Technical)17%27%15%16%13%
Work Setting [22]MissionaryMilitaryGovernmentBusinessOther
Health/Social Services24%7%13%23%13%
Self Employed11%14%14%14%14%
Non-Medical Prossional3%6%12%11%10%


There are different characteristics that impact the typical American Third Culture Kid:[1][13][23][24]
Education and Career
  • TCKs are 4 times as likely as non-TCKs to earn a bachelor's degree (81% vs 21%)[25]
  • 40% earn an advanced degree (as compared to 5% of the non-TCK population.)[26]
  • 45% of TCKs attended 3 universities before earning a degree.[26]
  • 44% earned undergraduate degree after the age of 22.[26]
  • Educators, medicine, professional positions, and self employment are the most common professions for TCKs.[26]
  • 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".[26]
Social and Emotional
  • 90% feel "out of sync" with their peers.[27]
  • 90% report feeling as if they understand other cultures/peoples better than the average American.[28]
  • 80% believe they can get along with anybody.[28]
  • Divorce rates among TCKs are lower than the general population, but they marry older (25+).[26][29]

    • Military brats, however, tend to marry earlier.
  • Linguistically adept (not as true for military ATCKs.)[26]

    • 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.[30]
  • Teenage TCKs are more mature than non-TCKs, but ironically take longer to "grow up" in their 20s.[27]
  • More welcoming of others into their community.[24]
  • Lack a sense of "where home is" but often nationalistic.[24][28]
  • Some studies show a desire to "settle down" others a "restlessness to move".
  • Repatriation directly and negatively affects a TCK's sense of identity and psychological well-being.[31]
  • Depression and suicide are more prominent among TCKs. [27]

Notable third culture kids

In fiction

See also


  1. a b ACCORDING TO MY PASSPORT, I’M COMING HOME, by Kay Branaman Eakin
  2. ^ Eakin, p 18
  3. a b c d Hymlo (2002) p 196
  4. a b c Cottrell (2002) p 230
  5. ^ [1], Ruth Useem's obituary in Footnotes, December 2003. Retrieved 2010-01-18.
  6. ^ "Third Culture Kids: Focus of Major Study -- TCK "mother" pens history of field"
  7. a b Pollock DC and Van Reken R (2001) p. 20
  8. a b Pollock DC and Van Reken R (2001) p. 19
  9. ^ Pearce (2002) p 166
  10. a b Ender (2002) p XXV.
  11. ^ Pearce (2002) p 169
  12. ^ Pearce (2002) p 170.
  13. a b c McCaig, Norma (1994). Growing up with a world view - nomad children develop multicultural skillsForeign Service Journal, pp. 32-41.
  14. a b c d e Cotrell (2002) p 231
  15. a b Pearce (2002) p 157
  16. ^ Jordan (2002) p 227.
  17. ^ Cotrell (2002) p 233-234. In the study, military dependents were the "most representative of the United States population." Over all 80% of TCK families had at least one parent with a BA. 46% of TCK families the father had an advanced degree and 18% of the families the mother had one. p 234.
  18. a b Pearce (2002) p 168.
  19. ^ Hymlo (2002) p 201
  20. ^ Kano Podolsky, Momo (2004-01-31). "Crosscultural upbringing: A comparison of the "Third Culture Kids" framekwork and "Kaigai/Kikokushijo" studies" (PDF). Gendai Shakai KenkyĆ« 6: 67–78. Retrieved 2007-11-08.
  21. ^ Cotrell (2002) p237
  22. ^ Cotrell (2002) p238
  23. ^ Useem RH (2001). Third Culture Kids: Focus of Major StudyInternational Schools Services.
  24. a b c Lewis L. Third Culture Kids.
  25. ^ Cottrell AB, Useem RH (1993). TCKs Four Times More Likely to Earn Bachelor’s DegreesInternational Schools Services, 7(5).
  26. a b c d e f g Cottrell AB, Useem RH (1994). TCKs maintain global dimensions throughout their livesInternational Schools Services, 8(4).
  27. a b c Cottrell AB, Useem RH (1993). TCKs Experience Prolonged AdolescenceInternational Schools Services, 8(1).
  28. a b c Cottrell AB, Useem RH (1993).ATCKs have problems relating to their own ethnic groupsInternational Schools Services, 8(2).
  29. ^ Jordan (2002) p223
  30. ^ Ender, Morten, "Growing up in the Military" in Strangers at Home: Essays on the effects of living overseas and Coming 'home' to a strange land. Edited Carolyn Smith, Alethia Publications: New York. 1996. p88-90
  31. ^ Plamondon, Laila (2008). Third Culture Kids: Factors that Predict Psychological Health after Repatriation. Honors Thesis, Smith College.
  32. ^ Rudyard Kipling, Something Of Myself, 1937. Chapter 1

Further reading

  • Blair, Admiral Dennis, Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command. "The Military Culture as an Exemplar of American Qualities" Prepared for Supporting the Military Child Annual Conference, Westin Horton Plaza Hotel, San Diego, California, (July 19, 2000). Retrieved December 3, 2006.
  • Britten, Samuel (November 30, 1998) “TCK World: A Comparison of Different "Versions" Of TCKs” Third Culture Kid World. Retrieved December 3, 2006
  • Cottrell, Ann and Ruth Hill Useem (1993). TCKs Experience Prolonged AdolescenceInternational Schools Services, 8(1) Accessed January 5, 2007.
  • Cottrell, Ann (2002) "Educational and Occupational Choices of American Adult Third Culture Kids" In Morton Ender, “Military Brats and Other Global Nomads.”
  • Eakin Kay. Understanding Third Culture KidsRelocation Journal & Real Estate News.
  • Eakin, Kay (1996). "You can't go 'Home' Again" in Strangers at Home: Essays on the effects of living overseas and Coming 'home' to a strange land. Edited Carolyn Smith, Alethia Publications: New York. 1996
  • Eakin, Kay (undated). “ACCORDING TO MY PASSPORT, I’M COMING HOME.” (PDF) U.S. Department of State. Retrieved December 3, 2006.
  • Ender, Morten, "Growing up in the Military" in Strangers at Home: Essays on the effects of living overseas and Coming 'home' to a strange land. Edited Carolyn Smith, Alethia Publications: New York. 1996
  • Ender, Morton (2002) "Beyond Adolescence: The Experiences of Adult Children of Military Parents" In Morton Ender, “Military Brats and Other Global Nomads,” Portland:Greenwood Publishing Group 2002
  • Graham, Cork (2004) "The Bamboo Chest: An Adventure in Healing the Trauma of War" DPP 2004
  • Hess DJ (1994). The Whole World Guide to Culture Learning. Intercultural Press, Yarmouth, ME.
  • Hervey, Emily (2009). "Cultural Transitions During Childhood and Adjustment to College"
  • Hymlo, Annika (2002). "Other" Expatriate Adolescents: A Postmodern Approach to Understanding Expatriate Adolescents among non-U.S. Children. in Morton Ender, “Military Brats and Other Global Nomads”
  • Jordan, Kathleen Finn (2002). "Identity Formation and the Adult Third Culture Kid " In Morton Ender, “Military Brats and Other Global Nomads.”
  • Kalb R and Welch P (1992). Moving Your Family Overseas. Intercultural Press, Yarmouth, ME.
  • Kelley, Michelle (2002). “The Effects of Deployment on Traditional and Nontraditional Military Families: Navy Mothers and Their Children” in Morton Ender, “Military Brats and Other Global Nomads”
  • Kidd, Julie and Linda Lankenau (Undated) “Third Culture Kids: Returning to their Passport Country.” US Department of State. Retrieved December 3, 2006.
  • Kohls RL (1996). Survival Kit for Overseas Living. Intercultural Press, Yarmouth, ME.
  • Morten G. Ender, ed. (2002). Military Brats and Other Global Nomads: Growing Up in Organization Families, Westport, Connecticut: Praeger. ISBN 0-275-97266-6
  • Pascoe R (1993). Culture Shock: Successful Living Abroad. Graphic Arts, Portland, OR.
  • Pearce, (2002). Children's International Relocation and the Development Process. in Morton Ender, “Military Brats and Other Global Nomads”
  • Plamondon, Laila. (2008). Third Culture Kids: Factors that Predict Psychological Health after Repatriation. Honors Thesis, Smith College.
  • Pollock DC and Van Reken R (2001). Third Culture Kids. Nicholas Brealey Publishing/Intercultural Press. Yarmouth, Maine. ISBN 1-85788-295-4.
  • Price, Phoebe. (2002). “Behavior of Civilian and Military High School Students in Movie Theaters.” In Morton Ender, “Military Brats and Other Global Nomads.”
  • Reken, Ruth (1996). Religious Culture Shock. in Carolyn Smith "STrangers at Home: Essays on The effects of Living Overseas amd Coming Home/"
  • Reken, Ruth and Paulette Bethel, Third Culture Kids: Prototypes for Understanding Other Cross-Cultural Kids Retrieved December 3, 2006.
  • Seelye HN, Wasilewski JH (1996). Between Cultures: Developing Self-Identity in a World of Diversity. McGraw-Hill Companies. ISBN 0-8442-3305-6.
  • Shames GW (1997). Transcultural Odysseys: The Evolving Global Consciousness. Intercultural Press, Yarmouth, ME.
  • Stalnaker, Stan (2002) "Hub Culture: The Next Wave of Urban Consumers." Wiley. ISBN-10: 0470820721 ISBN-13: 978-0470820728
  • Storti C (1997). The Art of Coming Home. Intercultural Press, Yarmouth, ME.
  • Smith, Carolyn (ed) (1996). World Citizens and "Rubberband Nationals" in Carolyn Smith Strangers at Home: Essays on the Effects of Living Overseas and Coming 'Home' to a Strange Land, New York: Aletheia Publications. ISBN 0-9639260-4-7
  • Tyler, Mary (2002). “The Military Teenager in Europe: Perspectives for Health care Providers.” In Morton Ender, “Military Brats and Other Global Nomads,”
  • Useem, Ruth et al. (undated) “Third Culture Kids: Focus of Major Study”. International Schools Services. Retrieved December 3, 2006.
  • Van Reken, Ruth and Bethel, Paulette M. “’Third Culture Kids: Prototypes for Understanding Other Cross-Cultural Kids”. Retrieved December 3, 2006.
  • Wertsch, Mary Edwards (1991). Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress, New York, New York: Harmony Books. ISBN 0-517-58400-X
  • Williams, Karen and LisaMarie Mariglia, (2002) “Military Brats: Issues and Associations in Adulthood“ in Morton Ender “Military Brats and Other Global Nomads

External links