Santi D (trilingual) wrote,
Santi D

Third Culture Kids

Since learning about our next move, I've been thinking, again, about Third Culture Kids. Coincidently, I  had a chat with my friend Devina yesterday, who asked me to explain a bit about Third Culture Kids. If you click the tag Third Culture Kids on the right column, you will see I actually touched this subject several times, although never on the theory itself. I have much interest on TCK because my husband, our kids and myself are TCK.   Still, I have no background or experience in social/cross cultural studies.  I got infos merely from books, articles and my own experience, so if anyone finds error, please feel free to correct it.

Sydney Pollock says:
 "A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her development  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 similar background".

Bear with me, examples below will explain more  ... or so I hope ..


Jordi is an Indonesian born in Jakarta. At age 5 he relocated to Washington DC (USA) following his parents. He went to local kindergarten and elementary school. He learned to speak English in no time, enjoyed playing with his American friends and liked to exchange his lunch box with his classmates. He loved watching cartoons on TV, wearing costumes on Halloweens and celebrating Thanksgivings. Three years later they moved back to Indonesia. Jordy went through some painful adjustments at his new school in Jakarta but adapted himself pretty fast. Yet, he never totally fit-in with his friends and always got an idea to return 'home' to Washington. His three years exposure to American English was obvious as he had very good command in English and his friends said he got that slight 'foreign' or 'not Indonesian enough' attitudes. After Jordy got his bachelor degree, he won a scholarship to pursue a master degree in the US. He attended a university in Washington DC and  later worked in the same city. When people asked why he's so eager to stay, he would say that Washington is his second home after Jakarta.

Polly was born in Bangkok, both parents are Thais. From ages 0-18 she grew up in Bangkok, Manila (the Phillippines), Grenoble (France), and Alexandria (Egypt). Wherever they were living, her parents raised her with food, language, values and customs of Thais. However, very young Polly went to local and international schools and interact with local and other cultures. Her friends and classmates came from all over the world, she heard dozens of different languages, ate foods from different countries, spent holidays in even more countries, and learned math in more than one languages. All those infos were absorbed and forever stored in her brain. She grew up with cultures of her parents and of places she was living, which created her very own one called the third culture. Later on she grows up becoming adult TCK, living with the third culture all her life. Polly feels very much connected  to Bangkok, Manila, Grenoble and Alexandria, yet she never fits 100% in any. She experiences never ending homesickness to each country she has lived in and misses friends and nannies she left behind. Yet, it becomes very easy for her to make friends with everybody. Her exposures to many cultures enables her to see people disregarding their colors and nationalities.  Wherever she lives, she adapts easily as she's accustomed to settle down in new environments. Having casual friends are never difficult and others often see her as a good and tolerant person. However, Polly is lonely at the same time. She's frequently misunderstood by others. Her stories about growing up and living globally often overwhelm her listeners. It's hard for her to find somebody with the same lifestyle and way of thinking. She doesn't care in which country she lives in. For her feeling home is not about where, but it is about having relationship with others of similar backgrounds.


1. Cross-cultural experience affecst adults as well. Adults also feel unfit upon reentering to their passport countries. What's then the difference between TCK and expatriates?

TCK cross the cultures during their developmental years *ages 0-18* when their sense of identity, relationships with others and view of the world are still being formed. Assimilation to the local/other cultures are subconscious, natural, without any prejudice, just like their peers who grow up in one culture. The moving back and forth from one culture to another happens before they have completed their process of personal or cultural identity, therefore they treat every culture as their own. However, they can never quite fit in any culture because mixtures of those cultures  create their third culture. TCK can only fit well with another TCK, from whichever passport country.

Expatriates are adults who know they belong to a certain culture. When they first go to another culture as adults, they experience culture shock and need a period of  adjustment, but their value system, sense of identity and the establishment of core relationships with family and friends have already developed in the passport culture. When living in a foreign country, they observe and consciously learn the local culture. They might like or dislike what they see and choose to follow or avoid. While returning to their passport country, most likely expatriates will feel unfit because they have experienced and seen another way of living. Yet, as they are already rooted in their passport country's culture, their unfitness will disappear in time.

2. What are the benefits and challenges of TCK?

Expanded worldview vs. Confused Loyalties
Three-dimensional view of the world vs.  Painful view of reality
Cross-cultural enrichment vs. Ignorance of the passport culture
Cultural Chameleon: Adaptability vs. Lack of true cultural balance
Hidden Immigrants: Blending in vs. Defining the differences
Prejudice: less vs. more
Decisiveness: the importance of now vs. the delusion of choice
Relation to Authority: appreciative vs. mistrustful
Arrogance: real vs. perceive

*pointers quoted from David Pollock's books*

3. Where is home for TCK?

There is no definite answer for many TCK. They may have moved so many times, lived in so many different houses, attended many different shcools that they never had time to become attached to any.  At one point, they realize there is no home in geographical sense. For most TCK, home is defined by relationships.

Example, for Polly, although her passport country is Thailand, and currently lives in Saudi Arabia, home is Paris where her parents are currently posted because she goes 'home' to her parents' in Paris on holidays. For Coco, a married adult TCK, home is where he and his small family reside. Right now home is Budapest (Hongaria) where he and family live,  but next month they will move to Germany, his next home.

Many TCK develop a migratory instinct that controls their lives. They always have a good reason to move to another country. 

I should stop here. If there is still question, just pop it up and I will add to the FAQ. Again, I'm not an expert but will try to answer.

1. "Third Culture Kids, The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds". Author: David Pollock, Ruth van Reken. Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2001.
2.  "Third Culture Kids: A Special Case for Foreign Language Learning". Author: Tracey Tokuhama Espinosa. From book "The Multilingual Mind", Praeger Publishers, 2003.
3. "Raising Global Nomads: Parenting Abroad in an On Demand World". Author: Robin Pascoe. Expatriate Press Limited, 2006
4.  "Unrooted Childhoods: Memoirs of Growing Up Global". Editor: Faith Eidse and Nina Sichel. Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2004.
5.  "Letters Never Sent". Author: Ruth van Reken. David Cook Publishing, 1988.
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Tags: chicago, third culture kids
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