What is a Third Culture Kid?
“A third culture kid is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture.”
“TCKs are the prototype citizens of the future.”
-Ted Ward, sociologist, 1984
- “Where are you from?” has more than one reasonable answer.
- You’ve said that you’re from foreign country X, and (if you live in America) your audience has asked you which US state X is in.
- You flew before you could walk.
- You speak two languages, but can’t spell in either.
- You feel odd being in the ethnic majority.
- You have three passports.
- You have a passport but no driver’s license.
- You go into culture shock upon returning to your “home” country.
- Your life story uses the phrase “Then we moved to…” three (or four, or five…) times.
- You wince when people mispronounce foreign words.
- You don’t know whether to write the date as day/month/year, month/day/year, or some variation thereof.
- The best word for something is the word you learned first, regardless of the language.
- You get confused because US money isn’t colour-coded.
- You think VISA is a document that’s stamped in your passport, not a plastic card you carry in your wallet.
- You own personal appliances with 3 types of plugs, know the difference between 110 and 220 volts, 50 and 60 cycle current, and realize that a trasnsformer isn’t always enough to make your appliances work.
- You fried a number of appliances during the learning process.
- You think the Pledge of Allegiance might possibly begin with “Four-score and seven years ago…”
- Half of your phone calls are unintelligible to those around you.
- You believe vehemently that football is played with a round, spotted ball.
- You consider a city 500 miles away “very close.”
- You get homesick reading National Geographic.
- You cruise the Internet looking for fonts that can support foreign alphabets.
- You think in the metric system and Celsius.
- You may have learned to think in feet and miles as well, after a few years of living (and driving) in the US. (But not Fahrenheit. You will *never* learn to think in Fahrenheit).
- You haggle with the checkout clerk for a lower price.
- Your minor is a foreign language you already speak.
- When asked a question in a certain language, you’ve absentmindedly respond in a different one.
- You miss the subtitles when you see the latest movie.
- You’ve gotten out of school because of monsoons, bomb threats, and/or popular demonstrations.
- You speak with authority on the subject of airline travel.
- You have frequent flyer accounts on multiple airlines.
- You constantly want to use said frequent flyer accounts to travel to new places.
- You know how to pack.
- You have the urge to move to a new country every couple of years.
- The thought of sending your (hypothetical) kids to public school scares you, while the thought of letting them fly alone doesn’t at all.
- You think that high school reunions are all but impossible.
- You have friends from 29 different countries.
- You sort your friends by continent.
- You have a time zone map next to your telephone.
- You realize what a small world it is, after all.
Sociologist Ruth Hill Useem coined the term “Third Culture Kids” after spending a year on two separate occasions in India with her
three children, in the early fifties. Initially they used the term “third culture” to refer to the process of learning how to relate
to another culture; in time they started to refer to children who accompany their parents into a different culture as “Third Culture
Kids.” 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”
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. Because military bases aim for self-sufficiency, military brats tend to be exposed the
least to the local culture. 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.
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 while others may live their lives near military bases.
Religious / Missionary Kids
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. 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 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.
The “Other” category includes anybody who does not fit one the above descriptions. They include: intergovernmental agencies, educators, international non-governmental organizations, media, etc. 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. The parents of “Others” are the most likely of TCKs to have parents with an advanced degree (89% of families have an advanced degree.)
There are different characteristics that impact the typical Third Culture Kid:
- 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 3 universities before earning a degree.
- 44% earned undergraduate degree after the age of 22.
- Educators, medicine, professional positions, and self employment 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”.
- 90% feel “out of sync” with their peers.
- 90% report feeling as if they understand other cultures/peoples better than the average American.
- 80% believe they can get along with anybody.
- Divorce rates among TCKs are lower than the general population, but they marry older (25+).
- Military brats, however, tend to marry earlier.
- Linguistically adept (not as true for military ATCKs.)
- 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.
- Teenage TCKs are more mature than non-TCKs, but ironically take longer to “grow up” in their 20s.
- More welcoming of others into their community.
- Lack a sense of “where home is” but often nationalistic.
- Depression and suicide are more prominent among TCK’s.
- Some studies show a desire to “settle down” others a “restlessness to move”.