The Third Culture Kid

I’m what some would refer to as a TCK – a Third Culture Kid. By definition, a TCK is “a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture,” according to American sociologist David C. Pollock. Years ago, the term “TCK” was used to refer mostly to children of military members who were stationed abroad, but these days the term is much more common given the increased amount of traveling and international work that people do in addition to the increased number of mixed marriages. The term was originally coined by sociologist Ruth Useem, who spent a significant amount of time with her children in India back in the early fifties. Useem came up with the name because TCKs combine aspects of the first culture (their birth culture) with the second culture (the new culture they are living in), which results in a third culture.

TCKs come from a variety of backgrounds: some are children of the military while others are children of missionaries. Others are children of diplomats, ambassadors and other positions that require extensive travel. In my case, I was none of the above. My father is a linguist and a professor who travels the world teaching and studying languages, so as a result of his career, I had lived in six different countries by the time I was nine years old.

Some general characteristics of TCKs include being multilingual (and having the ability to learn languages more easily) as well as being highly accepting of other cultures and more welcoming to others. Many lack a sense of where their home is and find it hard to identify with one particular culture or country, in addition to having trouble getting in sync with their peers (which was an issue that I dealt with when I returned to the United States as a kid).

Some other interesting facts about TCKs that according to include:

–       45% of TCKs attend 3 universities before earning a degree.

–       90% report feeling that they understand other cultures and people better than the average American.

–       Divorce rates among TCKs are lower than the general population, but they tend to marry when they are older (25+).

–       Teenage TCKs are more mature than their non-TCK peers, but ironically take longer to “grow up” in their 20s.

–       Educators, medicine, professional positions and self employment are the most common professions for TCKs.

There are many famous people who happen to be TCKs as well. President Barack Obama is one example – he was born in Hawaii and grew up in Chicago and Indonesia. Other famous TCKs include actor Scott Foley, novelist Mohsin Hamid, US politician John Kerry and Yoko Ono, to name a few.

Growing up abroad was both a challenge and a reward. It was difficult constantly being the “new kid” and not being able to form any true roots until later in life, but at the same time, the opportunity taught me much about independence and culture. I have friends all over the world and feel like I see others through a unique lens that could only be gained through travel and my personal experience. And I wouldn’t trade being a TCK for anything else in the world.

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