An Introduction to Third Culture Kids: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

by Tim Brantingham

At the invitation of Sherry Yuan Hunter here at Sandwich Parenting, I will be writing a semi-regular blog about the weird world of Third Culture Kids.  This introduction will be the longest entry—I promise!

If you have ever lived internationally, and especially if you have been associated with international schools, you will have no doubt heard the term TCK, or Third Culture Kid.  It is a term of great emotional appeal to those who claim it, because it explains rather neatly why people like myself—people who grew up between different cultures—feel like such nomadic oddballs in later life.

As a quick primer, the TCK, as defined by Ruth Useem, David Pollock, Ruth Van Reken and others, is a child of international mobility, following parents into another society or culture, and living for a period of time in a culture different from the family’s home culture. Think of an American diplomat’s daughter living in Beijing, or a Korean businessman’s son transplanted to Jakarta.  What “third culture” implies here is that these children do not end up fully belonging to either home or host culture but instead identify to a different interstitial culture–a third culture–that lies in between and is yet quite set apart.  

The conventional TCK literature is fairly unanimous in stating that TCKs have many globalized gifts: they are multilingual, culturally competent, cosmopolitan, and make friends easily.  At the same time they can be pretty emotionally lost in space as adults until their orbit bangs them into other people who have shared the same third culture experience.  TCK writers will say an Italian who spent young years in Nigeria will likely have more in common with a Canadian growing up in China than with people of their passport countries, or with Nigerians and Chinese in general.  Their mutual emotional home will be this third culture, and that culture will be based on the shared experiences (some wonderful, some painful) of living in and around different cultures–and it doesn’t matter much which cultures.

International schools play a large role in the TCK experience, and it can sometimes be hard conceptually to separate one from the other: that is, it can be hard to see where the TCK pupil ends and her international school environment begins. The type of international school attended, (or type of local school), and in what country context (developed or developing) can greatly shape the experience.  I mention this because when you read criticisms of the TCK phenomenon (as we shall) it is not so much criticism of the TCK himself, but of the international schools and/or expat communities from which TCKs spring.  Hopefully, this will make more sense as the entries progress.  

So, here’s the good.  If you are an expat living abroad and are wondering about the impact your migratory choices are having on your kids, or if you grew up on the move and wonder why you struggle with issues like belonging, the TCK literature is a helpful template to explore.  As a parent, you will read that your TCK will go to school with kids from many cultures and come out with an expansive worldview.  You will hear that TCKs can live and thrive anywhere in the world as adults, that colleges like them as students, and that international organizations love to hire them up.  You will say awesome, and high five your wife.  If you are the nomad child, the literature will helpfully illuminate the psychological effects of always saying goodbye and uprooting–whether it was you uprooting or the friends around you. It’s helpful to see where the emotional homelessness, the occasional depression, and the restlessness can come from.  

And if you self-identify as a TCK, as I do, there is tremendous comfort in knowing many others have shared this experience, and that there is a community you can seek out.  That’s probably the most helpful aspect of the TCK literature: it gives international kids a notional home to belong to when in actual life they may feel they don’t belong anywhere.  Where are you from?  I am a TCK.

But, of course, those feelings don’t belong exclusively to TCKs.  The children of immigrants, refugees, and other people of migration experience intercultural dissonance as well, yet somehow they are not considered TCKs. That leads me to some of the bad–or at least accusations of bad. And that is this: that the popular interpretation of TCKs tends to apply only to expats and their kids. Expats are generally a privileged group, have options (oh, where should we live next?), and live in environments where the cultural capital is Western-leaning (as international schools are generally Western leaning). The key criticism here is that financially sponsored expats have options: they can stay, move on, or go home: they can choose to engage the host culture, or they can choose to live only at the expat club if life outside the gates is uncomfortable. This unique cultural positioning can sometimes mean a non-committal, even condescending relationship to the host culture. Or put another way, the third culture experience can be seen as living in a bit of a rich kid’s travel bubble.  

If you take this further, you get to where the ugly is said to be. There are sociologists and educators who accuse some expat communities (and their international schools) of being neo-colonial structures, where “international education” means some kind of Anglo-American schooling, and TCKs might as well be restated to mean The New Colonial Kids. At these international schools, it is said, Euro-American kids tend to hold the most cultural capital, non-Euro-American kids hold less, and local students, even if from wealthy and elite families, can very often be way on the outside, despite physically residing in their home country.  Suffice it to say, these critics are not terribly sympathetic to TCKs and their travails, and go so far as to say identifying with a third culture comes mostly from a lack of interest in the host culture, and a rich kid’s sense of cosmopolitan superiority over the home culture.  Ouch!

My kids are the fourth generation of passport Americans to grow up outside of America. That includes yankee kids living in pre-Communist China, in British Raj/newly independent India, in pax-Americana Taiwan, in cosmo Hong Kong, and now in urban Tokyo. We have been sponsored by mission organizations, Western businesses, Asian businesses, and our own businesses; we have been through local schooling and expat schooling; and we have lived in local communities, in boarding communities, and sometimes we have been spotted in expat club swimming pools reading the rugby scores while sipping gins and tonic. In other words, there has been a huge range of experience, from quite local to quite colonial, and sometimes that full range is experienced within the course of one day.

The truth is my family, like most TCK families, possess a complex mixture of local love and expat exclusivity depending on the context, and there are many contexts to consider, from era, to employer, to spouse. There is good, bad and ugly present in all constituent ingredients.

After four generations in Asia, it is true no family member of mine has an Asian passport. At the same time no one plans to live in Ohio–ever! (No offense to my relatives in Ohio.) We admittedly are creating and recreating your own society from a large drop-down menu of options. We click on the fascinating people we meet, and we remain lifelong friends even as they disperse to literally everywhere in the world; we click on trying out new cities because there are so many good ones to experience, and some old nomad friends have already paved the way; we click on frontier opportunities regardless of where they pop up; our software naturally syncretizes very different philosophical points of view; our default setting is to root for Papua New Guinea at the Olympics–because someone has to.

At the end of the day, we have come to feel that no national identity fits quite right, and so we pick a little from them all… or none from any of them… wait, which is it?

I’m actually not sure. All I can say is that after four generations, my family continues to choose the third culture in between: that Amazon shopping cart of cultural identities.

Of course, Ruth Useem told us it would be so.

I look forward to hearing from you.

(Note: I did not cite references in this introduction but will in subsequent posts).

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3 thoughts on “An Introduction to Third Culture Kids: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

  1. Tim, thanks for your insightful comments. I look forward to future editions. Learning about TCKs helped me a lot – even though it was 20 years after repatriating to my passport country after 3 years in Taipei. It was an amazing experience but it was also hard, especially without the language and framework that Ruth Useem provided us. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, especially now that I can process it and have connected with many other TCKs, like yourself.

    PS I was TAS class of 1983. I think you and your siblings were a few years older.
    fka Bette Ann Molloy


    1. Hi Elizabeth, nice to hear from you and thanks for the comments. I was class of ’88. You may be thinking of my older siblings who were ’78, ’76, and ’74. (Yes, I was the ‘oops’ in the family.). The next article will be about the return home, so stay tuned.


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