Third Culture Kids – Citizens of the World or Somewhere in Between?

They have been coined as Third Culture Kids: children and youth with a high mobility lifestyle. Who are these global nomads and what challenges do they face?

Deutsche Version des Artikels

(© Desiree Nicole Wolfsgruber)

Early in the 1960s, sociologists/anthropologists Ruth Hill Useem and her husband John Useem conducted a year of ethnographic research on American expatriate families living and working in India, predominantly as Foreign Service officers, missionaries, technological specialists, businessmen, educators, and journalists. The couple discovered that the children accompanying their parents abroad showed a bewildering attitude –consenting their differences compared to local children, confusion stemming from not knowing where "home" lies and finding it difficult to fit in once back in the U.S. The children found comfort and validation in the "third culture", the way of life they shared with individuals from different groups undergoing the same life experience of geographical displacement, having to live outside their country of origin; and facing the need to communicate across cultural boundaries. The Useems coined them as "third culture kids" (TCKs), as the children who accompanied their parents into other societies, had in some ways internalised norms and values of three different types of cultures simultaneously: the culture of their country of origin (called their "passport country"), any and all countries where they had lived, and the global trans- and interstitial-culture, namely the "third culture", in which they had become competent.


What is Culture?

There is no common definition of the term culture. In their research on TCKs, scholars David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, well-known for their international bestseller "Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds", make reference to Paul Hiebert's definition of culture and define it as "a system of shared concepts, beliefs, and values" that provides "the framework from which we interpret and make sense of life and the world around us". They agree with Hiebert that culture "is learned rather than instinctive – something caught from, as well as taught by, the surrounding environment and passed on from one generation to the next" (p. 41).

Becoming Third Culture Kids

The described experiences of expatriate families in India are in fact observed around the world. Parents of TCKs take on overseas assignments for career advancement, better remuneration and other benefits, even though the destination might not always have been desirable. The sponsoring organizations, including the major multinational industries, foreign affairs, military, missionary office, are relevant to the creation of TCKs. The length of overseas assignments vary according to the discretion of the sponsoring organization. Most TCK families enjoy some kind of relocation assistance provided by the sponsoring organisation, such as a basic language training, moving of personal goods, and assistance for making living arrangements and schooling for the children. The TCK families have diverse living arrangements. The petrochemical and manufacturing facilities are often located in rural areas, with a living compound provided for employees that are close to work, but removed from the local community. Similarly, military personnel live within a compound overseas, which is built to replicate the living conditions of the military back home. The TCKs thus grow up together with other TCKs living within the premises, removed from the local communities. The TCKs focus on life in their communities, as opposed to interacting with locals to learn the host culture and its day-to-day practices.

The families of TCKs who are permitted to choose their own living arrangements often end up living within expatriate communities, close to international schools, which are convenient for their daily lives, especially if young children are involved. Most TCKs go to international schools as these schools cater to the needs of expatriate families in terms of language (most international schools offer English as the first or second language) and ensure international accreditation. Alternatively, some families leave their children with relatives in the country of origin, or send them to boarding schools if they are dissatisfied with the education system in the host country and a suitable international school is unavailable.

The self-initiated, expatriate families of TCKs benefit from rapid development in technology, communication and transportation, seeking improvement of their quality of life outside their passport country. These families proactively seek aids and support in their transition to move overseas, in particular with the expatriate community, and if time permits, learn the local culture and language. Most of them pay great attention to the well-being of all family members; which includes adhering to immigration clearance for their spouse and children, ensuring options for their spouse to pursue a career or other interests, as well as scheduling their relocation at the end of school year to minimize disruption in the academic calendar. [1]

Challenges of a Mobile Lifestyle

With more research on high mobility populations, the benefits and challenges of a globe-trotting lifestyle are being identified and awareness of the TCK phenomenon is raised. [2] The TCKs are claimed to be future world leaders, as they possess a high level of cross-cultural understanding and adaptability, multilingualism, and tolerance of diversity, which are key characteristics of a leader in multinational companies. However, the notion of maturity and cultural savvy of TCKs might be overrated, as the TCKs may know the daily and common practices of many cultures, but without necessarily having internalised any one culture. Depending on the length of stay and living arrangements in the host country, the TCKs may or may not pick up local practices, languages and behaviours that may ease their interaction with locals. TCKs learn to be "cultural chameleons", who have sufficient know-how to act in accordance with the dominant culture.

The most drastic experience in moving to a new place is to lose touch with the people closest to us. The life disruptions experienced by TCKs in their adolescence – the stage in life that psychologists describe as a crucial period in finding one’s identity – most likely affect their social relationships later in their adult life. The losses (such as friends, familiar routines and places, pets, and possessions), may result in unresolved grief that makes it difficult for TCKs to define their identity. In particular, this holds true for existential losses [3] that are linked to losing certainty about who we think we are . Family become the only constant and prominent social figures throughout the series of geographical displacements during their developmental years. Thus, it is crucial for parents of TCKs to maintain a strong bond within the family. TCKs find less stability in relationships with their peers and society since they are constantly changing. The lack of depth in social relationships with peers affects the development of intimacy, social connectedness and causes confusion for TCKs in staying committed to social relationships.

In short, growing up living in a "temporary mode", TCKs often have to leave tasks unfinished or are unexpectedly left by close friends. In their adult years, these commitment uncertainties become apparent. TCKs are reported to change their major more than once while attending university; to experience higher rates of unsuccessful marriages; to struggle committing to a career, changing jobs frequently; and to develop a wanderlust. [4] TCKs may be annoyed – and this may be a source of insecurity – because they are never able to respond in any coherent manner to the question of “where do you come from?” or “where do you belong?” Although the place of birth or the passport country might serve as tangible indicators of their ancestry, the TCKs may never establish a feeling of attachment to that country. After repatriating, the passport country may even be perceived as the least desirable place to live due to reverse culture shock and other adjustment challenges faced by TCKs and their parents.

In our globalized world, people are constantly in negotiation with culture through, for example, intercultural marriage, migration, and mobility. The world is constantly changing, with burgeoning multicultural cities that cater to the needs and lifestyle of TCKs. It is therefore likely that the number of people who share the experience of constantly being uprooted, having people come and go, meeting and saying goodbye to people from many cultures, not knowing when and where to go next will continue to grow and with it the phenomenon of TCKs.


Cottrell, A. B. (2002). 'Educational and occupational choices of American adult third culture kids'. Ender, Morten G. (ed.). Military brats and other global nomads: Growing up in organization families, pp. 229-254.

Gilbert, Kathleen R. (2008). 'Loss and grief between and among cultures: The experience of Third Culture Kids'. Illness, Crisis & Loss, Vol. 6, Issue 2, pp. 93-109, https://doi.org/10.2190/IL.16.2.a (accessed: 6-4-2018).

Jokinen, Tiina/Brewster, Chris/Suutari, Vesa (2008). 'Career capital during international work experiences: contrasting self-initiated expatriate experiences and assigned expatriation'. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, Vol. 19, Issue 6, pp. 979-998, https://doi.org/10.1080/09585190802051279 (accessed: 6-4-2018).

Peltrokorpi, Vesa/Froese, Fabian J. (2009). 'Organizational expatriates and self-initiated expatriates: who adjusts better to work and life in Japan?' International Journal of Human Resource Management, Vol. 20, Issue 5, pp. 1096-1112, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09585190902850299 (accessed: 6-4-2018).

Pollock, David C./Van Reken, Ruth E. (2017): Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds. 3rd edition. London/Boston 2017.

Further Readings

Bell-Vilada, G. H./Sichel, N./Eidse, F./Orr, E. N (eds.) (2011). Writing out of limbo: International childhoods, global nomads and third culture kids. Newcastle upon Tyne.

Lijadi, Anastasia A./Van Schalkwyk, Gertina J. (2017). 'Place identity construction of Third Culture Kids: Eliciting voices of children with high mobility lifestyle'. Geoforum, Vol. 81, pp. 120-128, https://www.sciencedirect.com/ (accessed: 6-4-2018).

Deutsche Version des Artikels

This article is part of the policy brief on Child and Youth Migration.


See the findings about adjustment among self-initiated expatriates in Japan by Peltokorpi & Froese (2009) and in Finland by Jokinen, Brewster & Suutari (2008).
See the seminal work of Pollock & Van Reken, 1999 and latest 3rd edition in 2017, among others empirical studies.
Gilbert (2008) explored the loss and grief experienced by TCKs, and claimed that existential losses (loosing social status, social recognition, social acceptance) are the hardest to cope with.
Based on the work of Cottrell (2002) with 600 TCKs.

Anastasia Aldelina Lijadi

Anastasia Aldelina Lijadi

Anastasia Aldelina Lijadi is a Research Scholar with the World Population Program (POP) at the Wittgenstein Centre, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (www.iiasa.ac.at), Vienna, Austria. Her doctoral thesis on the place identity construction of Third Culture Kids won the top ATLAS TI 2015 award for PhD level for qualitative research.

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