A Third Culture Kid is someone who has spent a significant part of their developmental years living in a country other than their parents' country of origin.
Examples are immigrants, military kids, business kids (if they lived overseas for work), missionary kids, etc.
I grew up in Asia from 3 months old to 12 years old and have lived in the UK since then so I am a Third Culture Kid. It is a label I have found very helpful to understanding myself.
Why is this worth talking about?
TCKs have a lot in common with each other and often don't feel fully understood by non TCKs.
The first two cultures of a TCK are their parents' and that of their host country. They are able to navigate both often with great fluency but cannot completely identify with either.
The "Third" culture, which they are named after, is the shared culture of TCKs. TCKs who meet, say, only for a week long camp, will almost without exception bond very quickly over shared characteristics and experiences, even though they may have no country in common. This has certainly been my experience and research has also found it to be true.
What do they have in common?
TCKs have often experienced a lot of transition throughout their lives. For example, I have been to 6 schools as well as homeschooling in my life. For some TCKs this means they find it hard to really commit to relationships with people and settle in to a place because they have a constant fear that it will be torn away from them. This is a way of coping with the memory of painful and sudden moves that were out of their control as a child.
In my case, I don't allow myself to get attached to houses. After leaving the home I had age 6-12 we moved once every one to two years. I remember consciously deciding not to regard it as home. I refused to use the word home and thought of it as a temporary thing of use that I could discard as I wished. I kept a bag under my bed at all times with a camping stove and enough food for three days. It made me feel in control. Knowing I could leave the house at any time without looking back reassured me that there wasn't an attachment to it which could at any moment be ripped from me and hurt like it had hurt to move before.
There seems little harm in treating houses like that, a house doesn't care if I miss it. But I have to be wary of treating people like that. It is very easy, after having to leave all your best friends on the other side of the world, to prevent future pain by not making really close friends again.
For me though, friendships have proven worth that risk.
There are also positives gained from experiencing so much transition. TCKs tend to be very quick to adapt. Having to learn all the social rules that local people obey subconsciously purely by observation and getting it wrong gives TCKs cross cultural skills that are useful in business and travel.
For me, I am very quick to make deep friendships. I know that time is short and don't want to waste any of it on small talk.
TCKs are often more aware of world affairs than their peers in home countries. What their friends may have heard in distant news is to them a very present reality.
For me, moving from somewhere with very visible poverty to the UK where the standard of living is much higher, it was a big shock. I knew kids who had only one or two sets of clothes and people who went through the bins in the market to find vegetables that were still edible. It made me furious to learn that people here consider clothes shopping a hobby, buying because they're bored of their old clothes. Even issues of environment and child labour aside, it is such a unnecessary luxury.
It has taken me some time to learn to tame my emotional reaction to immediately judge them and instead gently explain the realities which have given me my perspective on money. Usually the problem is not a lack of compassion. They just haven't really understood poverty and what they can do to help.
-If you're a TCK: Read. "Third Culture Kids : Growing Up Between Worlds" by David C Pollock and Ruth Van Renken. I promise this is not sponsored. When I read the book I couldn't believe how much each page described me and helped me realise what coping mechanisms I have. It helped me understand why I am the way I am much better. And the author doesn't know me, they have just studied a lot of people like me. So I highly highly recommend reading it. I'm sure you'll find it on eBay cheap.
-If you know TCKs: hopefully this article has helped you understand them a bit more. Explain social norms (like what gifts people give on certain occasions) and let them know they can ask anything and you won't embarrass them. I am so grateful to friends that did this for me when I first moved. And friends who asked me about where I lived and listened to my stories of it. They made me feel like I belonged. And that is a very precious thing.
Teenagers With Experience is an organisation created to provide teenagers with a platform to share and help others from their own experiences while also educating others on different topics. We aim to provide a safe space to all teenagers around the world and support others. You can contact us via email, social media or our contact form found on our home page.