By Zoe Krueger Weisel
Despite growing up the child of two adult TCKs, being raised bilingual, and holding multiple citizenships, by strict definition of the term I am not a third culture kid. I was lucky enough to grow up in a stable environment. I was able to spend my childhood, attend local schools, and make friends in one single place—a place where my parents still live today and which I can confidently call home. Nevertheless, like many other people with cross-cultural background, I relate to TCK research. When considering that TCK research provides a prototype in understanding other cross-cultural kids (Bonebright 2009), it comes as no surprise that we CCKS may struggle with our sense of identity and belonging in similar ways to TCKs.
With this in mind, sociologist Ruth Van Reken coined the term cross-cultural kid (CCK) in 2002 as someone who has lived, is living, or has meaningfully interacted with more than one culture while growing up (Pollock et al. 2017). Expanding the term to cover all kinds of groups of international children (including TCKs) would give “a clearer vision of the growing complexity many children face as they try to define their own identities and sense of belonging” (Van Reken and Bethel 2005).
Still, the TCK experience remains unique, which is why it is important to understand what makes third culture kids distinct from other cross-cultural subgroups. In Third Culture Kids. Growing Up Among Worlds, the authors explain that there are four key factors that play into being a TCK. The first, expected repatriation, means that unlike other CCKs, children growing up in the Third Culture are eventually expected to return “back” to their home or passport country. This may be determined by their parents’ career or may happen once TCKs become adults who return home for higher educational or career purposes.
The second factor, distinct differences, refers to the fact that “whether or not they blend in by appearance, TCKs often have a substantially different perspective on the world than their local peers simply because their life experiences have been different” (Pollock et al. 2017). No matter where TCKs live or what environment they are in, they will always be distinctly different from the people surrounding them, even if not obvious at first glance. Since TCKs grow up in between cultures in a way that almost no one else around them does, every TCK’s experience in itself is a unique one. Even though TCKs often externally fit the mold and do not immediately stand out as foreigners, they may internally feel different from the people surrounding them, just like a traditional immigrant would. This is where the term hidden immigrant becomes relevant, as it describes a TCK as someone who “looks like those in the dominant surrounding culture but thinks quite differently” (Van Reken and Bethel 2005).
The fact that the families of TCKs usually move by choice, motivated by better career and job opportunities, leads us to the third point, which is a privileged lifestyle. This goes back to research conducted by the creator of the TCK term herself, Ruth Hill Useem, who found that Americans living in India enjoyed “higher prestige and status than they do at home” (1963). Many different perks stem from the Third Culture way of life, with the first being that TCKs get to experience travel and explore the world at a much younger age than their peers. They are also granted privileges by the family’s sponsoring organization, such as purchasing food from a commissary on a military base, or having a chauffeur to drive them to school (Pollock et al. 2017). Educational and financial advantages are usually related to the Third Culture experience and TCKs generally tend to belong to higher social classes than their peers both in their home and host countries, outside of the Third Culture.
The fourth and last factor distinguishing TCKs from other CCKs is their system identity, which determines how much a TCK tends to identify with the system, or institution, in which their expat parent works. According to research “[i]n the third culture sponsor can define you as much as nationality” (Cottrell 2007). When it comes to system identity, it is important to understand that TCKs and spouses who accompany their significant other abroad are oftentimes classified as “dependents” by the organization with which the family is living abroad. Since they have both a dependency as well as a foreigner status within their host countries “[spouses], children and the family collectively have representational roles” (Useem 1966). Although system identity among TCKs may not be as prevalent nowadays as it once was, especially in the cases of military and missionary TCKs, a strong link between system and personal identity tends to persist. System identity is even said to be “one of their primary identities” (Pollock et al. 2017).
Although these four facts distinguish TCKs from other subgroups of CCKs, at the end of the day, all of us with international or cross-cultural background belong to one big group: we are all cross-cultural kids. Understanding this and having a name for our lived experiences has helped me immensely in navigating my own feelings of identity and belonging. It explains why I relate to TCK research and tend to feel understood by TCKs and other CCKs. Despite our differences, it’s the similarities that unite us.
Bonebright, D. A. (2010). Adult third culture kids: HRD challenges and opportunities. Human Resource Development International, 13(3), 351-359.
Cottrell, A. B. (2007). TCKs and Other Cross-Cultural Kids. Kazoku Syakaigaku Kenkyu, 18(2), 54–65. https://doi.org/10.4234/jjoffamilysociology.18.2_54
Pollock, D. C., Van Reken, R. E., & Pollock M. V. (2017). Third Culture Kids. Growing Up Among Worlds. 3rd Ed. Nicholas Brealey Publishing. Boston.
Useem, J., Useem, R., & Donoghue, J. (1963). “Men in the Middle of the Third Culture: The Roles of American and Non-Western People in Cross-Cultural Administration.” Human Organization, 22(3), 169–179. https://doi.org/10.17730/humo.22.3.5470n44338kk6733
Useem, R. (1966). “The American Family in India.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 368, 132-145. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1036927
Van Reken, R., & Bethel, P. M. (2005). Third-culture kids: Prototypes for understanding other cross-cultural kids.
Zoe Krueger Weisel is a German-American-Italian researcher at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy. She was born and raised in Germany, but has lived in both the US and Italy since starting university. She has always had a particular research interest in the Third Culture experience due to her own military Third Culture background.