Third Culture Kids: Love, Loss And Learning When You’re Culturally In Between

When you’re not exactly a member of your parents’ culture (but not exactly a member of the local culture where you live), your relationship to yourself — and to the entire world — is different.
child riding on the back of a bicycle

We talk about the benefits of being globally savvy all the time, but there can also be a sense of sadness and uncertainty around belonging both everywhere and nowhere at the same time. For third culture kids — people who spent their formative years moving from country to country — there is often both an expansive quality to the relationships and experiences they amass in their youth, as well as a lot of existential tension that others don’t generally have to wrestle with.

The term “third culture kid” was originally coined by American sociologists Ruth Hill Useem and John Useem when they were studying the families of missionaries, business-people and foreign service officers in the 1950s. The “third” culture referred to in the term is the one comprising other expatriates and global nomads; it’s a culture that lies just outside of the one their parents grew up in, as well as the local culture of the land they may currently call home.

On one hand, this cultural fluidity makes third culture kids extremely adaptable and capable of accommodating multiple world views. Their own perspectives on the world are often a blend of multiple sets of cultural values and philosophies, and many of them have a sharply cultivated sense of independence, social intelligence and resilience.

But the psychological implications of being a third culture kid also often involve a sense of rootlessness and an absence of true belonging. For some, making long-term plans can feel like a foreign concept after a childhood spent being uprooted every couple of years. Frequent small goodbyes added up over time often amount to a big sense of unresolved loss, which is even harder to pin down when you consider that the sadness is caused by a sense of home that they could never fully claim.

“One of the first few people I interviewed talked about how the concept of home actually made her physically ill when people asked what her home was,” said Gilbert. “And so she said, ‘I have a heart home.'”

The Big ‘Who Am I’ Of It All For Third Culture Kids

Unresolved grief is a common issue among third culture kids, often called TCKs for short, because every move always comes with the loss of a familiar community, home, comfort, language, friends and identity.

Kathleen R. Gilbert, Ph.D., a professor emerita of applied health science at the Indiana University School of Public Health—Bloomington, has researched TCK-specific grief and the ambiguous ways it frequently arises. For the purposes of the study, she focused on the four “P”s: loss of person, place, pets and possessions. She also examined existential losses, such as the loss of identity and home.

“One of the first few people I interviewed talked about how the concept of home actually made her physically ill when people asked what her home was,” said Gilbert. “And so she said, ‘I have a heart home.’ And so, from that point forward, I asked people where their heart home was.”

Other third culture kids Gilbert talked to confessed to not being sure where they’d want to eventually be buried.

Michelle Neo, a tattoo artist and a TCK who lived in Malaysia, Singapore, Brazil, Hong Kong, Belgium, Virginia and New Jersey all before the age of 18 (and later on, Boston, Paris and New York City), confirms that third culture kids can sometimes struggle to define themselves.

“TCKs sometimes dread the question ‘Where are you from?’ because there’s no straightforward answer. In sharing (or not sharing) my multicultural background, I may come across as cool and interesting at best, or weird or snobby at worst.”

Though a sense of rootlessness is pervasive in this demographic, Gilbert found, through her research, that everyone copes with it in their own unique ways.

“It’s based on their own individual core personalities,” Gilbert said. “One sister may feel drawn more toward anchoring herself [later in life], whereas the other sister would have seen the lack of anchoring as freeing. Some people tolerate ambiguity a lot better than other people.”

The Intercultural Superpowers

It isn’t all one big identity crisis, though. Gilbert attests to the ability of TCKs to adapt easily to new environments.

“They don’t sit there huddled in the house thinking, ‘I don’t know how I’ll find anything,'” Gilbert said.

According to Neo, the best psychological benefits of being a TCK include high sociability, open-mindedness and adaptability. But adaptability is not just nice to have, it’s a survival strategy.

“These qualities are borne out of the need to assimilate to and thrive in new environments,” said Neo. “While the desire to find common ground and connect with others is familiar to all, TCKs may be more keen and quicker to do so than non-TCKs. These tendencies to quickly establish rapport, to like and be liked, also reveal the most common negative implications about TCKs: that they struggle with a sense of self and a sense of belonging.”

Neo also believes all the moving around has given her the ability to pick up new languages quickly, even if it’s occasionally hard to keep them all straight in her head, occasionally messing up pronunciations and expressions (much to the amusement of her friends). Some examples of things she’s accidentally said in the United States include “stop pulling my arm,” “stop beating a dead [any animal other than a horse],” “rubbish can” and “trash bin,” “rubber” (instead of eraser), and using eggplant, brinjal, and aubergine interchangeably.

“I try to learn — and remember — a word, a phrase, and funny expression in as many languages as I can,” she said. “I store this information in hopes of meeting someone who speaks that language, to humor them briefly at the very least, or to make a lifelong friend at the very best.”

Three Or More Cultures, Multiple Personalities?

With so many stitched-together identities scattered around the globe, does it follow, then, that third culture kids also have different personalities in different places?

Gilbert doesn’t believe that biculturalism leads to multiple personalities. Many TCKs do try to overcompensate for their foreignness, however, by practicing local mannerisms and accents in an effort to avoid being “terminally exotic.”

In Neo’s experience, “multiple personalities” sounds about right.

“TCKs often subconsciously mimic speech and behavioral patterns when engaging with others,” she said. “It’s called the chameleon effect, and it looks like they’re absorbing personalities. I think of that time Lindsay Lohan did that interview in a strange, unidentifiable accent after spending some time in Europe and the internet railed her for it. I’ve felt really bad for her because I definitely do that all the time. I try to catch myself doing this because I worry others may think I’m being weird or mocking them. The constantly changing ‘personalities’ may be perceived as disingenuous, hence the negative response and the resulting shame that Lindsay experienced.”

If anything, though, these subtleties lead third culture kids to be more inclusive in terms of who they socialize with. In Neo’s experience, the desire to want to mix friend groups is common, “allowing for more spontaneous and unlikely encounters.”

“TCKs have a more open, cosmopolitan view toward the experience of other cultures,” said Gilbert. “It really serves as an incredible resource, and even when they talk about loss experiences they had and the struggles that they had, I can’t remember anyone who has ever said to me, ‘I wish I hadn’t had this experience.'”

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