The Term “Third Culture Kid”

I said before that I hadn’t even heard of the term Third Culture Kid until I was in Hong Kong for my second leg. That put me in 9th grade, making me either 14 or 15. My history of explaining what being a Third Culture Kid means, a history that has been rather sparse, has proven that outside of the Third Culture Kid community, no one has a clue what the difference is between the First, Second, and Third cultures. To be honest, with exception to the people who sat with me that auditorium in Hong Kong, I’m not entirely sure how many Third Culture Kids even realize that they’re Third Culture. So, I’m going to do my best to explain it, for the sake of those of you that have no idea and want to learn, but even more for those of you that are Third Culture and don’t yet know how to describe it.

A Third Culture Kid is someone who born in one country or culture, has grown up in different countries or cultures to that of their birthplace, and has parents who are very much connected to their home culture and country. Their parents, born and raised at home, represent the first culture. The people in the foreign countries that the child has grown up in represent the second culture, one which the Third Culture Kid has constantly interacted with. By taking both those identities and mashing them together in an epic mess of chaos and unity, you have created your third culture.

A third culture can be built at any point in life, but basic psychology teaches us that during our childhood we are the most malleable. We adopt accents easier, we learn languages easier, and we understand how to adapt in our surroundings quicker. We blend, evolve, and become what we see around us. It’s a survival mechanism, one that allows people growing up in one culture to adopt the beliefs and understandings of those around them in order to fit in. Third Culture Kids, however, do not have that grounding of a solid culture.

See, for us there is no normality. We exist in a world of a self-created culture of our youth, the culture that we will forever define ourselves by. In my case, I have the cultures of Hong Kong, England, Texas, and Paris all blended into a unique Third Culture. But it doesn’t stop there. This ability to adopt cultures spreads like a cancer throughout our childhood. It becomes subconsciously addicting, and though we don’t know we’re doing it, in just a few days or hours or even minutes in which we are immersed in a new and unique culture, we begin to adopt qualities and add it to our own. Vacations can add tiny elements to our Third Culture lifestyle. Returning to my life as the example, I have family that lives in Australia. I have been there two or three times in my life, and yet the cultural relaxation that envelopes the areas I reside in have led me to believe that little things should never interfere with our happiness. In fact, whenever something happens and someone says “I’m sorry,” my knee-jerk reaction is to respond with the extremely Australian saying: “No worries mate!”

This differs drastically from people who are First Culture. It’s hard for me to even understand, but I have noticed it time and time again as I have moved from country to country. For many First Culture Kids, there’s this burning desire to resist change. The number of times I have heard people say to me “I hate change” is mind boggling. This complete resistance to the unknown is almost all encompassing, spanning from the desire to move away from their hometown to the simple acceptance of foreign people. Take the American population post 9/11, for example. After the planes hit the twin towers, it wasn’t safe for you to be any person with brown skin in America. It didn’t matter if you were from Iraq, Iran, India, or Pakistan, if your skin wasn’t black or white, you were a terrorist. In a twisted way, it’s not their fault, but rather is just the effects of a First Culture Kid upbringing.

When it comes to Third Culture Kids, though, I have always noticed a much broader level of acceptance and understanding. In my case, this trait has caused me more problems than it has benefits. I can understand almost any point of view, whether I agree with it or not. It has made me a fantastic arguer, because in almost any situation I understand the other side so well that I could argue it for them. This gives me a level of foresight, so to speak, into what they are about to say, and I can counter it almost perfectly when they do. And all of this stems from an ability to understand other people, regardless of where they are from or what they believe. And that ability to understand stems from my youth, from growing up in a world where I adopted culture after culture into my own.

So what is it that makes us Third Culture Kids? It’s important to note that age has nothing to do with it. A Third Culture Kid is simply someone who spent their childhood traveling the world. They have adopted the culture of their parents and the culture of where they have lived into a unique third culture. This person can be 14, 22, 47, or 95 years old, but they will always be a Third Culture Kid. Why? Because it was in their childhood, before the cement of their lives began to set, that they developed their unique cultural background.

So who am I? Well, my passport tells people that I’m English. My accent tells people that I’m American. My political views tell people that I’m French. My pallet tells people that I’m Chinese. But really, I’m all of them, and by being all of them I have lost my ability to say to the world “this is where I belong.” Were I to travel to Hong Kong tomorrow, I would still be a white man in an Asian city viewed as an expat. If I went to Paris, I’d be the stupid American with the broken French language skills. If I moved back to England, I’d be the American guy. If I stayed here in the states, I’d always be everyone’s “British friend.”

The thing is, none of that matters. It’s true, there is nowhere in this world that I can call home, to return to and fit in like everyone else, and though most of the time that thought makes me feel incredibly sad, it also fills me with pride. Because unlike all my friends who I see every day, I have experienced something different. Even now, at the age of 24 when most people set on who they are, I am still changing. I will always be seeking new cultures, new identities, and new understandings to add to my cultural background. It’s a curse and a blessing, crammed into one unforgiving mind. I just can’t help it. I’m a Third Culture Kid.

10 thoughts on “The Term “Third Culture Kid”

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  2. mixofns

    When did you find out you were 3rd culture? I think that there’s not enough information about it, so I’m trying to raise awareness among my friends, as we’re all internationals.

    Like you say, there’s a huge difference when with 1st culture people.

    I want to know what you think.

    I always feel at home with other tcks.
    But I definitely have a connection with multinational people who grew up outside of their homeland OR with people who’s parents are both from different places…

    Is it just me? My mom is Philippino, my dad Canadian… I grew up in Canada…
    Do you also feel connections with other multinationals?

    1. jamesrmitchener Post author

      I found out that I was a third culture kid when I was quite young, but I didn’t actually know it. When I finally realized it, I was in Paris, France. When I had a name for it, I was in Hong Kong.

      I certainly believe there’s a huge difference between first and third culture, but I think that’s just because of upbrining. First culture kids are resistant to change and differences, where I find that Third Culture Kids have a tendency to seek it out.

      It’s certainly not just you. The Third Culture Kid community isn’t huge, but it’s very close. I find that when I do see other Third Culture Kids, I finally get to relax and be myself. I don’t have to explain anything to them, or preface my conversations with explanations of why I feel the way I do.

      The best thing that you can do is find people who want to achieve more than just the “right now.” Look for friends who have aspirations for tomorrow, and want to better themselves through cultural understanding. It’s in people like this that I feel the strongest connections. They don’t have to be first culture, but if they open minded and accepting, they don’t necessarily need to understand why we believe the same things.

  3. mixofns

    thanks for your answer

    it’s true that i need to be around open minded people. … didn’t think about that before. i really do get annoyed even if the person is limited in thinking…

    i’m not sure if i seek change though. i’m actually seeking stability right now, i want to stay in one place for a long time.

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  5. RS

    I recognise myself as a TCK even from the bouncing back and forth between 2 domestic subcultures – the white middle class surbubia and the urban multicultural – within which each of my divorced parents made very different lifestyle choices.
    My question is, though, related to what I need to be aware of as a parent, now in my transnational reality – me from one country (USA), my husband from another (Italy), living in another (Brussels – for now). The kids are trilingual and play with languages, aware of other nations, languages, religions, family configurations, from an extremely young age.
    Where are the roots and stability, and how important is that???? I turned out ok, better than ok working and living in a way that applies all that I’ve learned as a TCK in my own way, But then again my deepest dream is to finally have a home where we can keep all our stuff in one place and where I know I’ll be buried some day.
    Giving the kids stability, cultural roots, and a good sense of self.. this is our challenge now.

    1. James R. Mitchener Post author

      I’m going to jump right in and answer the big question here: “Where are the roots and stability, how important is that?” To many, it’s a scary answer, but to you who understands the TCK mentality, it really shouldn’t be at all: Your kids roots are everywhere. They aren’t in one place, they aren’t to one people. They are everywhere, and they are locked into the ground not clinging to a place, but an idea; your kids roots are in multiculturalism. They don’t have a “home,” so to say, and they’ll learn that a lot as they grow up. For a while that will be a tough realization, especially if you ever do settle down and stop moving with them. But I can tell you this: even if you stop, that will not be their home. That will just be another place on the list. And that’s not a bad thing! The world is becoming smaller and smaller. Multiculturalism is a really issue now, one that dominates as we become more and more interspersed. Your kids understand that fundamentally. So, that’s where their roots are. Forget places, because to them that doesn’t matter. Their roots are in people, in relationships, in understanding the way the world works, in finding out more and more and more about all the things they have seen, and all the things they haven’t. And how important is that? I’d say that it’s more important than anything else, more important than a single place to return to. You’ve created children of the world who will not only respect other cultures, but will fundamentally understand them to a level that they’ll endlessly hunger for more. You’re created bridges between countries, nations, and ideas. Giving up a single place to call home in exchange for the ability to fit in and thrive anywhere in the world? Personally, I can’t think of a better gift–

  6. Rachel

    I’m not sure whether I’m a TCK, but I think I am. It’s something that’s been frustrating me recently as I think about it, being neither one culture nor another, fitting nowhere but fitting in a lot of places. Actually, it’s been bothering me on and off since the age of eight or so.

    You see, my Spanish class is going to Spain in two weeks. I guess that’s why I’ve been thinking about it recently. But all the others in my class have never left Australia before, they have no concept that they’re about to walk into a different culture and language and country… they just can’t understand it (hopefully that will change!). They have Australian, and that’s it. The teacher even said to the parents, “Well, even if they don’t pick up much Spanish, at least they will have experienced that there are other cultures out there.”

    And then there’s me. Although I’m technically half-English – and that’s not really another culture, now, is it, especially in a city teaming with English people – I’ve travelled. From a young age, I was surrounded by German or French or Korean or Italian, the language and the culture, and they’re all bits of me. I love my dual nationality because it can get me all sorts of interesting places. I hate my dual nationality because I hang between the two and I always have to ask myself which passport to use. So for me, although I’ve never been to Spain, there’s this inherent excitement of going, feeling a new language and a new culture. Even though I know when I get back to Australia, I’ll be stuck with another language and culture I can’t use because it’ll be weird.

    It’s hard to put into words, I guess, why I’ve been feeling frustrated – with myself, and with my peers. I can’t really describe it.

    I can only hope that one day I’ll be as proud of my heritage as a TCK as you seem to be. For now, I just feel frustrated; a misfit. My accent has never fitted anywhere, my culture is a horrible mish-mash of little bits that don’t fit and aren’t even really of “my” (passports’) cultures.

  7. Jennifer Sundqvist

    Did you by chance attend HKIS? Because I sat through those TCK seminars every year of high school there.


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