Third Culture Kids / Cross Culture Kids

Jan Wetsel and Barb Carter
University of Central Oklahoma

Second-grader David sits quietly at his desk, thinking about his encounter with the playground supervisor when he entered the building after recess. “Why do you still have your hat on? Hats off in the building!” she had exclaimed. Upon taking off the hat, his hair, with a mixture of perspiration and hair gel, was standing straight up. “Dude! Did you pour Elmer’s on your head or something?” a classmate teased. David, who had just moved to the United States from Australia, was used to teachers telling children to put their hats on when they went outside for needed protection from the sun; however, he was not used to being scolded for leaving it on when he came back inside. Plus, he didn’t even know who Elmer was! “This place is so weird,“ David thinks. He was missing his old friends, his old school, and his former country. He had lived in Australia since infancy, when his family had moved there for his dad’s job. Now that they had returned to the United States, people said, “Welcome home!” Yet David felt very much away from home. Australia was the only country he knew.

David is a “Third Culture Kid” (TCK). TCKs have experienced a significant part of their development outside of their parents’ home culture (or cultures). Such circumstances are usually the result of one or both of the parents’ work in the military, as missionaries, or with an international corporation. Often, TCKs enroll in international schools when they are abroad, and they have particular transition needs when they return to their parents’ home country. 

TCKs possess a distinctive worldview, which presents both challenges and unique benefits throughout their lives. Children who have experienced this developmental phenomenon think, respond, and interact with the world differently from their single culture counterparts. In fact, they seem to live and function between the cultures of their host country, the country of their parents’ upbringing, and any other culture to which they are significantly connected. They do not create a sub-culture of either, but rather a third, “other,” culture that is distinctively its own. This cultural identification is readily recognized and embraced by other TCKs and very often misunderstood and dismissed by others. In their book, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken note, “The third culture kid builds relationships to all the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the third culture kid's life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of the same background, other TCKs.”

"Looking back, it was hard starting at a new school,” Katie explained. “I had never really gone to a regular school, so my first day was a great culture shock. I really missed Suriname and the close-knit community I had there. I missed the very, very slow pace of life compared to now. But the cool thing is that I find myself seeking out people from other countries. Even though they are not from ‘my’ country, they somehow get me."

Because these children have particular needs when transitioning between schools, the authors have identified several strategies to help in their adjustment:

  • Do not assume that a child has a particular family culture based upon how she looks or sounds.
  • Create a classroom culture that affirms every person’s home culture.
  • Read books to familiarize yourself with common problems TCKs face, and read books in class that focus on children dealing with moving, being the “new kid,” loss, and other issues.
  • Persona dolls can tell the story the child is feeling.
  • Expect that many children go through a grieving process. Work with parents to understand the root of their child’s behavior.

Children, regardless of their age, experience significant levels of emotional stress during their first year of cross cultural living. While some young adults note a negative impact from living life “in transition,” the majority reflect on their experiences as having been challenging, positive, and a contribution to their success as adults. These young people possess an authentic worldview, understand collaboration, and actively advocate for tolerance. With understanding, support, and an agenda of acceptance, teachers and caregivers can help them get the full benefit of their experiences. It is also good to note that, when reflecting on their lives as TCKs, most say that they would do it again. “It was really hard, but I am grateful that I had the experience,” Heather replied, when asked how she had liked growing up between two countries. “We (TCKs) always seem to find each other, and like hanging out together. I guess that’s because we really understand the way other TCKs think.”

Christopher stared blankly across the crowed room of freshmen at Queens University. Although he was excited, he missed the stillness of his village just south of Guácimo. He had found peace and a sense of belonging on Rio Guacimito, with the majesty of the Turrialba Volcano on the horizon. He moved from the United States to the Atlantic plains of Costa Rica with his family when he was 2 years old, only visiting the States once every four years. He was deeply "home" sick. Feeling overwhelmed by the transition, he was leaving the classroom when Evan approached. "Nice necklace. Where did you get it?"

Christopher responded, "A friend from my village made it for me. It is coco from Costa Rica." Pulling out a necklace of similar material, but different design, Evan smiled, "Yeah, I thought it wasn't one you could just get anywhere. Mine is mnazi, Swahili for coconut. A friend in my town made this and gave it to me when I left." He was born in Kenya to missionaries from Texas. The young men became instant friends, finding a sense of belonging through their shared experiences a world apart.