What is a Third Culture Kid?

“A third culture kid is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture. 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.”... (more)

Third Culture Kids Book





Third Culture Kids: Focus of Major Study
-- TCK "mother" pens history of field

by Ruth Hill Useem
(Article 1 in a series of 5)

This is the first of several reports on a study of adult Third Culture Kids being undertaken by three sociologists /anthropologists: Dr. Ann Baker Cottrell of San Diego State University and Drs. John Useem and Ruth Hill Useem, emeritus professors of Michigan State University; and by a counseling/guidance expert, Dr. Kathleen A. Finn Jordan, currently a Consulting Educational Counselor in Washington, D.C.

Many people have asked the origin and meaning of the term, "Third Culture" as we use it in Third Culture Kids or "TCKs" and, by extrapolation, in "adult-TCKs." To clear up one confusion, "third culture" is not synonymous with Third World nor with C.P. Snow's Third Culture. However, all are related in that these were early attempts to make summaries of what was happening in the world at the time of a major shift in the relationships among the peoples of the globe in the middle of the twentieth century.

The ending of colonialism, the dramatic increase in science and technology, and the rise of two relatively new world powers--the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R.--all combined to make for major changes in the movement of human beings around the world and the purposes for which they were entering other societies.

At the start of this world transition period (the early 40s), my husband and I were studying an American Indian reservation in South Dakota. Having been trained as sociologists and anthropologists, we were using and adapting the methods and theory of both disciplines to study the intersections between a modern complex society (represented by white doctors, nurses, administrators, teachers, and religious missionaries) and the living survivors of a people who a century earlier had been warriors, hunters, and gatherers.

Our findings from the Sioux reservation study started us thinking about people who cross societal borders under the aegis of an organized endeavor and whose work or occupational roles are involved in relating two or more societies, or sections thereof, to each other.

It was about forty years ago (1952) that I had my first cross-cultural encounter outside the United States. My husband and I, accompanied by our three sons (aged four, five, and 10) went to India for a year to study the roles of Indians who had been abroad for higher education. Five years later we returned to India (again with our children) for a year's field study of Americans living and working there, primarily as foreign service officers, missionaries, technical aid workers, businessmen, educators, and media representatives. We also looked at the schools which were being set up for the education of minor dependents accompanying their parents abroad.

In summarizing that which we had observed in our cross-cultural encounters, we began to use the term "third culture" as a generic term to cover the styles of life created, shared, and learned by persons who are in the process of relating their societies, or sections thereof, to each other. The term "Third Culture Kids" or TCKs was coined to refer to the children who accompany their parents into another society.

What we had observed in India was happening all over the world. By 1960, the U.S. Census published its first ever census of Americans overseas. There was scarcely a country without a contingent of Americans. Some of the over 200,000 American children of school age were attending newly established Department of Defense Schools. Others were enrolled in makeshift schools assisted by the Department of State. Missionary groups tended to set up their own schools and oil companies set up their "camp schools". While there was a great deal of research and many publications on the adults and the organizations which were sponsoring them abroad, there was very little except anecdotal material on the minor dependents and the schools servicing them.

The Institute of International Studies in Education at Michigan State University, of which I was part, became involved in servicing the overseas schools. Over the years I taught a course both in East Lansing and in the overseas schools on "the Education of Third Culture Kids" and sat on doctoral committees of students doing research on one or another aspect of the growth and development of TCKs in their overseas educational environments. During the next decades, I visited overseas schools in 70 some countries (in every continent except Latin America) to keep up to date on what was happening in these schools and to the parents who were relating societies to each other. (In recent years, I read NewsLinks in many of the teachers' lounges in the schools.)

As early as the 1960s and with increasing frequency, changes were occurring in the overseas schools and the American communities abroad which foreshadowed the major shift in the restructuring of the world's political economy of the 1990s comparable to that of the 1950s. To give but two illustrations: recognition of China meant that in a short span of time, American military and their dependents were withdrawn from Taiwan. One of the most dramatic and far-reaching changes was the onset of the Vietnam War and its disastrous close. How do TCKs experience these world changes in which their parents are often intimately involved? How are these experiences reassessed? How do adults who spent early years abroad ("adult-TCKs") in a country in which they had a very happy and rewarding childhood reassess that nation state when it is now the enemy? There also have been major shifts in American life. Do adult TCKs evaluate them differently from Americans reared all their lives within the U.S.?

We have had a number of studies of the re-entry phenomenon and a few studies of how they personally adjust, cope, and adapt in their subsequent lives. But we have had no studies as far as we know about the positive contributions which they have made, are making, and could make to their families and local communities, to their workplace and larger society, and to the interdependent and conflictive world scene. Are they an untapped national resource? Would greater recognition of this large hidden dimension of American life (now numbering about four million) increase their opportunities and enrich the lives of others?

To answer these and other related questions, four of us have undertaken a research project on adult-TCKs who are between 25 and 90, who currently reside in the United States. and who spent at least one school-age year abroad as the minor dependent of an American parent.

We distributed 24-page questionnaires to these adult-TCKs and are a bit overwhelmed by the number of people who filled them out, especially as several of the questions require open-ended responses. We are now in the process of coding and analyzing the data. (We had to buy and learn a new computer to handle the large sample!) We will be reporting to you occasionally in NewsLinks about what we have found.

This article was first published in NewsLinks -- the newspaper of International Schools Services; January, 1993; Vol. XII, No. 3; Princeton, NJ.

Published online April 11, 1999 by permission of the author.
Copyright © 1993, 1999, by Ruth Hill Useem. All rights reserved.

Continue to Article 2: TCKs Four Times More Likely to Earn Bachelor’s Degrees



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