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





TCKs Experience Prolonged Adolescence

by Ann Baker Cottrell and Ruth Hill Useem
(Article 3 in a series of 5)

In earlier issues of NewsLinks (see January and May issues), we began to nibble at the edge of the mountain of data we have collected from the close to 700 American adult Third Culture Kids (TCKs) who have filled in our 24-page questionnaire about their third culture childhoods overseas and their subsequent lives.

In this report we would like to reflect a little bit on an observation we made earlier-that three-fourths of adult TCKs feel different from others who have not lived abroad as children, and especially from those who have had no international experience. As one person put it, "In the US. I often feel like I'm living with only a split part of my personality. The other half of me doesn't know where to operate."

When we asked her if she felt the same way when she was in India (where she grew up, worked for a while as an adult, and continues to visit), she replied, "There I am a partial outsider and they know I live a different life in the United States. If I make a mistake, they just say that is because I am a crazy American. In the U.S. I don't appear to be different, so if I openly deviate from my friends in my attitudes, opinions, ambitions, or even leisure pursuits, they don't say that it is because I am a crazy TCK who grew up in India, they just say I'm nuts."

Only one out of every 10 of our nearly 700 adult TCKs, who range in age from 25 to 80, say that they feel completely attuned to everyday life in the U.S. The other 90 percent say they are more or less "out of synch" with their age group throughout their lifetimes.

Being out of step with those around them is especially noticeable (and painful) in the late teens and twenties when choice of mate, occupation, and life style are being worked out. Some young adult TCKs strike their close peers, parents, and counselors as being self-centered adolescents, as having champagne tastes on beer incomes (or no incomes), as not being able to make up their minds about what they want to do with their lives, where they want to live, and whether or not they want to "settle down, get married, and have children." They have what some call "prolonged adolescence."

Others do what those around them are doing. They marry at the appropriate time, get a "good" job, have a child or children, take on a mortgage, and then throw it all over at 40 in order to take a job overseas. Some resign from high-paying positions and return to college to be retrained for a low-paying teaching job. Still others withdraw from all social contact because of extreme depression and others withdraw because they have come into an inheritance and are quite happy doing nothing but writing French poetry or traveling to all the places they’ve never been. That is what some have called delayed adolescence.

In a few instances, persons have labeled these actions as character defects in need of psychological counseling or as immoral behavior which should be repented. Usually, however, their behavior goes unremarked by persons beyond their immediate families

On the surface, most adult TCKs conform to what is going on around them in such a way that attention is not drawn to them. As they meet new people and situations, they are slow to commit themselves until they have observed what is expected behavior. If what is expected is unacceptable or incomprehensible they will quietly withdraw rather than make fools of themselves or hurt the feelings of others.

Their bland and unremarkable exteriors, however, belie not only depths of feelings, but also considerable talents and a wealth of memories of other countries and places, including the expatriates communities in which they have lived abroad and continue to take an interest in. They also have a fresh perspective on the American scene which they are learning about--all of their lives.

And of course they are not callow youths. They are extremely complex people who are weaving together their memories in a rapidly changing present for an uncertain future. No two adult TCKs come up with identical ways of putting their lives together, but they are actively creating provisional answers to some of the major and minor problems which daily face human beings in this complex world. Their prolonged/delayed adolescent behavior is usually a marker that adult TCKs are trying to bring order out of the chaotic nature of their lives.

At this point we are of the opinion that the problem these adult TCKs face are more related to the American scene than they are due to the simple fact that they have been internationally mobile as children. How they go about constructing answers is more related to the education and knowledge they have derived from their transnational, international, third culture experiences.

All of this still doesn't tell us whether the answers they bring forth are constructive or destructive of self and others, or some combination of both. Nor does it say how the overseas schools, teachers, and staff can best help in this process. We already know that the overseas educational experience (which for any one person may take place in as many as six or eight different schools in as many different countries) is a crucial and critical part of the lives of these several million Americans. Nor does it answer the question of whether or not the creative talent of TCKs might be brought about in alternative ways. We shall reflect on these questions in subsequent issues. Stay tuned.

This article was first published in NewsLinks -- the newspaper of International Schools Services; September, 1993; Vol. XIII, No. 1; Princeton, NJ.

Published online April 11, 1999 by permission of the authors.
Copyright © 1993, 1999, by Ruth Hill Useem and Ann Baker Cottrell.
All rights reserved.

Continue to Article 4: ATCKs have problems relating to their own ethnic groups



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