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)
ATCKs have problems relating to their own ethnic groups
by Ann Baker Cottrell
(Article 4 in a series of 5)
This is the fourth in a series of five articles on Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs). It draws on the research currently being conducted by Drs. John and Ruth Useem, Michigan State University, Dr. Ann Baker Cottrell, San Diego State University, and Dr. Kathleen Jordan, consulting educational counselor in Washington, DC, with the participation of 696 ATCKs being in the U.S. The concept of Third Culture Kids has been discussed in the earlier articles (see January, May, and September NewsLinks).
Several million Americans have spent all or some of their formative years outside the U.S. as dependents of American citizens working abroad. Most TCK research focuses on re-entry difficulties. Our research on these Third Culture Kids has a different focus than most.
We ask what kind of life choices adult TCKs make; what skills, world views, and opinions they carry from a third culture childhood into their adult lives, and how they evaluate the long-term effects of these experiences. To avoid extreme feelings associated with re-entry we have deliberately included no one younger than 25; the oldest respondent is 87.
ATCKs generally agree that their international backgrounds contribute positively to their adult lives. Two-thirds or more report a beneficial impact on most roles and relationships.
The TCK experience is given less credit for benefiting relations with spouse and community activities, not because of any detrimental effects, but because more regard it as irrelevant to those relationships.
Three-quarters of our respondents also agreed that "on the whole, I feel fairly satisfied with the way my life has unfolded," further supporting the position that a TCK experience does not pose significant difficulties in the long run.
To explore feelings of connection, alienation, and/or rootlessness, as well as cross-culturally relevant skills and behaviors, respondents were asked to indicate whether they agree or disagree with a list of statements. A general portrait of ATCK characteristics can be developed from those statements with which at least half agree. Skimming the data in this way actually underrepresents the amount of agreement because it does not include those who expressed some agreement by choosing "both agree and disagree." An asterisk (*) after a statement indicates that more than two-thirds agreed.
1) ATCKs are internationally experienced and continue their international involvement. ATCKs build on a foundation of international awareness; over 90 percent report having more understanding and awareness of other peoples/cultures than most Americans* but most say they have more cross-cultural knowledge and skills than opportunity to use them. Most also say an international dimension in their lives is important; they work toward that goal by keeping international touches in their homes, welcoming opportunities to meet foreigners*, and keeping informed on the places they lived abroad. Most would like to visit the countries they lived in*, would like to live abroad again (though not necessarily in the places they lived as children), and most keep their passports current. (Other data shows a high level of continuing international activity such as speaking foreign languages, traveling abroad, and engaging in internationally related occupational and/ or volunteer activities.)
2) ATCKs are adaptable and relate easily to a diversity of people. These respondents are comfortable in a variety of settings. as indicated by interest in travel and living abroad. They feel at home everywhere (and nowhere). More than eight of 10 report that they can relate to anyone, regardless of differences such as race, ethnicity, religion, or nationality*. Most establish relationships easily in new situations and have hobbies or interests which help by connecting them to people wherever they go.
3) ATCKs are helpers and problem solvers. Drawing on their own experiences in new situations, ATCKs reach out to help those who appear unsure and play the role of mediator when conflicts arise. Nearly 90 percent say they can usually figure out a way to handle unexpected or difficult situations*.
4) ATCKs feel different, but not isolated. These respondents feel (and are) different from people who have not been overseas*. Most do not identify with members of their ethnic group, and nearly half do not feel central to any group. For some, especially the recently returned, such feelings are painful and create a profound sense of isolation; such ATCKs emphasize feeling at home nowhere, and for some, this feeling lasts a lifetime. Others recognizing their feelings as part of broader more global identities, stress feeling at home everywhere.
The majority in this study reject statements of alienation and isolation such as often feeling lonely, feeling adrift, and hesitating to make commitments to others. ATCKs' international experiences make them appreciate much in the U.S. that Americans take for granted*, and most feel the U.S. is the best place for them to be living presently.
Sponsorship greatly influences the TCK experience. Answers of military and missionary ATCKs are usually at the two ends of an agree-disagree continuum.
Military ATCKs had the least difficulty re-entering the U.S. because of the Americanized overseas bases, their highly mobile lifestyle, and only living abroad for short periods, five years or less. As adults they are least critical of the U.S. and have least interest in international involvement.
The "other" ATCKs (e.g., children of educators, researchers. UN personnel), most likely to have lived abroad for only a year or two, are the most eager to live abroad again, are most likely to keep a current passport, and have the strongest desire to maintain an international dimension in their lives.
Differences between responses of women and men to these questions reflect general gender differences more than different TCK experiences. Women reveal a greater concern with interpersonal relations; they are far more likely to have experienced difficulty leaving childhood friends and re-entering the US. Yet, as adults they are more likely to believe that TCK experiences enhance their social relations and community involvement. They establish relationships in new situations more easily than men, and more women reach out to help those who seem unsure. Women also experience more stress over conflicting desires for both stability and mobility. Overall, females are more prone to see many sides to an issue and to answer "both agree and disagree."
Men report a greater satisfaction with how their lives have unfolded, possibly because they worry less about interpersonal relations and because their self-esteem ties more to external achievements than relationships. Men have a higher rate of agreement with statements related to things over which they have control, such as setting long-term goals and keeping informed about American politics and about places they lived when they were young.
Our research asks how ATCKs' early international experiences are manifest in their adult lives. This brief summary of one section of this research reveals that, in contrast to the re-entry period, ATCKs generally credit their third culture background with positively influencing their adult lives. Beneath these generalizations, however, are many differences reflecting the complexity of ATCKs' lives. As we delve further into our rich data, we anticipate gaining insight into these differences as well as the kind of commonalties just discussed.
This article was first published in NewsLinks -- the newspaper of International Schools Services; November, 1993; Vol. XIII, No. 2; Princeton, NJ.
Published online April 11, 1999 by permission of the author.
Copyright © 1993, 1999, by Ann Baker Cottrell.
All rights reserved.
Continue to Article 5: ATCKs maintain global dimensions throughout their lives
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