Where are you from? If you’re like most people, the question seems easy enough to answer. But if you hate getting asked that question in the first place, then you might be a third-culture kid. This is a phenomenon not well-known to most people. Knowing about it, however, can be very helpful in understanding culture in general, the world in its togetherness, and our own identity. So what exactly is a Third Culture Kid (TCK)?
A TCK is someone who spent a significant part of their developmental years in a culture other than their parents’. So if your dad was Egyptian and your mother was French, you might be a TCK if you grew up in China. But one of the more common stories is one of becoming a TCK because of constant moving. Often this is because of parents’ work, but perhaps even more common is the constant relocating due to parents’ military service. Such kids are often affectionately known referred to as “military brats.”
When it comes to the young developmental years, we often want to fit in. A feeling of belonging is important to most of us, but for many TCKs, the regular population offer little feeling of belonging. That’s not to say that there is or should be an “us vs. them” mentality, but most people simply don’t understand TCKs.
Questions like “Where are you from?” and “Who are your people?” are not always easy for TCKs to answer, and many of them have interesting explanations of just who they are. “I was born in Kenya but spent most of my childhood in Belgium, before I moved to the UK for school, and I decided to move to Japan recently.” That’s the type of story you might hear from a TCK.
Al Jazeera’s English show “The Stream” had a great episode on third culture kids called “Cultural Chameleons.” It was a great episode that’s worth the watch.
I have met a few TCKs, including a friend of mine. He’s a very interesting person who speaks perfect English and Japanese, but has no blood-based affiliation to Japan or an English-speaking country. Some of his friends are more on the nomadic side themselves, but he does seem very well adjusted here in Japan. Not all TCKs feel so adjusted to the culture they’re in, unless perhaps they are in the presence of other TCKs. But then again, he will probably be moving again in a few years.
As you can imagine, there are some trends with TCKs that contrast to the rest of the general population. For example, TCKs are far more likely to obtain post-secondary education, with one measure saying that 81% of TCKs getting a bachelor’s degree, compared to 21% of others. As for advanced degrees, they’re 40% likely to obtain one, as opposed to 5% of the general population. In fact, almost half (45%) of TCKs attended 3 universities before earning a degree, and almost the same number (44%) earned their first degree after the age of 22. Most go into education, medicine, self employment, and professional positions, as opposed to working for governments or big corporations.
While most (80%) feel that they can get along with anyone, depression and suicide are indeed more prevalent than among the general population. They understand other cultures and peoples much better than the average person who only has a single culture, which is the same benefit one may get from traveling to many different places around the world.
TCKs are very good at picking up languages – though this isn’t as true for military brats. This is perhaps because military parents are often patriotic or more nationalist, and therefore don’t value the education of another language as much as a non-military parent. TCKs are more welcoming of others into their community than the general population, despite most (90%) feeling a bit like they don’t totally belong with their peers.
There have also been some sources which note a tendency to desire to settle down, and they are less likely to divorce than non-TCKs. Most tend to marry after the age of 24, except for military brats, who usually marry younger than that.
Ironically, despite having lived in more places than most of their peers – most if not all of whom would be single-cultured people – they are the most likely to lack a sense of “home.” It’s no wonder why so many of them are depressed. And yet, sociologist Ted War remarked thirty years ago that TCKs are “the prototype citizens of the future.”
So while many of us wish we could have traveled the world like they have, and we would love to be able to speak several languages flawlessly, we also take for granted some of the most fundamental things in our lives. Things like a home, family, and friends; and people we can relate to, and those who understand us.
The study of TCKs is not easy, mostly because people don’t even know they exist, or simply that TCKs are harder to identify than others. Every country has a known culture, but the hybrid and personalized cultures of TCKs are not so easily able to be understood. But anyone interested in understanding the culture of others should learn about TCKs too.
Culture is the process by which a person becomes all that they were created capable of being. –Thomas Carlyle