Third Culture Kid (Merriam-Webster)
A child who grows up in a culture different from the one in which his or her parents grew up. The “third culture” is influenced both by their parents’ culture and the culture in which they are raised.
An expatriate (often shortened to expat) is a person residing in a country other than their native country. In common usage, the term often refers to professionals, skilled workers, or artists taking positions outside their home country, either independently or sent abroad by their employers.
Growing up, my answer to the question “Where are you from?” always felt empty. To answer it is to say you identify with and represent the culture and traditions of a specific place. Having moved countries three times by the age of seven, and then attending an international school for the next ten years resulted in a blending of cultures, traditions, and mannerisms that were impossible to sort out. Third Culture Kids (TCKs) have it doubly hard precisely because, as the term states, they are kids. Smoothly navigating through puberty and adolescence in a normal, stable environment is hard enough without adding the stress and sense of displacement that is bound to happen when moving places and ping-ponging between the culture at home with family, and then immediately adapting to the one outside the four walls. Add to that having parents from two different countries and cultures, and the sense of “who am I?” was further magnified, at least in my case. Suffice to say, most TCKs, if not all, spend an inordinately long time figuring out who they are and where they belong. Many ultimately accept they never will have a precise answer to that and learn to comfortably grow into their jumbled state of identity.
Suffice to say, most TCKs, if not all, spend an inordinately long time figuring out who they are and where they belong. Many ultimately accept they never will have a precise answer to that and learn to comfortably grow into their jumbled state of identity.
After 14 years in India, the expat phase of my life began. I went to the US as a student for two years, then lived and worked in Japan twice, first for five years, and then for two. I felt more at home abroad than I ever did living here in Delhi! I attribute it largely to the fact that the only constant world I had growing up was at school— with friends and classmates from all over the world. Bringing with them bits of international, albeit predominantly western, culture, it wasn’t that different to the social circles I found myself gravitating towards when abroad.
The usual adjustments and culture shock that come with moving to a foreign country were not too difficult for me, even in a homogenous country like Japan, with its strict social dos and don’ts. As a TCK, I was already adept at reading people and situations and easily adapting to them. You may or may not have already come across TCKs also being called cultural chameleons, but it’s true— we really are. And though well-traveled expats can also share the same label, unlike expats, TCKs learn these skills at a young age, and not consciously. Moving homes was never our choice to make— we were brought into this complex mingling of cultures, mindsets, and traditions because our parents chose to make the move.
This is probably the most significant difference between expats and TCKs, who then become Adult TCKs (ATCKs). Not all expats were TCKs, and many make their first international move as adults, with a ‘stable-r’ sense of self— having already maneuvered through their formative years in an environment that is both culturally and socially stable. They also have strong, defined connections to their home country. TCKs, however, grow up in a culture (sometimes multiple cultures), not their own, and usually in a continually changing environment like international schools— both of which contribute to a longer-than-normal path to self-discovery and identity. We grow up saying goodbye to people and places, and constantly adjusting and adapting to diverse cultures and mindsets. By the time we’re adults, we’re a rootless lot, belonging everywhere and nowhere with close friends scattered around the world. We feel most at home with people who have also traveled and experienced the world because we’ve faced similar challenges, and here’s when TCKs as expats make sense.
Think of TCKs as mini expats, experiencing the expat world during their most sensitive, crucial, identity-forming stage of life. What expats learn about adjusting, adapting, and understanding foreign cultures is second nature to TCKs. We’re not even aware it’s what we’ve been doing till we become adults and are able to analyze and reflect on our childhood/teen years. The loneliness, culture shock and frequent goodbyes that expats invariably go through, are old and dear friends of ours. Even the complicated and existential answers to ‘Where are you from?’ that seasoned/lifelong expats give, we started tackling while were still in school. TCKs as expats? Most assuredly yes. I feel a reluctant need to add that the cheesy cliché ‘Brother from another mother’ couldn’t be a more apt description of the close relationship between adult TCKs and expats.
By the time we’re adults, we’re a rootless lot, belonging everywhere and nowhere with close friends scattered around the world. We feel most at home with people who have also traveled and experienced the world because we’ve faced similar challenges, and here’s when TCKs as expats make sense.
At a time when divisiveness between peoples and countries seem to be mushrooming all over the world right now, the cultural and global understanding, as well as respect and tolerance that TCKs and expats become intimately familiar with in their personal and professional lives, can be a precious and significant lifeline. The lessons we’ve learned about not making superficial judgments, understanding the beliefs and traditions of the other, accepting that people can have perfectly valid and acceptable reasons for differing opinions, and learning to respect those differences yet still find points of mutual interest and passions to bridge gaps. These are invaluable and unique to us in the sense that collectively, within the expat/TCK community alone, we could easily represent most, if not all, of the world. That is a mighty wonderful thing that we shouldn’t take for granted.