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Who Am I? What Becomes of Third Culture Kids

Third Culture Kids and their search for identity.

In his book, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, psychologist David C. Pollock defines the third culture kid as a “person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture.” Pollock goes on to note, “The TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of the same background.”

Third Culture Kids: Identity Crisis

The Third Culture Kid frequently builds relationships with all of the cultures to which he is exposed but has a sense of ownership with none of them. The result is that he feels a lack of identity and rootlessness no matter where he lives. Always wondering whether moving to another country would make him happier, the Third Culture Kid is often restless, both in his everyday life, and in his mind. The result is that he is floating around like a balloon, never touching down in any place. Gabriela Alvarado, the author of “Battling an Imposed Identity: The life of a TCK Perceived as ‘Another American Girl’ ” is the offspring of a Mexican mother and a Cuban father. She was born in USA and thus is an American citizen although she lived in America only until she was two months old. On returning to USA for post-secondary education, she commented, “while I may have never identified with my country of birth, I have found that my language, education, and primary form of identification, have deemed

me an ‘American’ in the eyes of the United States, provoking an identity crisis within me.” This same identity crisis plagues many third culture kids into their adulthood. This lifestyle is often driven by the occupation of one or both parents, which exposes their kids to several different culture settings, each unlike their own. Short of quitting their jobs and taking their kids “home”, uprooting part of the family, or shipping the kids home to live with members of their extended family, or sending them off to a residential school setting in their homeland, there are no immediate solutions. Most of the proposed solutions merely add to the TCK’s trauma.

Instead, it appears to make much more sense for the parents to teach their children a set of essential skills, such as cultivating awareness, in order to help them develop a feeling of centeredness from deep within. Nationality and citizenship are most certainly crucial to the perception of one’s identity. Not surprisingly, a large number of TCKs end up struggling with a sense of identity. They not only have a hard time identifying who they are and where they come from, but they also find it difficult to settle down.

A Third Culture Kid has moved in and out of foreign countries as his parents have transferred around the world. While born into one culture, TCKs are raised among others. Their identity is most closely aligned with other TCKs not with the people of their country of birth. Indeed their “homeland” feels like just another foreign assignment. Although TCK can identify with a multitude of foreign cultures, oftentimes they feel like nomads, who have no place to return to. Nothing in their lives seems permanent.

The only thing they can count on is change itself. Perhaps this experience is one of the key reasons why TCK reach emotional maturity faster than their friends. Although TCKs often feel out of place, they have learned to blend in like chameleons so their adjustment problems are not immediately apparent. This is both a blessing and a curse as often the help they need is slower in coming because of their coping skills.

It is clear that every child needs a sense of belonging somewhere and to someone. They need a sense of connection, in order to define their identity. It appears that for TCKs, these needs get ripped away from them with every new move. Just as they have settled into a new environment, it is time for another move. Understandably, Third Culture Kids feel that they have no say in the move. Parents are often so immersed in the moving process that they likely fail to recognize and address the loss of the child’s home and friends.

Yet for the child, losing all these things can result in a grieving process, which needs to be taken seriously. TCK are intent on the minutiae of the relocation. They feel cast aside and powerless.

What are the Solutions?

The first and most important advice in my view is to practice acceptance and gratefulness. TCK tend to become emotionally detached from their own feelings. This is why it makes sense to practice different techniques, such as meditation, in order to find balance and harmony. Writing down one’s talents and goals might also help in mapping out one’s identity. Meditation might take time until it shows any beneficial effects, but when practiced regularly, it can become a very powerful tool in dealing with day-to-day struggles and achieving a higher state of consciousness. The second is communication. Expressing one’s feelings to parents, friends, teachers, rather than bottling them up is very important. Sometimes even saying something out loud makes it clearer what we truly want. Communicating one’s feelings and fears to others is the only way to start finding a solution.
The third is having a good attitude. Granted, it is easier said than done, but parents should help their children develop a positive outlook in life. Thus, instead of seeing the glass as half-empty, one should look at the positives of the opportunities that a global nomadic life has afforded. It is hardly helpful to adopt a victim mentality and blame one’s past for the present issues one is facing.

We live in a time where it is easy to research about one’s homeland. Therefore, I would encourage any TCK to get to know as much about their homeland and its customs as they can. After that, one can deepen the knowledge through discussions with parents, grandparents, others who have lived there, books, movies, and trips to the birth country. Try familiarizing yourself further with your home country by following local news and finding pen pals and language partners. You might want to pen down things about your home country that you find fascinating, or things you can identify with.

Tell parents, teachers, counselors, and trusted others how an upcoming or recent move has made you feel. Grieve for what you gave up at the same time rejoicing in opportunities to immerse yourself in a new culture. You could write your emotions down in a diary, in order to keep track of your wellbeing. At the same time, keep a diary where you keep track of all the things you are grateful for in your life. Remind yourself that the friends you’ve made will remain your friends, thanks to the Internet and your access to flying. Look for opportunities in your new community to volunteer and get to know others. Get involved with school and community activities like sports, theater, band, reading, year- book right away. Instead of focusing on the things you miss, you could dedicate some of your time to helping others – perhaps to others who have problems adjusting. Always remember that no matter where you are, there are always people in your community who want to help you. Reach out. Ask for help.

Filed under: Travel Psychology, Traveler Culture

About the Author:

Ana Prundaru is a writer and translator at Papaya Rain, an online consultancy providing low-cost services for charities and small businesses. As a former third culture kid and a global citizen, she loves to awaken her inner explorer by visiting unique travel destinations and getting to know the locals. Furthermore, she is an active human rights and animal welfare advocate, with a passion for improving our communities. has written 1 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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  • mikecrosby May 3, 2014, 10:04 am

    Is it Petra? She’s beautiful.

    Now that I see the downside of TKCs, I would think the upside would more than make up for it.

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    • Wade May 3, 2014, 8:30 pm

      Thanks!

      That is Petra in the photo but this article has nothing to do with her. I have not yet been able to observe the TCK phenomenon personally with her. She’s only four and a half but has a very clear sense of who she is, understands and is secure with the fact that she is from another country as her friends, and does well back home. That said, she has a rather unique personality that doesn’t really fit in anywhere. I attribute this more to it being just the way she is rather than growing up in multiple countries.

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