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What are "Third Culture Kids"?

Updated on April 21, 2013
debbiepinkston profile image

Debbie is a licensed counselor in the state of Arkansas. She lived in Venezuela and worked with a local orphanage there for many years.

"Where am I from?"
"Where am I from?" | Source

Where's Home?

Recently I attended a 35 year reunion of "Ivory Coast Academy", the boarding school that I attended in grades 10-12. We met in Branson, MO, and it was a time of many hugs, tears, stories, singing the old familiar songs, and fun. Thirty five years is a long time but my classmates looked (and acted) the same! We have a special bond, as MKs (missionary kids) and Third Culture Kids, that others can't understand.

Third Culture Kids are kids who have grown up in a culture different from their parents' culture. In my case I grew up in West Africa with American parents. Kids in this situation often feel that "nowhere is home" and "everywhere is home". They don't completely claim their parents' country, and they can't completely claim the country where they grew up. It's a wonderful, crazy, maddening mix of two cultures, that leaves kids feeling like outsiders, like strangers, like weirdos, the rest of their lives.

Upon returning to the U.S. for college, I found myself cringing when I met people and they asked "where are you from?" I then would ask how much time they had. Sometimes I gave the long version "Well my parents are from the U.S. but then we moved overseas so I grew up in..." and other times I gave the short version "I'm from Arkansas". Sometimes when I gave the long version, people's eyebrows went up and I thought I detected that look of "well I won't have anything in common with her!" as they moved on.

Being a Third Culture Kid can be a lonely place, except when in the company of other TCKs. Usually when we moved back to the U.S. for university studies, our parents stayed on the mission field until they retired. Being alone in the U.S., a "new and foreign land" wasn't easy. I had to learn how to dress in keeping with the times, instead of wearing hand-me-downs and not caring about what was in style (I still don't care much!). I didn't know how to operate a Coke machine or the milk dispenser in the cafeteria and I learned very quickly to stand back and watch how others did things. I also learned how to ask many questions. To this day I ask too many questions!

Many TCKs feel very homesick for their home country and can't explain that longing to anyone else. While most other students are going home for the weekend, the TCK sits in his dorm room, thinking about home and wishing it were just a few hours drive away. One thing that helped me a lot was the kindness of a few friends who regularly invited me to go home with them on the weekends and holidays.

Trying to fit in
Trying to fit in | Source

Coming back to the U.S.

TCKs love their grandparents but usually don't know them very well. They have been with them perhaps 2 or 3 times during their growing up years, during furloughs or vacations, but those close relationships are not always formed. During the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college, I lived with my grandparents and finally I felt like I really knew them! My grandfather taught me to drive, and my grandmother helped me learn to do my laundry. I loved talking to them and hearing their stories of their childhood, how they met and got married, and my grandpa's Army service during WWII. I still feel that I don't have the relationships that I would like to have with my cousins, aunts and uncles. It's as if they got used to us being far away all those years and not including us in their lives.

The TCK's worldview is vastly different from most kids, and most of them have seen extreme poverty up close. Many have been involved with their parents in feeding refugees, helping in medical clinics, and other social endeavors that most teens have not had the opportunity to do. They have a special sensitivity to people's needs and are understanding of cultural differences. Most TCKs feel very comfortable around people from other ethnic groups and feel a special kinship to people from anywhere near their "home" country.

TCKs may find it difficult to understand the way kids in the U.S. have "everything" and waste a lot of food. One TCK I knew in college was in tears when he saw how much food was thrown away, perfectly good food that might have saved lives on the other side of the world where they grew up.

They may have trouble making friends when they first return to the U.S., as they feel like outsiders, foreigners, or misfits. Soon enough though most TCKs make friends with other TCKs or exchange students. Little by little they begin to feel more comfortable and learn the ins and outs of living in the U.S., this wonderful country that is supposed to be their country but that feels more like a foreign land to many TCKs.

I returned to the U.S. to attend college 35 years ago, and feel that I have adapted well. I enjoy the change of seasons, the availability of just about everything all the time, and the kindness of Southerners. Still, when I am reunited with other MKs and TCKs, something stirs inside me and I know that deep down, they really "get me". They know.


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    • debbiepinkston profile imageAUTHOR

      Debbie Pinkston 

      5 years ago from Pereira, Colombia and NW Arkansas

      Sarah, more and more people move around and have an interesting mix of nationality, culture and lifestyle. Your story is a lot like mine, being born in one place, raised in another, and now living in yet another place! It certainly helps us to understand many cultures and be open to relationships with almost everyone.

      Thanks for reading and sharing your experience!

    • sarahshuihan profile image


      5 years ago from USA

      Really interesting. I can kind of relate as I was born in Hong Kong but grew up in Canada, and now a US immigrant because of my husband. I think adjusting at any age is hard, no matter what. It's a little easier as a kid I suppose. I'm glad that you were able to adapt into the US and you had such nice people in your life: )

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      6 years ago

      I have students who are TCK and they are such great learners. They are always eager to learn and offer to help out as they can in school. As you mention, they do not always understand how US children can waste food. To them it is unacceptable. Thanks for the tips on how to help them adjust and for the wisdom on how to help them. Voted up.

    • debbiepinkston profile imageAUTHOR

      Debbie Pinkston 

      6 years ago from Pereira, Colombia and NW Arkansas

      Always exploring, I'm glad that my Hub has helped you and others to think about the difficulties that TCKs face. I guess if I had not been a TCK and MK, I wouldn't have thought much about it either. I'm so thankful for the people who welcomed me upon my return to the U.S., and helped me adapt. I still have a special place in my heart for them.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      6 years ago from Southern Illinois

      I certainly enjoyed your story. I can imagine how a TCK would feel, seeing the waste of food when people are starving in other cultures, but I think you and others acquired compassion early and that's a wonderful gift. Thank you for sharing your story. I really never thought about this until now. Cheers

    • debbiepinkston profile imageAUTHOR

      Debbie Pinkston 

      6 years ago from Pereira, Colombia and NW Arkansas

      I'm glad you found this Hub helpful in understanding what kids are facing when they are raised in another country. I was fortunate to have several "U.S." friends who took me home with them on the weekends during college, and their parents were especially helpful in treating me like one of their own, teaching me things I needed to learn about life in the U.S., and most of all making me feel like I had an adult I could count on, even though my parents were 3000+ miles away.

      Thank you for your comment!

    • lrc7815 profile image

      Linda Crist 

      6 years ago from Central Virginia

      Debbie, this is a subject one never hears about and to be honest, I had never thought about it. I have several friends whose children are doing missionary work in Haiti and they are raising their children their. They have also adopted Haitian children and visit the US quite often. What a dilemma this creates for both the biological children and the adopted ones. I am so glad you wrote this and have called attention to the issue. Great, great hub. Voted up and awesome.

    • debbiepinkston profile imageAUTHOR

      Debbie Pinkston 

      6 years ago from Pereira, Colombia and NW Arkansas

      Georgie, thank you for reading and commenting. It truly is a blessing for a child to grow up with their grandparents, uncles and aunts, and cousins nearby. I'm glad you had great grandparents and grew up around them.

      In my case in particular, I got to know my grandparents during my college years and a couple of years afterwards, and then I shipped off to Venezuela where I lived for 25 years. I did have sabbaticals when I visited them, but it was never enough.

      In 2009 I returned to live in the U.S. and I was blessed to have some precious months with my grandmother before she passed away. I treasure those times!

      Thank you again Georgie for your comments.

    • Georgie Lowery profile image

      GH Price 

      6 years ago from North Florida

      THis was a really interesting Hub. I'll admit, I've never thought about how TCk's would be affected by living in those remote parts of the world and then coming back "home." I'm very glad that you managed to have a great relationship with your grandparents. Mine were all awesome and I couldn't imagine growing up without them.

      Anyway, thank you for this Hub. :)

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      It popped up right after I finished another email...perfect timing to jump on the Debbie bandwagon. :) Have a great weekend!

    • debbiepinkston profile imageAUTHOR

      Debbie Pinkston 

      6 years ago from Pereira, Colombia and NW Arkansas

      Thank you Bill. Yes, it is true that only those who have walked in our shoes can truly understand us! I haven't been able to stop thinking about the reunion and most of all the deep feelings of love I have for my classmates, other TCKs who know exactly what my childhood was like.

      Thank you for reading Bill, and for your comment!

      p.s. you are a fast reader! I no more than posted the Hub, and there was your comment!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Fascinating, Debbie, a part of culture I never thought about. It's interesting that there is such a bond between all of you; then I think about myself and being adopted, and how only another adoptee really understands....then it all makes perfect sense.

      Wonderful hub my friend! I hope others who might need your wisdom will read this.



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