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The "Third Culture Kid" (TCK) - Growing Up Across Countries

Updated on February 26, 2014

The Meaning of Growing Up Across Cultures

Recently, at the age of 42, I was told by a perfect stranger that I must feel very 'conflicted'.

This rather profound statement came in response to what started as small talk at a friend's birthday party. Upon being asked where I am from, I replied quite simply with the same old (although extremely abbreviated) story of my life: born in Germany to German parents, raised in Brazil from the age of 5 to 15, moved to the United States 27 years ago. I am basically a product of my father's expatriate work assignments.

Conflicted? No. To date, I had never perceived my reality as anything but straightforward. Living overseas is the only life I know. Conflicted is not exactly an adjective I would ever use to describe myself.

Confused? Yes. This was the first time the 'canned' story of my many moves, starting at a young age, received this kind of reaction. Most other times, people were a bit more speechless. My curiosity was peaked.

"Excuse me, what did you say?"

Puzzled, I asked for an explanation. To which 'Mr. American Logic' replied, essentially, that because I experienced two drastically different cultures during my formative years, I must feel very unsure of exactly who I am. And then a question as an answer to my question. Do I feel:

A. unromantic, serious, rule following, and efficient like a German, OR,

B. charismatic, optimistic, vivacious, and laid back like a Brazilian?

Me, myself and I:  a little German, a little Brazilian, a little American.
Me, myself and I: a little German, a little Brazilian, a little American.

Do International Moves Lead to Loss of Cultural Connection?

Americans, much like any other nationality, have one way of looking at the world.

Stereotypes aside, the truth about someone like myself who moved internationally as a child is that we are far from conflicted. I am living proof of the fact that while we see the world through our very own lens, it remains clearly defined. We have strong values and measures which define our behaviors and beliefs, even if they do not stem from a single culture.

I know so, because every time I meet someone else who has experienced a similar cross-cultural upbringing, we nod in agreement. Regardless of our personal journeys, we feel an immediate sense of understanding and connection. We feel for one another like no one else can.

So how do you combine two (or more) very unlike cultures without losing yourself in the process? This may sound practically unfathomable to the single culture species, but to us it is the beauty and reality of being a TCK.

What is a TCK?

Pardon the stereotype, but Americans do love their facts. Therefore, I begin by stating that a TCK is a concept based on research.

I sort of cringe every time someone asks me where I am from because I never know exactly what to say. TCKs are quite literally citizens of the world. Typically, TCKs have moved at least once by their 5th birthday, and speak a minimum of two languages.

TCKs also lack a sense of where home is. Eventually, because home kept moving on me, I would just say that home is where my bed is. And soon after that, TCKs embrace the fact that they begin to feel like strangers even at home.

American sociologist David C. Pollock defines a Third Culture Kid (TCK) as "a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents' culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK's life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background."

TCK Diagram


How TCKs View the World

As TCKs, we are champions of integrating our birth culture and the culture of our host country(ies), thereby creating a unique third culture perspective. A perspective that we share with others who have undergone similar moves and cultural adjustments, regardless of their origin or their final destination.

It is true that as TCKs, we tend to have more in common with one another, rather than with people from our home or host culture. We feel energized in the company of others who have traveled in our own shoes. To that end, our cultural values reach beyond national lines and we are proud to have a global view of the world. Our experiences enable us to be adaptive, accepting, resilient, and flexible. We have outstanding communication skills, and we can identify easily with others. We are compassionate and introspective, perceptive and self-reliant.

Ultimately, the beauty of TCKs lies in their knack for diplomacy rather than conflict.

So how do I feel when someone else is late to a party I am hosting?

As a German, I am still very punctual and will be uber-ready before my guests arrive. Add the Brazilian in me, and I know to add a couple of hours to my time frame so that I can have the stamina to party all night. And what about the American in me? I am no longer offended when everyone leaves right after the dessert has been served.

Third Culture Kids - Growing Up Among Worlds


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