Third Culture Kid – A child raised in a culture other than their parents’ (or the culture of the country given on the child’s passport, where they are legally considered native) for a significant part of their early development years.
The term was coined by anthropologists John and Ruth Hill Useem in the 1950s, originally to describe the children of American expatriates in India.
“Where are you from?”
What apparently is a simple question, for some kids is really the beginning of a complex discussion.
“Peru, but I moved when I was 15”
“Sweden, but I lived in Bosnia and Herzegovina, France and Latvia”
“Venezuela, then USA”
“US, but also UK, Germany, France, Belgium, Japan “
“Thailand and Malaysia”
This is a trend today. A 2016 global population study conducted by the UN found out that the number of international migrants, namely the people living in a country other than the one they were born into, hit 244 million. That’s 41 per cent more since 2000. The study found that the number of international migrants has actually grown faster than the global population. Humanity is moving even more than it is growing.
The migrants today are becoming what sociologist Steven Vertovec calls “superdiversity”- an urban situation where the diversity is becoming much more diverse. This is one of the many consequences of globalization; increased connectivity and weaker borders. But how does this affect these individuals in terms of their identity and culture?
For these poster children of globalization, the journey is bitter sweet. Sometimes, moving means getting to a better quality of life, a better government, new experiences, new people, and learning to be adaptable and inclusive of diversity. However, it also means re-integrating all the time, being afraid to lose one’s own culture, or having a hard time establishing steady and durable relationships with the people around you.
A big part of who we are is developed when we are kids – the languages we speak, the food we eat, the way we behave; it is all very much influenced by the place we grow up in, the place most of us would call home. What happens when our “home” changes every few years or so? When we’re constantly shifting environments?
Some of these third culture kids gave us an answer, describing how they think these conditions affected who they are.
“It has changed me a lot as a person, now I see the world in a different way ,and I’m more open minded”
“I have difficulty answering the question “Where do you come from”, but I am fortunate enough to be able to call home different places.”
“It has made me more passive, less fierce”
“Well, it certainly complicates my answer to the question, “where are you from?” I’ve never lived anywhere longer than 2.5 years, so I don’t even have a place I call “home.” I’m not complaining, though; I love my life and I feel so blessed to have been able to experience moving living in 18 (or more) cultures. However, rather than the fear of moving away from home, I’ve flip-flopped it and I get nervous about the thought of staying in one place for too long”
“I cultivated a curiosity about other cultures, ways of being, ways of knowing. I think “statehood” is somewhat arbitrary. The experience also left me feeling like I don’t completely fit in one social group.”
In a world where nationalism is on rise everywhere, the community of third culture kids is an allegory to what represents the utopia of an ideal globalization. They might not know where their home is, but there is an immediate connection that is made at bars, parties, coffee shops, and work spaces across the world when they meet someone who also lived between worlds: even if the list of the countries they lived in is different, the “Where are you from?” question-related anxiety is the same. For such people, what really matters are the human connections they have established along their way, more than the way itself.
- Pollock, D. C., & E., V. R. (2017). Third culture kids: The experience of growing up among worlds. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
- Tanu, D. (2015). Toward an Interdisciplinary Analysis of the Diversity of “Third Culture Kids”. Migration, Diversity, and Education, 13-35. doi:10.1057/9781137524669_2
- Hanek, K. J. (n.d.). Biculturals, monocultures and Adult Third Culture Kids: Individual differences in identities and outcomes. Research Handbook of Expatriates, 451-467. doi:10.4337/9781784718183.00036
- Personal survey among former third culture kids
- UN Global population study,2016
- Useem, J.; Useem, R. (1967). “The interfaces of a binational third culture: A study of the American community in India”. Journal of Social Issues. 23 (1): 130–143. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4560.1967.tb00567.x.
- Vertovec, Steven (2007). “Super-diversity and its implications”. Ethnic and Racial Studies. (6): 1024–1054. doi:10.1080/01419870701599465.
- The Sympathiser, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s stunning, darkly humorous look at Eurasian and third culture identity after the Vietnam War.
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, in which Junot Díaz merges Puerto Rican Spanglish with nerdy boyhood to wonderful effect.
- The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid explores being torn between Eastern and Western cultures and world.