Painting Pictures: Who Are Third Culture Kids?

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Painting Pictures: Who Are Third Culture Kids?

painting1Today the Painting Pictures series officially launches with the wise and gracious and focusing words of Ruth E. Van Reken, co-author with David Pollock of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, Revised Edition. If you are a TCK, are raising a TCK, or grandparenting one, if you are in any way interested in TCKs, you need this book. You need to buy it because you’ll refer to it often over the years. She is also the author of Letters Never Sent and the co-founder of Families in Global Transition. I am thrilled that Ruth graciously agreed to participate and with the way her words set up the series.

Ruth grew up in Nigeria as a USA citizen with an American dad who was born and raised in Persia (now Iran), she raised her own children in Liberia and her first grandchild was born in Ghana.

She says, “This topic is obviously important to me. However, because the term itself often seems to lead to confusion, I thought it might be good to set a clear foundation on who and what we are or are not talking about to hopefully expedite the important discussions that will follow.”


Who are third culture kids?

In the late 1950s, Ruth Hill Useem, originator of the third culture kid term, simply called them “children who accompany parents into another culture.” While she did not specifically say so, all those she originally studied were in another culture due to a parent’s career choice, not as immigrants or refugees. Dave Pollock later defined TCKs as those who have “spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture(s).” He then went on to describe them by adding “Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.

This descriptive phrase seems to be part of where some confusion rests. It is absolutely true that any given TCK or by now adult TCK (ATCK) often personally incorporates various aspects of his or her life experiences into a personal world view, food preferences, or cultural expectations. That’s why many TCKs and ATCKs relate to the metaphor of “being green” that Whitni Thomas describes in her lovely poem “Colors.” There she writes how she feels both yellow and blue in her different worlds but wishes there was a place to “just be green.” Ironically, many TCKs do feel “green” when with others of like experience, as Pollock describes. This is where they don’t have to explain this desire to be both/and rather than being forced to choose an either/or identity. Other TCKs easily understand because many feel the same way, no matter which country their passport says is “home” or which countries they have lived in. But putting various pieces of different cultures together is not the third culture itself, although it is a very common (and wrong) way many describe it.

Lucy two-fisting samboosas and breaking the fast with Yusuf

Lucy two-fisting samboosas and breaking the fast with Yusuf

What is the “third culture”?

If the third culture isn’t a mixing and matching of various cultural pieces, what is it? Another common misconception is that somehow it means something related to the “third world.” Or that it measures the number of countries or cultures someone has lived in. Many have said to me, “Well, I must be a third, fourth, or even fifth culture kid because I’ve lived in…” and they list the extraordinary number of places they have lived or the cultural complexities within their family structure.

Perhaps having a simple definition of the original concept of the third culture itself would be helpful. A starting point is remembering that culture is something shared, not an individualistic experience. So how does that relate? Easily! In the late 1950s, two social scientists from Michigan State University, Drs. John and Ruth Hill Useem, originally defined the third culture as a way of life shared by those who were internationally mobile because of their career such as international business, military, foreign service, or missionary work. The Useems noted those we now call “expatriates” had left the country their passport declared as “home” (the first culture) and moved to host country (the second culture). They noted that this community formed a way of life that was common to them but was unlike either the way they would have lived in their home cultures or how the locals were living in this host land. They called this an ‘interstitial” or third culture. Those who lived in this community may not have shared nationalities or ultimately, the same host cultures but there is much they share. Then, as now, all who live this globally mobile lifestyle for reasons related to career choices live in a world of truly cross-cultural interactions. Entire worlds and cultural mores and expectations can change overnight with one airplane ride. High mobility – personal and within the community – is the name of the game. There is some level of expected repatriation as compared to a true immigrant who plans to stay. Often there is a strong sense of identity with the sponsoring organization. In time, Dr. Ruth Hill Useem because particularly fascinated with studying the children who grew up in this particular cultural milieu and named them third culture kids or TCKs.

So why do these distinctions make a difference to anyone but a high powered academician? Because it helps us normalize the results of a globally mobile experience for all. In particular, if we understand the difference between the TCK and the third culture itself, we can see more clearly how and why the typical characteristics of the TCK profile emerge. They do not form in a vacuum. For example, if TCKs are chronically negotiating various cultural worlds in their formative years, no wonder they often become cultural bridges in later life and careers. Interacting with others from various cultures and world views hopefully develops an understanding that there are reasons and values behind how others live and hopefully helps TCKs and ATCKs clarify the reasons they hold the values and practices they do.

On the other hand, if the normal process of identity development occurs in conjunction with how our community sees and defines us as well as our inner perceptions, we can understand why frequent changes of our cultural mirrors can complicate the process of defining “who am I, anyway?” If relationships and the normal attachments that come with them are chronically disrupted by high mobility, no wonder there are often issues of loss and grief to attend to. We can also understand the isolation some TCKs ultimately feel as it seems pointless to start one more relationship if it will only end in another separation.

playing with bones in the desert

playing with bones in the desert

Better yet, once we have understood the “why” of our common characteristics, we can figure out the “what” we need to do to help deal effectively with the challenges so the many gifts of this experience are being maximized. And then we have to see how we will do those things. That’s the stage we are at now. I call it TCK Phase 2.  All over the place, new books are coming out telling us how to do better school transition programs, how therapists can work more effectively with this population, how parents and educators can work well with adolescents TCKs. I’m sure you will be hearing from many of these emerging experts in the coming blogs.

Personally, however, the reason I feel so passionately about keeping our terms clear is so that as we understand the “why” of the TCK story, we can begin to apply some of these insights and lessons learned to others in our globalizing world who are also living and growing up cross-culturally and with high mobility for countless reasons now than simply a parent’s career choice. But I’ll save those thoughts for another blog when I can hopefully share how lessons learned in the TCK experience relate to other cross-cultural kid (CCK) childhoods as well.

 How does this important understanding of TCKs will help you?

Ruth’s desire, and mine, for this series, is “the normalizing of experiences and then the empowering of TCKs and ATCKs to live life to the fullest potential.” Follow Ruth on Facebook and keep up-to-date on her writing, speaking, and other offerings of wisdom on her blog Cross Cultural Kids.

Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, Revised Edition

Letters Never Sent, a global nomad’s journey from hurt to healing updated, 2012, by Summertime Publishing


  1. […] This descriptive phrase seems to be part of where some confusion rests. It is absolutely true that any given TCK or by now adult TCK (ATCK) often personally incorporates various aspects of his or her life experiences into a personal world view, food preferences, or cultural expectations. That’s why many TCKs and ATCKs relate to the metaphor of “being green” that Whitni Thomas describes in her lovely poem “Colors.” There she writes how she feels both yellow and blue in her different worlds but wishes there was a place to “just be green.” Ironically, many TCKs do feel “green” when with others of like experience, as Pollock describes. This is where they don’t have to explain this desire to be both/and rather than being forced to choose an either/or identity. Other TCKs easily understand because many feel the same way, no matter which country their passport says is “home” or which countries they have lived in. But putting various pieces of different cultures together is not the third culture itself, although it is a very common (and wrong) way many describe it. Read more here. […]

  2. Marilyn Gardner May 28, 2013 at 11:58 am - Reply

    Thank you for starting this series. Thanks to Ruth for this clear picture to begin the conversation. It was a talk by Ruth Van Reken that began to change my perspective on adjusting in the United States. After growing up in Pakistan and then raising my kids in Pakistan and Egypt we found ourselves back in the United States. 4 years into our time my husband and I attended a conference on TCK’s in Chicago. Ruth was one of the speakers. I remember two things clearly: One – she was so funny (did not expect that!) two – she spoke about being a nurse on an alzheimer’s unit. I was a nurse so related. She talked about how it was a perfect place for her, because she didn’t know who she was and nor did her patients know who they were. But as I recall she had a moment of truth one day when she was going out to the parking lot and ran into another person working there and suddenly realized this person had a story. She had been so focused on her own story that she forgot those around her had stories as well. That was huge for me. To suddenly realize that TCK’s (ie me) were not the only ones with a story. It sounds really simple but it was a big deal to go forth with a resolution that I would find out the stories of others. It wasn’t an immediate I’m okay and as evidenced by my blog posts, I still work through those years through my writing right now, but it was a huge start. So – that’s a really lengthy way to say Thank you Ruth and Thank you Rachel! This is important stuff in our increasingly global world.

  3. Ruth Van Reken May 28, 2013 at 2:24 pm - Reply

    Thanks, Marilyn, for your encouraging comment. I love it that you were able to translate a few simple words and concepts heard long ago into principles that apply to your own story. When I speak, I have no way to know if or what happens so this is a lovely surprise all these years later to hear you remember such a detail! Thank you for taking time to write and I am sure you have also helped “normalize” the story for many others as well. Thanks again, Rachel, for starting this particular forum as well.

  4. Carin May 28, 2013 at 6:34 pm - Reply

    Such an important conversation! Thank-you for having it.

  5. Joy May 28, 2013 at 7:32 pm - Reply

    Love your goal for this series!

    “the normalizing of experiences and then the empowering of TCKs and ATCKs to live life to the fullest potential.”

  6. Ruth Van Reken May 29, 2013 at 1:51 am - Reply

    I agree with Joy and Carin that the topic you are addressing, Rachel, is hugely important because without the language to name our feelings and experiences, we are often only left with wondering “what is wrong with me?” I suppose one of my biggest joys through the years is watching what DAve Pollock called the “Aha!” moment when someone finds out he or she is not alone but has a name.

  7. Emily May 29, 2013 at 2:13 am - Reply

    The differences between third culture kids and immigrant kids seem to have to do with their parents’ money and privilege. My friends’ immigrant kids speak fluent English by high school, navigate the world fairly well, and will likely grow up to be successful adults here in the U.S. I’ve also met kids who grew up here and returned to Mexico, and they also seem to do okay.

    Then I meet missionary families in Mexico. Their kids don’t speak the local language. After nine years the parents are nearly fluent and the kids know three words. They barely speak the national language. They only play with each other, have no friends even though all the neighbors have kids their age. The parents won’t send the kids to the local school because the state curriculum isn’t high quality. Apparently rote memorization will permanently stunt their kids’ development and they’ll turn out lazy like the local indigenous people. The kids’ only friends are other (white) missionary kids.

    Wouldn’t the kids be better off going to school, playing with friends, and speaking the local language? I can’t think that home schooling followed by boarding school would be healthy for kids.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones May 29, 2013 at 5:33 am - Reply

      Emily, I appreciate your comment and there a few things I would like to respond to.

      A difference between TCKs and immigrant kids is that immigrants have moved, permanently, to another country. TCKs move but don’t stay in that new country. It also isn’t about simply being in a different country from your parent’s birth country, it is about that ‘between worlds’ space for kids who don’t live in a country they will permanently inhabit. Ruth says it so much better! It isn’t a wealth, privilege, or race (white) issue. I know many TCKs (not immigrants) who are not wealthy, with parents who work in humble positions, and who are not white. Congolese in Djibouti. Indonesian in Kuwait. Somali in Hong Kong.

      It seems like what you are picking up on is more of an issue of how kids respond to living internationally – those who do well and those who don’t. I imagine there are some of both in the TCK community as well as in the immigrant community. One area that Ruth is beginning to write about and examine, is how do these two areas overlap? She mentions Cross Cultural Kids briefly in this post and you can find more information on her website.

      I would also venture to guess that the families you have met in Mexico are not representative of all TCKs. At the risk of sounding defensive, but also as an example, my own three are fluent in French, have been in schools here through 6th grade, have many local friends, and we have now chosen boarding school for a multitude of reasons, the least of which was academics. I confess that it is a bit hard to swallow a sweeping statement that home schooling or boarding school can’t be healthy for kids, just as hard as it is to swallow that local schools can’t be healthy. Every situation, family, and kid is unique.

      I agree with you that there are issues and that not all families live well overseas, or engage with and honor the local culture, but I just don’t think the comparison between healthy immigrants and struggling TCKs is quite accurate. But it is something to continue thinking about and like I said, Ruth has already gotten started in that direction.

  8. […] A recent post on one of my current favorite blogs talks more about this confusion and why it’s the second definition that is the correct one. It’s a good read and features an interview with Ruth E. Van Reken.  We have her to thank for many things TCK related including a must read book she co-authored called Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. […]

  9. Ruth Van Reken May 30, 2013 at 5:16 am - Reply

    Good comments, Emily and Rachel. Words and language are interesting as we use specific words based on our own vision of what they mean and until we realize someone else may be using that same word with a very different mental picture than we have, we don’t even realize our underlying assumptions.

    Emily, you make a great point of how some TCK families do not begin to maximize the opportunities to get to know another world, language, or culture by staying inside what is really an “expat” bubble. In their original studies, Drs. Useem included the local citizens who interacted with the “expats” as part of this third culture because they, too, lived in a different cultural world when working with the expats in business or other realms. When I see such families as you describe, I am saddened for it is a waste of such an opportunity and frankly, I hear from some of these TCKs when they are older who rue the time they did not engage with the local culture in their host world. And I surely agree with you that in comparing many immigrant families to many TCK families, money and privilege are very different commodities in the two communities.

    But I also agree with Rachel that not all TCK families are rich, and would add that not all immigrant families are poor. Many I know have come as professionals to fill particular positions or do a particular business. The issue of economics is, in fact, a very important one to discuss in terms of how it operates and defines the groups and individuals in each group, but originally the distinction was, indeed, about the reality that immigrants made a permanent, usually one way, move and third culture families moved expecting to one day return “home.”

    But the interesting thing to me is that even though today’s immigrants do still move to a new land expecting to stay, their young people can have something much closer to a traditional TCK experience than immigrants would have had in previous generations. Why? Because unlike days when folks immigrated via ship rather than airplane and usually never went ‘home’ again, today’s families can fly back and forth to the country and relatives from which they came. This means they can also have the “hidden immigrant” experience when they go back on vacation to see relatives that many TCKs when they reenter their “home country.” So thanks to both of you for this good discussion…and especially thanks, Rachel, for reminding us that TCKs and other CCKs can be from any and all nationalities and cultures. It’s a most interesting time to live in our world and watch all this cultural mixing and matching in ways that haven’t happened before!

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones May 30, 2013 at 6:39 am - Reply

      Well said Ruth, I knew you could say much clearer than me. It IS sad to see families not take advantage of the opportunities around them.

      I hadn’t thought about what you said of the way the current world changes the immigrant experience – so true and also something I need to understand better.

    • April January 10, 2014 at 9:12 pm - Reply

      I just finished The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. I think it does a great job of showing this blurred line between TCKs and immigrants. Living in a highly-mobile, urban setting, when I try to describe third culture to people, it is the question I most often get: how are those groups different today. And in all honesty, with my own children I have a hard time knowing which they are since “repatriation” is not a definite step for our/their future.

  10. Ruth Van Reken May 30, 2013 at 7:09 pm - Reply

    yes, learning how and where our TCK experience applies to others is a great discovery for us and hopefully for others being raised between and among many cultural worlds as well.

  11. […] It was at that moment I knew that there was a name for you. […]

  12. […] you Ruth, for your vulnerability. Thank you for contributing to this blog, for bringing my soul comfort, and for being a gentle shepherd of so many parents and […]

  13. […] The third culture kid builds relationships to all the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. ~Ruth van Reken […]

  14. […] few week’s ago a Painting Picture post came from an MK, a military kid. Today’s post comes from another MK, a missionary kid. I am […]

  15. […] Painting Pictures post comes from Ute Limacher, someone I have been delighted to connect with in multiple places […]

  16. […] Painting Pictures post comes from MaDonna Maurer (who can only be amazing because I have Maurer in-laws and Maurer […]

  17. […] Today’s Painting Pictures post comes from Jenni Gates, a USAID kid who has livedall over the world. Her post is a moving picture of what happens at a TCK reunion and by the end of it, I was yet again reaching for my kleenex. Her words are beautifully chosen and tender and honest and I am so happy to share this piece with you. And can I just add that I love, love the first photo she shares, so apt for this series. If you are an ATCK, have you had reunions with old friends? What are the reunions like? […]

  18. […] Ruth Van Reken. Ruth wrote the opening essay in the series on Third Culture Kids, Who Are Third Culture Kids? She is the c0-author of the seminal book Third Culture Kids and Letters Never Sent, a moving memoir […]

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