In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Third Culture Kids

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Books on TCK
  • Repatriation
  • TCK in Adult Life

Communication Third Culture Kids
Anastasia Aldelina Lijadi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0227


Third culture kids (TCK) are individuals who follow their parents on their overseas assignment, relocating to one (or more) countries for a period of time with an option to either repatriate or stay abroad if permitted. The day-to-day routine for these TCK families starts with continuous efforts to adapt to their new place while juggling their work and colleagues, culture, language, schools, weather, environment, living arrangements, and the most daunting mission: making new friends. At the same time, TCK families have to deal with homesickness, losses, and nostalgia for their previous country of residence. It is understandable that while living overseas, TCK families tend to find comfort and build relationships with other expatriates as they undergo similar experiences. As a result, TCK grow up being exposed to three different cultures. The first is the primal culture or heritage culture; the second is the culture of the countries where they have lived; and the third is the interstitial culture and lifestyle shared and understood by TCK and other communities of expatriates. After the initiation of the term “TCK” in the 1960s, social science researchers have shown interest in this unique population. The emergence of journals dedicated to capturing the occurrences of high-mobility lifestyles and people who directly or indirectly affect TCK followed. Sponsoring organizations, international schools, and expatriate communities are contributing stakeholders during the developmental years of TCK. Living in several countries with cross-cultural exposure offers many benefits for TCK. They become bilingual or multilingual, gain a worldview perspective, are sensitive to different cultures and peoples, and develop early maturity, all of which match the qualities of a future international leader. Because of the promising benefits gained from living overseas, recent decades have witnessed the emergence of self-initiated expatriation, mostly with individuals who are TCK themselves wishing to give the same benefits to their family. However, numerous life disruptions (i.e., moving, losses, changing schools, learning a new language) have lasting effects on TCK. In their adulthood, on top of dealing with potential repatriation issues, TCK may be confronted with commitment issues, nostalgia, and unsettling emotions. Therefore, there is a strong urge for creating awareness of the TCK phenomenon within the society to prevent backlash from this upbringing.

General Overviews

The term “third culture kids” was created by two sociologists, Ruth Hill Useem and John Useem, as a result of their ethnographic study of expatriate communities in India, Useem and Useem 1967. The Useems found that although each specific expatriate community had its own distinctive characteristics (for example missionaries, foreign-service officers, educators, and corporate people), all of these groups preferred to spend time with each other irrespective of culture or nationality. This social interaction created an interstitial culture and lifestyle that is shared and understood only by the community of expatriates, and it is a culture different from that of either the home or the host culture. The Useems called this culture a “third culture” and the children of the expatriate families “third culture kids.” Pollock, et al. 2001 further refines the definition of TCK by referencing other labels that are used for TCK and reflecting where their parents worked: “Army brats” for those whose parents worked in the military service; “MK” for those who are children of missionaries; “Biz kids” for children of employees of international and multinational corporations; “Diplo brats” for those whose parents worked in foreign affairs or international nonprofit organizations; and “Oil kids” for children of employees in petroleum companies (Useem and Downie 1976). Other terms found in the literature to describe this life experience include “global nomads” in McCaig 1994, “cultural chameleons” in Moore and Barker 2012, and “internationally mobile adolescents” in Gerner, et al. 1992. Cockburn 2002 reports that due to their unique upbringing, TCK feel most comfortable in an international context, such as in international schools, within expatriate communities or multicultural establishments such as airports and hotels, or on social networking sites. Hoersting and Jenkins 2011 and Russell 2011 describe various challenges that TCK may experience throughout their lives. Peterson and Plamondon 2009 explores TCK’s experience of repatriation. Lijadi and Van Schalkwyk 2017 proposes a place identity construction theory, which may serve as guidance for TCK youth and their families to recognize their strengths and enabling modalities that assist in gaining a coherent sense of self.

  • Cockburn, Laura. 2002. Children and young people living in changing worlds: The process of assessing and understanding the “third culture kid.” School Psychology International 23.4: 475–485.

    DOI: 10.1177/0143034402234008

    Discusses TCK who grew up being exposed to a wide variety of cultures and life events from the perspective of a school psychologist working in the international school context.

  • Gerner, Michael, Fred Perry, Mark A. Moselle, and Mike Archbold. 1992. Characteristics of internationally mobile adolescents. Journal of School Psychology 30.2: 197–214.

    DOI: 10.1016/0022-4405(92)90031-Y

    Illustrates the characteristics of TCK compared to their local peers, in particular, their interest in travel, learning languages, and being more oriented to an international lifestyle in the future.

  • Hoersting, Raquel C., and Sharon Rae Jenkins. 2011. No place to call home: Cultural homelessness, self-esteem and cross-cultural identities. International Journal of Intercultural Relations 35 (January):17–30.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.ijintrel.2010.11.005

    This article reports that TCK score lower in self-esteem due to cross-cultural lifestyle and lack of sense of belonging to any culture.

  • Lijadi, Anastasia A., and Gertina J. Van Schalkwyk. 2017. Place identity construction of third culture kids: Eliciting voices of children with high mobility lifestyle. Geoforum 81 (May):120–128.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.geoforum.2017.02.015

    Employs the Collage Life-story Elicitation Technique—a semi-structured interview technique—with TCK participants from ages seven to eighteen to identify enabling modalities of TCK constructing their place identity.

  • McCaig, Norma M. 1994. Growing up with a world view: Nomad children develop multicultural skills. Foreign Service Journal 9:32–39.

    A reflection and summary of research on the opinions and memoirs of TCK, “global nomads,” or “cultural chameleons.”

  • Moore, Andrea M., and Gina G. Barker. 2012. Confused or multicultural: Third culture individuals’ cultural identity. International Journal of Intercultural Relations 36.4: 553–562.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.ijintrel.2011.11.002

    A qualitative approach examining the intercultural experiences of TCK from six different countries. The results show that TCK claimed to possess a multicultural identity and competency in intercultural communications and perceived their upbringing as mainly beneficial.

  • Peterson, Bill E., and Laila T. Plamondon. 2009. Third culture kids and the consequences of international sojourns on authoritarianism, acculturative balance, and positive affect. Journal of Research in Personality 43.5: 755–763.

    DOI: 10.1016/j/jrp.2009.04.014

    Explores the repatriation experiences of 170 TCK in the United States, including TCK who have repatriated more than once. Multiple repatriations are found to have a more positive impact on male TCK and to increase levels of authoritarianism in female TCK.

  • Pollock, David C., Ruth E. Van Reken, and Michael V. Pollock. 2001. Third culture kids: The experience of growing up among worlds. 2d rev. ed. Yarmouth, ME: Nicholas Brealey.

    This seminal book on TCK has become an eye-opener on the existence of TCK and raised concerns about the impact of their high-mobility lifestyle on their lives in adulthood. Pollock and Van Reken extended the Useems’ work in defining TCK and its developing models and explaining the transition experience, benefits and challenges, social interaction processes, and adaptation processes of a high-mobility lifestyle.

  • Russell, K. M. 2011. Growing up a third culture kid: A sociological self-exploration. Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge 9.1: 29–42.

    This article is one among very few auto-ethnographic studies in which the author shared her experiences growing up as a TCK.

  • Useem, John, and Ruth Useem. 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

    In this article, which introduced the concept of TCK, the Useems claimed that TCK developed a sense of belonging not to their home or host culture, but with others who share the experience of living outside their passport culture.

  • Useem, Ruth Hill, and Richard D. Downie. 1976. Third-culture kids. Today’s Education 65.3: 103–105

    This article was a qualitative exploration of TCK and their families who repatriated to or settled down in the United States in adult life. The article also provided the profile of TCK’s families, along with their language acquisitions and academic experiences.

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