Third Culture Kids

Putting down roots between homelands.

By: Emily Groleau, Root & Seed Editor


In the 1960s, sociologists studying India’s ex-pat communities came across an interesting phenomenon: although there were separate groups within these communities (such as teachers and foreign service officers), they still loved intermingling and spending time with one another. Despite coming from different cultures and nationalities, these people bonded closely over their shared experience as ex-pats and even created a unique “third” culture—one that differed from both their homeland and the culture of their host country. From this finding, a new term was coined: “third culture kids”


Who are third culture kids?

Third culture kids (TCK) grow up in a culture that’s different from their parents’ or the country of their nationality. During their formative years, their identities are shaped by a wider spectrum of cultural influences than their peers, and often even their own parents. As a result, some TCKs find a greater sense of belonging among people, rather than places or a specific culture. And while the sociological term refers to this group as “kids,” their unique childhoods have ripple effects on their entire lives, and those of future generations.


The complexities of third cultures

TCK can feel a bit like fish out of water at times, as they have to navigate multiple cultures with often conflicting norms and traditions (one TCK we spoke to recalled adjusting to celebrating Christmas over a seafood meal in the scorching heat, after her family had moved from Canada to Australia). In many cases, third culture kids come to feel more ‘at home’ by eventually adopting some of the customs found in their country of residence.


But despite this push and pull of influences, there are strengths to be gained by living in between cultures. Many TCKs seem to have an easier time adapting to change, and the skills they pick up in childhood, like multilingualism, can lead to more opportunities and rewarding career options. Some TCKs describe being at ease in the kinds of ‘transitional’ spaces that others can find stressful, like airports, hotels, and international schools. And when life presents challenges, they can often draw from a broader range of perspectives.


In fact, it was our community member, Danielle, who first introduced us to the idea of “Third Culture Kids” and all the strengths that come with that identity. Danielle is a TCK herself, and her daughter—born in Australia to a Canadian mother and Australian father, and then raised in the Netherlands—is also a TCK. In our Instagram Live, Danielle reflected on the idea of third culture kids by comparing it to something she heard from our guest Aldo in Season 1 Episode 3 of the Root & Seed Podcast. We asked her, “Is being a third culture kid the reason you are so comfortable moving around and embracing other cultures?” and she reflected:


“I loved what [Aldo] said about an integration of our cultures, becoming our own, and becoming our own personal cultures. I think that’s what third culture kids do. We take bits and pieces, and we synthesize things into our lives—to understand them, to connect with others, to reach out, and to make ourselves different or unique.


So, his idea of not being the “go-to Italian-Canadian,” but being someone who has brought his Italian-ness out in his own way…that really resonated with me. I have so many friends who’ve lived all over, and had kids from all these different backgrounds growing up in all different places where they didn’t grow up, or didn’t have a familial connection to. And that’s what I think we, as third culture kids, bring with us. It’s the beauty of this mobility that we have had in our generation …to live and change…to absorb these different things and go, “ok, this I really like, and this really resonates and this is really important to me,” —whether it’s a link to our previous culture, or something completely new.”


Getting comfortable exploring our roots

By picking up David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken’s ground-breaking 2001 book, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, some people read the stories of other TCKs and discovered for the first time that they were part of a global community with a common heritage. The positive impact that can come from these kinds of experiences is immeasurable, and it ties in with what we do at Root & Seed as well. Our mission is to bring together tradition-seekers who want to claim, honour, document, and celebrate their culture. And with so many third culture kids in the world, it’s important to capture your unique family heritage for safekeeping and celebration—as we move through the world and evolve.

 

Would you consider yourself a “third culture kid”? How did that experience growing up shape who you are today? Share in the comments below!