Introduction to Third Culture Kids

Third Culture Kids (abbreviated TCKs or 3CKs) (sometimes also called Global Nomad) “refers to someone who [as a child] has spent a significant period of time in one or more culture(s) other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture.” – From Wikipedia

People go overseas for various reasons (job, military, etc), but I doubt they give much thought to how much it would impact their children. Parents probably worry, ‘Will my children adjust to the new environment?’ but they don’t think, ‘What will happen to my kids when they grows up or when we return to our home country?’ If they did, perhaps they would reconsider going abroad.

Growing up overseas is truly a life-defining experience, and coming ‘home’ is equally life-defining. How you react to it depends on your personality, but take a look at this list of characteristics from Wikipedia. Personally, I found it to be amazingly accurate:

  • 40% earn an advanced degree (as compared to 5% of the non-TCK population.)
  • 44% earned undergraduate degree after the age of 22.
  • Educators, medicine, professional positions, and self employment are the most common professions for TCKs.
  • TCKs are unlikely to work for big business, government, or follow their parents’ career choices.
  • 90% feel “out of sync” with their peers.
  • 90% report feeling as if they understand other cultures/peoples better than the average American.
  • Teenage TCKs are more mature than non-TCKs, but ironically take longer to “grow up” in their 20s.
  • More welcoming of others into their community.
  • Some studies show a desire to “settle down” others a “restlessness to move”.
  • Depression and suicide are more prominent among TCK’s.

There are two major themes from this list that I would like to discuss: drifting and depression.

TCKs take a longer time than their peers to ‘figure things out’ because they spend so much time trying to fit in rather than focusing on their own needs and desires. Many times, they decide to stay in school because school is a safe haven from a world which demands that you know what you want and why.

TCKs tend to choose more autonomous careers (ie. not government or corporate) because they want the freedom to use their abilities as they see fit. Restless TCKs will likely have many careers, looking for the ideal fit. TCKs have a lot of ability, but they also think differently from their peers. It’s not that they don’t respect authority; rather, most supervisors don’t understand TCK personalities or know how to use their skills, and this causes job dissatisfaction.

At some point, many TCKs start to despair, believing that they will never find a community or career to call their own.

It pains me to think of how many TCKs suffer from depression and that some will think it so bad as to end their lives. In your darkest moments, you may think that you are ‘useless’ or alone, but you are neither. You have much ability and a unique perspective on life; it’s not your fault that your peers do not appreciate these gifts! Pick something you are interested in, do your best, and don’t worry about the rest. Though it may take awhile, ability tends to rise to the top. The next President of the US is a TCK. Regardless of what you think of his politics, Obama’s willingness to listen and accept opinions other than his own is both his greatest strength and a classic TCK trait as well.

You are not alone and never will be. The many TCKs throughout the world are, and always will be, your community. With them, you never have to explain or justify yourself. The Internet has made finding them and sharing your experiences easier than ever – for example, Who knows? Maybe several of you can band together and do something great.

Being a TCK is both a blessing and a curse. Your eyes are opened to a dazzling multi-cultural world, but you may find it difficult to adjust to your ‘home’ culture. It is like watching color TV – you can’t go back to black-and-white. Yes, it has made my life more difficult than that of the average American, and I never asked for it. But to know what I know and to see what I have seen…I wouldn’t trade these for anything.

6 thoughts on “Introduction to Third Culture Kids

  1. I like your article, especially by the fact that I am of a very multiculrtural family. I don’t ever worry about fitting in with other cultures or races, because my family showed me that as long as I’m the colorful me that I am, people will like me. If, and yes a lot of people don’t like me, they don’t like me than that would be their loss. Because of the nationalties that I am and dealing with those who don’t approve I have suffered a lot of depression. Thank you for showing me that I am not the only one who feels this way.


  2. I’m glad to hear that your family is supportive, Barbara. My family has only recently begun to understand why I turned out the way I did. There are many others like us if you know where to look, so don’t be discouraged! Be strong, and live true to yourself.


  3. Hi! I have just started researching TCK once I fell into a major depression after another job did not work out right after I turned 30.

    All spiraled out of control emotionally with thoughts about “never finding a place in the world or a community” dominating my thoughts to where I couldn’t get out of bed and moved in with my parents (not due to finances but because I needed community and support and had not done a good job of building one after yet another move).

    Like you, I would not trade my experience as a TCk for anything. I lived in Saudi Arabia, Panama (my mothers home country), and have traveled to Cuba, Guatemala, Engalnd, France, Turkey and so much more including moving all over the US. By the time I was 15, I knew how to say “I love you” in 15 languages. I’m also Black American who was born and raised Muslim by convert parents.

    While I love my diverse lineage and showed a ton of promise growing up (I was a perfect high achieving student all through college), the ‘real world’ hit me like a ton of bricks. I was crappy at intimacy, relationships, long term friendships and jobs that required me to work for others. I feel inept and my parents are completely confused as to why I can’t just get a good job and stop wasting my potential.


    1. Hi, MSA. I’m glad you are discovering more about TCKs. Knowing more about yourself is the key to finding peace. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask! If I know it, I’ll do my best to answer.

      Your experience sounds very similar to mine (I lived in Saudi Arabia too!). For me, the trouble started in college when I realized that I didn’t “fit” anywhere. I was also disappointed that none of my classmates could really understand or relate to any of my experiences. I spent all of my 20s trying many different things and reading a lot of books. Around 27, I realized that I loved books and wanted to write something. Still, it took another four years before I found the courage to seriously pursuing this. Ever since then, I have been at peace. My community is small but growing.

      If I can offer any insight, this is this: don’t worry about fitting in or about “living up to your potential.” Be yourself! Find what moves you, and everything else will fall into place. If you love children, find a way to work with them. If you love travel, languages, history, spirituality, music, etc…find a way to do it. All of my 20s, I was searching for people like me. I rarely found them because I was looking in all the wrong places! But when I started focusing on “being myself” and doing what I loved, I began to find others who loved it for the same reason. That’s community.

      If you have trouble finding what moves you, try talking to people close to you and who you trust. Sometimes they know you better than you know yourself. But what helped me the most was keeping a journal (see this article). I carry it with me everywhere now and write anything that I feel is important in there. You may surprise yourself. Sometimes I find that I’ve written the same thing many times without thinking. This thing that I never realized before is obviously important to me somehow.

      I wish you the best! Being a TCK is not easy. We didn’t ask to be this way, but we also have incredible experiences and abilities. Find a way to use your gifts, and everything else will follow. This is how you achieve your potential.


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