Third Culture Kid

Born Travelers: the Life of a Third Culture Kid

Third Culture Kid

By Sarah Zinn

The thirst for travel is usually something that develops. At a certain point, after flipping through pictures in books and drooling at your friend’s description of Italian pizza, curiosity wins.  People succumb to the mystique of the world and say goodbye to their home for a few weeks, trying to satiate their desire to see it with their own eyes.

However, there is a small population born into the culture of travel. Labeled Third Culture Kids, they were brought up in multiple countries because of their parent’s job post, and at a young age learned to acclimate to other cultures. Some even moved to a new place every two years, or so, of their life.

Children of government workers, missionaries, military officials, and ex-patriots, TCK’s have created a subculture combining their birth culture and the foreign cultures they have adjusted to.

TCKs can be identified by their multiple passports, their long list of ex’s from various foreign countries, and their ability to calculate time difference at the drop of a hat. They were cursing in Spanish, Greek and German before you knew where those countries were located on the map. They are a culture of children and teens that have spent an unhealthy amount of time at airports and have trouble discerning, even to themselves, where they are from.

Sociologist Ruth Hill Useem studied TCKs and coined the term. With the help of other researchers she found that they were more likely to get a bachelor’s degree and be at the top of their field. Little manifestations of cultural tolerance, as a whole they are more successful than their native counterparts. However glamorous the life of a TCK may seem, it is most definitely bittersweet. Despite their familiarity with famous museums and streets of ancient cities, in a sense they have lost the familiarity of their own heritage. They live in a world where it is more normal to jet off to Mallorca for the weekend than have a sleepover with their childhood friend.

Characterized by their moves abroad, TCK’s are in a constant state of temporary. Unlike the common traveler, their definition of home is confusing and sometimes lost. And while moving so often can cultivate independence, in some cases, it can build a wall that shuts out intimacy. They have acquired a familiarity for leaving things behind.

This may speak to why TCKs are more likely than non-TCKs to work abroad. Some cannot reconnect with the culture of their “homeland,” and have the urge to move to somewhere new every few years. The comfort of home is replaced by the comfort of exploring and moving to new places.

TCKs are children of the world. They’ve already lived a life of travel, and so perhaps their grand adventure will not be in pursuit of historic ruins and tropic jungles, but of settling down.

sarah zinnAbout the Writer:

Sarah Zinn is currently a student at Indiana University studying Journalism. She’s a creative, passionate writer and with a compulsion for wit. In her free time she enjoys venturing outdoors, eating ethnic food, painting and on the rare occasion, sleeping. She is very interested in civil rights, the environment, public policy, and the arts. She has a curiosity for most things, excluding only finite math and stressfully dramatic shows such as CSI and 90210. She is a diehard fan of Seinfeld and most girl bands of the indie rock persuasion. The daughter of an expat, Sarah has called the state of Indiana, Athens GR, and London England home within the 19 years of her life. Sarah writes for her university’s newspaper the Indiana Daily Student, and has been published in Indianapolis Monthly Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @sarah_zinn.

The Life of a Third Culture Kid Feature Photo by Paxson Woelber

  1. I can relate to it to a certain extent. I have lived in 3 different cities and have recently moved to a new city – so, I do feel nomadic. Living in different cities (or countries) teaches you a lot and makes you a lot stronger person.

  2. I love articles like this! So many people are completely unaware of the TCK community that is huge and reaches to every corner of the globe!

    For example, I saw the writer of this article lived in London, the most recent city I lived in; I looked her up on Facebook and it turns out we have two mutual friends! TCK’s always have connections with each other, and it’s really fun to show other people who we are through our upbringing.

  3. Thank you for the short and insightful write-up Sarah. It briefly reminded me of what Pico Iyer called the quintessential ‘Global Soul’ – and I am convinced that this ‘constant state of temporary’ may be the norm for many today.

  4. I am one of the TCK and I have lived in 7 different countries so far. A lot of what the article talked about rang true for me, which, in my opinion, does not happen a lot when people talk about TCK. I do feel like a nomad and it really is hard to define home, especially when you talk to people who never left their home country to live somewhere else. Thank you for writing the article!

  5. Loved this post! It really resonated with me. And it’s so true that it’s bittersweet. I think it does make it hard to move back to our ‘home’ country. I never lived in my passport countries so it would feel uncomfortable to move to Belgium or France. Instead, I’ve chosen to live in London where people come from everywhere and most are multicultural in some way!

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