What's in this article?
- What's a Third Culture Adult/Kid/Person?
- The rootlessness of a Third Culture Person
- Embrace your Third Culture Nature!
- Third Culture People are multilingual.
- Third Culture People are resilient and adaptable.
- Expanded worldview. A Global Mindset.
- Third Culture People knows someone who knows someone...
- Third Culture People are perfect for bridging cultures.
Once upon a time, a young German lady started her first job in Singapore. She is tall, beautiful and blonde. It is hard to miss her in a crowd of (shorter) ethnic Asians. Colleagues welcomed her to the company. Though, some were surprised and became curious. She spoke in perfect Singlish. Singlish is not an easy language to grasp.
Her physical appearance and speech created a cognitive dissonance. How could a foreigner speak Singlish and know Singapore culture so well?
Soon after, it was discovered that half her childhood was divided between Germany and Singapore. She is a Third Culture Person.
What is a Third Culture Adult/Kid/Person?
In the 1950s, anthropologists and sociologist Drs. John and Ruth Hill Useem coined the term "Third Culture Kid", or TCK, to describe children who spent their formatives years or a significant part of their lives outside their parent's homeland or culture.
More recently, Pollock and Van Reken (2001), who wrote the book “Third Culture Kid”, defines it as:
A person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture.. . . [He/she] then builds relationships to all of the [host] cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into [his/her] life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar backgrounds. (p. 19)
TCKs are children who have socialised and learned two different cultures to form a third culture. The first culture is usually their parents' culture, while the second culture is learned from friends, the environment or the local community. Combining these two cultures forms the third culture, a culture that is neither one nor the other but a blend of the two.
Based on a survey of over 200 Adult TCKs by Denizen in 2011, more than half of the participants made their first move at nine years of age or younger, and the average number of countries they lived in was 4.6.
TCKs come from families whose parents work in education, military, missionary, diplomacy or international business. Jade Han, the daughter of a Korean diplomat, moved countries every two years from the age of 3 years. Jade reflected on her experiences in her opinion piece in The Guardian. She talked about picking up multiple languages. More poignantly, she learned how to say goodbyes.
TCKs also come from interethnic families, where both parents are from different ethnic groups, and their children learn about both cultures and mix them in their daily interactions. While there isn't a global statistic that looks into inter-racial marriages, Pew Research looked at the increasing trends of inter-racial marriages among Asian and Hispanic Americans in their 2017 report.
With globalisation, TCKs are far more common than before. TCKs grow up to become Adult Third Culture Kids or ATCKs. (A)TCKs have a tremendous ability to understand, socialise or incorporate elements of different cultures into their daily repertoire.
Do you identify as a Third Culture Person?
The rootlessness of a Third Culture Person
Third Culture People1 face unique challenges that others do not. Due to constant movement, Third Culture People encounter challenges such as a confused sense of identity, coping with transitions, intense goodbyes, isolation, and bullying due to constant movement.
Third Culture People have the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of different cultures and build a close network of friends in every city or country they have lived in. Yet, there is a perennial sense of rootlessness. Home feels like it is "everywhere and nowhere."
Rootlessness can imply not having roots. For many, their roots are tied to a land, a location, the place where they grew up. Therefore, rootlessness suggests that one does not have a home, nor a place they call home. In other words, your roots are your "home", and home is a location.
Where are you from? or Where is your home? are common questions asked of a Third Culture Person. It is also the most challenging question to answer.
A home implies an emotional attachment, a place of belonging, where a person is accepted as there are and have the freedom to be who they are. Yet, many do not feel like they belong to any culture.
Because of the varied life experiences of a Third Culture Person, no one community or society can 100% fully understand and appreciate them. When there is a lack of understanding and fear of difference, it becomes challenging for the Third Culture Person to be accepted by "locals" or feel a sense of belonging.
Some resolve this struggle by tying "home" to people, the deep friendships cultivated in various places. Thus, the sense of belonging comes from people rather than a specific place.
For others, "home" refers to a period in their personal histories, such as their university time or childhood abroad. Home is when they felt like themselves most.
Embrace your Third Culture Nature
Now that we've covered the basics and challenges, there is so much to celebrate as a Third Culture People! Third Culture People can bring so much diversity and uniqueness that it would be wasteful not to recognise and tap on their skills, knowledge and experiences.
Here are some reasons to celebrate being a Third Culture Person!
Third Culture People are multilingual.
A different language is a different vision of life. —Federico Fellini
Language opens up a new world. Each language presents a new way of seeing, describing and interacting with reality. When you know more than one language, you can access knowledge and wisdom of diverse cultures and gain perspectives into very different lives.
Typically, Third Culture People know two languages or more. It is a significant advantage and skill. In a way, Third Culture People will be naturally called on to become the bridge builders between cultures.
Third Culture People are resilient and adaptable.
Due to the ever-changing environments and social groups, Third Culture People need to survive and thrive. To do so, they need to learn how to be resourceful in resolving problems, independent in taking action and adapt to unfamiliar situations.
According to Abe, Third Culture People are more resilient and can adapt their mental and emotional styles. Moving to new places requires significant effort to build new friendships, become familiar with the environment, and adjust to the local culture. Doing these multiple times gives the Third Culture Person the opportunity to practice and strengthen their emotional, mental and physical resilience and enhance their skill to adapt.
Expanded worldview. A global mindset.
Third Culture Person can make unique cultural references and present different perspectives to a conversation. According to Lyttle, Baker and Cornwell, Third Culture People have higher levels of intercultural sensitivity, which is the ability to perceive, respect and appreciate cultural differences.
The constant movement gives Third Culture people the opportunity to learn and accumulate cultural gems. And so, the Third Culture person can draw upon their multi-cultural experiences and enrich others through their conversations, teachings, speeches and so on.
Third Culture People knows someone who knows someone...
Human connection fulfils a deep primal need to belong. Having lived in many places, the Third Culture Person will have honed the ability to make friends quickly and deeply. Thus, a Third Culture Person has a vast social network spanning countries and even continents.
Even when the Third Culture Person has moved to another location, they will try to maintain these deep connections. They become adept and even experts in using various technologies to stay in touch.
When you speak to a Third Culture Person, they will have "known someone who knows someone who does" in another city or country.
Third Culture People are perfect for bridging cultures.
Observational skills, social skills, cross-cultural skills, and language skills are only a handful of essential skills acquired from their Third Culture life. These skills are vital in their ability to survive and thrive in unfamiliar and ambiguous environments. Not only do these valuable skills helps to build confidence, but it also helps them to live and build a life anywhere.
These people bridge differences, facilitate intercultural conflict, become cultural guides/coaches or become global leaders. They can deftly diffuse potential arguments, tactfully navigate social faux pas, or see disparate connections to find common ground.
And so, it is only natural to turn to a Third Culture Person to be the cultural connector.
There are many challenges in leading a Third Culture life. While many did not choose to be a Third Culture Person, living between cultures requires tremendous courage.
In a world that constantly tells you who you should be, it takes courage to stand up for your truth and live authentically.
In a world that constantly divides society, the Third Culture Person has a vital role in bridging the cultural divide.
Now more than ever, we need Third Culture People to advocate for understanding, acceptance and respect for cultural differences. Third Culture People is the proof that harmony can exist among different cultures, even within one's self.
Are you ready to take on this role?
- For simplicity, the term Third Culture Person or People will be used instead of Adult Third Culture Kid or Third Culture Kid when referring to adults and children. ↩