Third Culture Kids

By | Category: Travel rumblings

First coined in the 1950s by Ruth Hill Useem – a sociologist who spent a year researching expatriates in India – the term ‘third culture kids’ (TCKs) has traditionally referred  to children who moved from their home (or first) culture to a host (or second) culture and formed a third culture, different from either the first or second cultures.

Today it is not so simple: many expatriate children no longer remain in one host culture while overseas. Take, Naduah Arumugam, for example. To date, Naduha has lived in six countries and she isn’t yet eighteen!


Naduah’s classmate, Nick Ross, is another TCK challenging the traditional definition. Before moving with his family to Beijing, Nick – who was born in Australia but grew up in New Zealand – enjoyed stints in Singapore, Hong Kong and Monaco.

Growing up in this way has some disadvantages including a lack of identity and insecurity, something both Nick and Naduha acknowledge: “When people ask TCKs ‘Where are you from?’ it can become complicated.” And when it’s time to return ‘home’ a whopping 65 percent of TCKs report taking years to readjust to their passport country, having suffered reverse culture shock.

Nonetheless, despite all the issues and upheaval involved, the overwhelming majority of TCKs say that the advantages of growing up among different cultural worlds far outweigh the disadvantages. TCKs get to see the world, acquire new languages and, perhaps most importantly, develop empathy for and an understanding of different cultures and religions. In today’s globalising world, such skills and experiences are often considered a strong asset.


Little wonder then that TCKs grow up to secure some of the most cherished jobs. Case in point? American president Barack Obama, who has called being president “the best job on earth” grew up as biracial, bicultural TCK (see box below), as did many of his cabinet.

Regardless of where TCKs end up – be it in the working or wider world – enjoy the journey! Being a TCK might just turn out to be the greatest gift that your parents will ever give you.


For more on TCKs, invest in a copy of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds – by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, Nicholas Brealey Publishing (

RAFT of rules

So the time has come to move? Make the transition a little easier by building a RAFT – a transitional tool created by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken to help TCKs (and adults) achieve a healthy closure. “By lashing four basic logs together we will be able to keep the raft afloat and get safely to the other side” explain Pollock and Van Reken.

Reconciliation: TCKs are taught to resolve any interpersonal conflicts. This includes the need to forgive and to be forgiven.

Affirmation: relationships are built and maintained through affirmation so TCKs should let others know that they respect and appreciate them by writing a letter or giving a small gift.

Farewell: say goodbye to people, places, possessions, and pets. Taking the time for ‘rites of passage’ gives us markers for remembering meaningful places and people and directly addresses the fact that you are saying goodbye.

Think destination: TCKs need to think realistically about the next destination. Where are you going? What are some of the positives and negatives we can expect to find there? If you don’t think through some of these issues, then the adjustment for all members of the family maybe rockier than it needs to be on arrival at the destination.


Citizens of the world
Expat children experience the world in a different way to most people. Here two TCKs, Naduah Arumugam and Nick Ross, reveal the lessons they have learned

Name: Naduah Arumugam
: German

I have lived in six countries to date due to my mother’s job (she works in the German Embassy) and have met and made friends from many countries. However, this can also be a disadvantage. The fact that you’re only going to be in one place for a short period of time (usually three to four years) can be tough. Leaving your life behind and starting all over again is hard. Sometimes I do wish that I had a real ‘home’ with all my friends and family in one place. However overall, I know that I am privileged to have experienced so much at such a young age. Each place I’ve called ‘home’ has helped make me the person that I am today.”

Name: Nick Ross

Being a TCK definitely has its advantages and disadvantages. During my spell overseas in Hong Kong, Singapore, Monaco and now Beijing, I’ve had so many amazing experiences that my friends back home in New Zealand can only dream of.  I’m learning Mandarin, have been to London on a school drama trip and, best of all, had the opportunity to attend the Beijing Olympic Games. Nonetheless being a TCK does have its drawbacks. As I get ready to go back to Australia for university, I am frequently reminded of the more simple opportunities I have missed out on while abroad. For example, although I am 18, I’ve never had a proper job. It means that I will have nothing to put on my resume in terms of employment when applying for a part-time job to help finance my university life.”

Famous TCKs

Consider yourself a TCK? You’re in good company…

Barack Obama
The 44th president of the United States is a TCK – as are many of his cabinet. Obama was born in Hawaii to an American mother and a Kenyan father. His parents divorced when he was two and his mother remarried an Indonesian man meaning that Obama spent part of his childhood in Indonesia.

Viggo Mortensen
The actor made famous by his role as Aragon in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is also a TCK! Mortensen was born in the Big Apple but grew up in Venezuela, Denmark and Argentina before returning to the U.S. as a teenager. The thespian speaks English, Danish and Spanish fluently.

Gillian Anderson
American actress, Gillian Anderson – who played Scully in hit sci fi show The X Files – was born in Chicago before moving to Puerto Rico and England. Anderson moved back to the US at the age of 11.


Colin Firth

The King’s Speech actor was born in Britain but spent part of his childhood in Nigeria, where his father was teaching. Firth later lived in St. Louis, Missouri, 1 before returning to the UK.

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