Blog post

5 challenges of being a ‘third culture kid’

By Joanna Kats

Have you heard of the third culture kids? You haven’t? No worries. It was last summer when I first heard of this term. That is, when I decided to set up my home online; my personal blog. Initially, I considered having a name for the blog which would embrace life experiences from two continents and four countries.

Research on the Internet would take me to journal papers on the challenges that third culture kids (known as TCKs) tend to face when they interact with others, throughout their childhood and adult life. Before exploring the challenges of being a third culture kid, let’s look at the term in some detail.

Defining the third culture kids

So who are the third culture kids? In a nutshell, there are children raised and educated in a culture different from their parents’ or in a family where their parents come from different cultures. Picture this: a child moving between two different cultures, creating their own third and unique culture. How does that sound to you?

Around 1960s, Ruth Hill Useem introduces the term to the public through relevant research, to see it being slowly established. The term may refer to both children and adults. Should the acronym ATCKs pop up on the screen, you will know that it refers to adult third culture kids; those who were exposed to different cultures at an early age.

As you may have guessed, being a third culture kid presents both challenges and joys. It is as if you are standing between different cultures. And you are studying different ideologies, philosophies, values every day. Every day, you do your best to grasp the differences, to embrace them and find balance within. And you are only…7. C’est difficile!

5 challenges of being a third culture kid

Let’s look at five main challenges that a third culture kid tends to face, regardless of age. Let’s suppose that we are having a coffee chat with that kid and they are narrating their story, in the first person.

(1) Introducing myself

So, here I am, with new friends. And they ask a simple question, for them: “Where are you from?” Silence! I am thinking how I should answer the question. Oh yes, I could say where I was born. Only that doesn’t feel quite right. I feel like explaining, sharing my difference with them, to be just like them. I’m not certain where to start from. Silence!

(2) In which language?

I started learning foreign languages at an early age. For me, that wasn’t foreign. That was one more way to interact with others. More precisely, to communicate with relatives abroad; people at school; people at work. There were times when I mixed up languages. I would be conversing in a language and without realising it, I would start using words and phrases from other languages I know. Others would notice it, and show it to me in different ways. Sometimes I would laugh along. Sometimes I would feel sad.

(3) That accent of mine!

Well, even if I want to keep it to myself, I can’t. That accent of mine says it all! I may be able to converse with poise in three – four – five languages, yet I have no perfect accent, in any of them. I have even been told that is sounds “broken” – literally. There is something that says that I may not be local. I’m probably from someplace else. I do my best to explain, sometimes with no success. Eh bien!

(4) About my identity

This is where it starts to get difficult. What is my identity? I have heard that our roots (the basis for our identity) exist where our childhood memories are made. Only my memories are made in two –three – four countries. I have been told that I belong “nowhere and everywhere.” I don’t understand that. I too want to have a single point of reference. I need to be able to say that I belong “here” or “there” – in a single word. And that can be an intense need, and I may forget all other needs, equally important and valid. That is difficult.

(5) Like ripe fruit

I hear that I am wise beyond my years. People get impressed with my scratching the surface of things to find the deeper truth. How I process and analyse issues and situations. How I express a stance and viewpoint. Since I have been exposed to various stimuli, piece of cake! Un jeu d’ enfant! I may look like ripe fruit ready to be picked, yet I don’t feel like that. I may need more time, to mature within; to be like others, the way I need…

Being raised and educated between different cultures can be challenging. You work hard to find your roots, to understand your identity and to share it with others. Hold on! That work presents joys as well. Let’s look at them next time, including relevant references.

Have a creative week!

A blogger friend, Joanna

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Comments (19)

  • Mary

    2 April 2019 at 18:19

    This was such an interesting post for me. My husband is Guatemalan, and I often wonder what values of each culture my children will pick up as they grow. Thank you for your perspective.

    1. Joanna K.

      4 April 2019 at 08:51

      Morning Mary. Thank you for your beautiful comment. And your honesty. It helps to better understand the challenges multicultural may be facing.

  • Subhashish Roy

    1 April 2019 at 16:09

    Third culture concept was new & good to understand the term. I feel such kids have a distinct advantage going further as they, in my view, are able to adjust faster in different circumstances.

    1. Joanna K.

      2 April 2019 at 13:26

      I am glad you have found this to be a good informative post. So when you pick up a language, you learn about the culture as well, that making it easier to adjust.

  • Lyosha

    1 April 2019 at 07:10

    I have never heard of that term but I do know a couple of such kids. I think it has its benefits. Each tck person I know is fantastic and unique, smarter and calmer.

    1. Joanna K.

      2 April 2019 at 13:21

      Lyosha, glad to hear that you have found this informative. Yes, being a TCK can have its benefits. I am using the term ‘joys’ to link it to the theme of my blog (challenges and joy of being world citizen).

  • Tracy C

    1 April 2019 at 00:05

    This is really interesting. I have nieces and nephews that are TCKs and have envied the ease that they appear to switch languages and reactions depending on their audiences.

  • Carol

    31 March 2019 at 15:24

    Really enjoyed reading your post. It’s hard enough to find your identity as a child in a single culture home. I never thought about how challenging this could be. Great post.

    1. Joanna K.

      31 March 2019 at 18:57

      Carol, thank you for your beautiful words. I am really glad you have enjoyed it, and learned somenthing new.

  • Elizabeth | Tired Mom Supermom

    30 March 2019 at 19:20

    cool post! I was raised in a very Russian household, so coming to Canada was a huge culture shock for me!

    1. Joanna K.

      31 March 2019 at 18:55

      Elizabeth, thank you for sharing your story. I can imagine how that change felt.

  • Snehal

    30 March 2019 at 14:39

    I never knew about third culture kid or something like this even existed. I feel it would be so challenging especially in creating their own identity. Thanks for the awareness! 😊

    1. Joanna K.

      31 March 2019 at 18:53

      Snehal, thank you for your comment. “Third culture kid” is a relatively new term, offering insight into a different aspect of multiculturalism and diversity.

  • kiara

    10 February 2019 at 14:13

    Very interesting post! I can imagine it can be challenging for third culture kids sometimes, but personally I think it is super important anyways to introduce kids to different cultures and languages at an early age.

    1. Joanna K.

      10 February 2019 at 14:53

      Thank you Kiara. I think I know what you mean. When you start learning languages at an early age, you are able to see the world whole.

  • Emily

    7 February 2019 at 00:05

    I’m also a TCK and struggle with many of these things as well. Wouldn’t change anything though. It all comes together to make us perfectly unique in our own ways.

    1. Joanna K.

      7 February 2019 at 00:31

      Emily, glad to get to know you. Yes, we can enjoy what makes us unique.

  • Carol (Reading Ladies)

    6 February 2019 at 21:56

    I enjoyed reading this post and hearing this perspective! 👍

    1. Joanna K.

      6 February 2019 at 22:27

      Carol, glad to hear so. Being raised and educated between different cultures has its challenges and joys!

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