Well-Traveled, Multilingual and Clueless –Third Culture Kids Unpacked

At a wedding near LA with TCK friends I grew up with in the Philippines
At a wedding near LA with TCK friends I grew up with in the Philippines

I can go from zero to awkward, mumbling mess in no time when Western pop culture predating the late 90s is brought up in conversation. I have no clue what to say because a lot of the time, I have never heard of the actor/singer/quirky 80s celebrity of ambiguous sexuality being discussed. It is painful. I sound American. My Northern European genes make me look like I’ve got straight-laced, Mayflower Puritanical blood.  But I grew up next to sugar cane fields and coffee plantations in the Philippines and I have never seen a single episode of Miami Vice.

Luckily I grew up with other expat kids who were just as lost. We were all Third Culture Kids (we’d grown up in a culture different from that of our parents.)  Instead of being perpetually bummed about the fact that we didn’t completely fit into any culture or country, we bonded over our oddball similarities.  The transition to adulthood has changed very little so here’s my list of TCK traits:

1) Most of us speak English better than our mother tongue and are stumped if some zealous patriot asks us to recite the words to our own national anthems.

2) Whether or not we’ve ever stepped foot on American soil, our accents are often, to one degree or another, American.

3) We are flakes when it came to growing roots anywhere.  I’ve kept in touch with a number of my fellow TCKs and a lot of them have kept moving, never staying in the same place for more than a few years.

4) TMI!  We are used to sharing a lot very quickly because growing up we knew that we didn’t have much time to make friends before we had to leave again. But there is a flipside to this. Steph Yiu on denizen-mag.com puts it well:  “once you get to know us, you might find that we keep you at bay. We’re just so used to leaving (or being left by) people who are close to us that sometimes we don’t want to form very deep relationships, for fear of losing them.”

5) We were raised watching cultures clash on a daily basis so we are OK with grey areas.  We don’t expect life to be black and white.

6) We may have been mature teenagers but for some reason, we take our time “growing up” in our 20s.  For more on that, check out this article by Ann Baker Cottrell and Ruth Hill Useem:  http://www.tckworld.com/useem/art3.html

7) We are unlikely to take jobs in government or the corporate world that involve a lot of red tape/bureaucracy.  Neither do we often follow in our parent’s footsteps professionally:  http://www.tckworld.com/useem/art5.html

If you are a TCK or if you know one well and care to add to this list I’d love to hear from you.  Post a comment.  Just don’t ask me about the Jetsons.


Bjorn Karlman

37 thoughts on “Well-Traveled, Multilingual and Clueless –Third Culture Kids Unpacked”

  1. @culturemutt Yeah, well said, that about sums up the TCK mix-up…made me chuckle…on another note-is Joy near LA these days?

  2. i used to think that TCKs and the children of immigrants were similar (i.e, growing up in a culture different from parents, the culture clashes, the presence of more than one language in the household), but now i see there are more definite and disparate differences.

    so now i think that perhaps, like you intimated, people who are raised similarly (although not necessarily from the same ethnic background) will find that they have more in common with each other than with people of the same ethnicity. for example, most of my close friends are children of immigrants, too, and not necessarily immigrants from the same country as my parents. so maybe cultural boundaries don’t really matter; it seems more like shared childhood experiences are what will bond people. maybe parenting style is more the driving face than parental heredity.

    p.s. don’t beat yourself up too much about the pop culture thing. at least you knew about pippi longstocking. to the lemonade tree! :)

    1. Jammie, I really like the distinction you make between the children of immigrants and TCKs. It really is a different experience when you know you are moving somewhere for good. TCKs probably feel more detachment from their environment than the children of immigrants because they know that they will not be in the current environment for a long time…

  3. I just saw this post on facebook and I cannot believe how true EVERY word i this post is!! I grew up everywhere because my dad was an expat too, and the more we moved and the more languages I picked up, I was always an American, even thought it’s the thirs language I learned (originally Brazilian/Romanian)and I always seemed to have less to talk about the more we moved. And there I go with TMI… hahahaha
    I don’t know if this is true of all tck’s, but I think that to make up for not knowing what is “Going on” like tv shows, trends and icons, I tried to talk about things I thought most people might have heard of, like Formula 1, Frank Sinatra and Disney movies. But it was always easier to make friends with (and say goodbye) to other kids that would eventually leave as well. :)

    1. Excellent thoughts Flora! That is quite the mix you have… Interesting that you would bond with other kids on the move. It seems that TCKs bond with others like themselves because of that level of mutual understanding… Keep up the comments? I would love to have you as a regular on here…

  4. This is all very interesting for those of us who grew up in the same country as our parents and didn’t move at all! (Once in my case until I married) Us bigoted stationary americans always thought the kids from expats just didn’t fit back here in America and now after reading this blog, I understand it more. You had a bigger world than us, a different socialization and we didn’t understand each others cultures! These thoughts could help us to remember whenever there is a person from a different “culture” that we need to be open to their perspective. Nice job Bjorn!

    1. Thanks for the comment JoAline! I’ve learned a lot from the perspectives of non-TCKs that I have talked to. Somehow people seem a lot more reasonable after I’ve taken the time to thoroughly hear them out. Snap judgments are all to easy when I stay within my comfort zone. TCKs are just as hesitant to embrace the unknown so they often simply socialize within their own sphere of influence and understanding – their circle of expats. This way they never completely understand local customs and culture…

  5. Right on, Bjorn. You’ve described TCK’s perfectly. And it’s incredible how long the effects of the TCK life can last–I’ve been in Michigan for almost 20 years now, but several of the seven traits you listed still apply to me, including the hesitance to grow roots.

    1. Thanks for the comment Lici! You are absolutely right… TCKs simple turn into ATCKs… AdultTCKs… but there are benefits to that!

  6. Lici, I was just thinking of my time in Argentina and the asado that I consumed… part of the TCK experience I suppose, always sorting through travel memories and comparing them to the present… and yes, I AM sitting in a trashy pizza joint…

  7. Joaline, I had another thought…I was hoping to write a post sometime about communicating between two entirely different corporate cultures… For example, I bet there are distinct differences between communication styles in Adventist Health and Sutter… and you have to be acquainted with them if you want to be effective working with either environment..

  8. I’ve been thinking about your comment, especially the part where you mention TCKs’ sense of detachment because of their highly mobile childhoods… I’ve always been interested in two really distinct resulting trends – some TCKs take a lot of pleasure in becoming eternal vagabonds but others are very insistent about growing serious roots as soon as they can make that kind of a decision for themselves…

  9. RoyLyn, I was thinking more about your comment and I would say that if your parents see America as a temporary stop, you would be considered a TCK. If they were coming for good then you are a child of immigrants… Jammie has been commenting about this..

  10. Flora, how much time did you spend in Brazil? And what would you say about the relationships between people of different ethnicities there? Is social hierarch determined by race or by wealth?

  11. I would never have thought this would come out of you. Honestly, you surprise me…in a good way:) I never really thought of the impact moving would have on TCK’s but it makes sense. In a lot of ways I’m not the average TCK because my family is ever present in AIIAS. I was always the one left by my friends. It’s funny because now, I’d rather be the person leaving, than the person being left behind. hmmm. one more thing…despite the fact that we are awful at staying in touch, when we do get together it’s like we never parted at all:)

  12. Awon, I am glad you like the blog! And it was really great to hang out with you and the crew at Merv’s wedding… a TCK reunion of sorts. It was surprising to me to see how, even if everyone had obviously changed, so little had really changed… That was a great childhood we got to experience… Say hi to Ben for me and let’s keep in touch…

  13. Its funny because at some point I forget you’re not American. ahmmm I don’t know if I consider myself a TCK but one thing is for sure.. Moving and moving sure makes you different. Its hard to fit in with the different cultures. At some point I was so tired of moving then when I was in control I found out that I couln’t stay put. Loving your Research!

  14. I am one of those that finally decided to set down roots. It happened when I found out I was pregnant. Until then, my hubby and I moved about every 2+ years. Once I knew there was going to be a little one arriving on the “scene”, my need to keep moving went away. Why? Because I realized that deep within was a desire to give my child what I had never known…stability.

    We’ve now lived in the same town for 20 years and moved houses one time (due to the growth of gangs in our first neighborhood). Life is stable, friends are the same, everything is “normal” for my child.

    When I do feel the occasional pique of interest in *going* somewhere, I try to attend a conference that I know other ATCKs will also be attending (like FIGT). Satisfying and fulfilling…yeah! :-)

  15. Mutu, thanks for your comment. I am intrigued by FIGT. What is that all about? And another question – how do you give your child the international exposure that you benefited from?

  16. FIGT (Families in Global Transition) is an annual conference held in Houston (see FIGT.org) and was started by Ruth VanReken (co-author of “Third Culture Kids: Growing up Among Worlds”). It is a great conference – lots of fellow TCKs there – as well as people who love working with or for TCKs.

    As for my child – well…early on, I would often speak in the language(s) I had spoken overseas. She picked up on that, and learned several phrases (including counting from 1-10 in Indonesian). When she was 13 months, I took her to visit my folks, who were still overseas. Took lots of video, photos. She still watches those. At age 10 I took her to Singapore, Malaysia and Bali – for 3 weeks and immersed her in the local food, customs, etc. Many of the foods she was already acquainted with because we prepared them at home on a regular basis. I collected postcards from friends all over the world, bought a HUGE world map, and she had to find the country that the postcard came from, and if possible, the city. She then attached a strand of yarn connecting the postcard to the location. Learned a lot about the world that way – and all the postcards were addressed to her!
    She has grown up with carvings, rugs, wall decorations, frames, etc. from SE Asia, Central Asia – and thinks it is perfectly “normal” and that every house is supposed to have those kinds of decorations!
    Did any of this impact her? Yes. She often finds herself asking her friends “why are you so against so-and-so or such-and-such?” “how about looking at what they are really going through instead of “assuming” we know everything.” etc, etc.
    We also discuss world issues, immigration, hunger, malaria, – the gambit – in our home. She is exposed to many lively conversations! :-)
    What more can I say?

  17. So that’s why my girlfriend’s mom thinks I’m immature! It’s that prolonged adolescence you described. I’m partly joking, of course. Could it be that the fact that I feel so “arrogantly endowed” with global savvy and experience that I can’t settle anyplace or for any “life,” since in settling I stifle my scope of influence and make such diverse areas of my knowledge obsolete to my immediate surroundings? Of course wanderlust is another explanation for wanting to bounce around, but to me it is a more superficial attempt to account for subconscious stimuli that beckon us toward wider horizons of success, though because there is no notion of the steps to follow nor the destination to get to, it is ever elusive and seemingly unattainable.

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