Third Culture Kids

Laura Beaney

4 min read

“The art of life lies in a constant readjustment to our surroundings,” suggests Okakura Kakuzo, one of the most influential authors of the 20th Century. And this piece of art is constantly being reworked and refined by the Third Culture Kids. As adults much of our understanding of the world relies upon our childhood experiences, from our allergies and phobias to our favourite dishes, the way we greet new acquaintances, and the languages we speak. The term Third Culture Kids, or TCK, was first coined during the Fifties by American sociologist Ruth Hill Useem. During her time spent as an expat in India with her husband and children, Useem observed the formation of a ‘third culture’ where the birth culture (first culture) and the new culture (second culture) result in a new, third culture. Useem used the phrase to identify children, like her own, who spent their formative years in places foreign to that of their parents’ own society and the term later when on to encompass children who accompany their parents into a different culture.

Occupying a space somewhere in between cultures and straddling the realms of immigrant and expat, TCKs are global citizens by nature. Speaking generally, the typical TCK can most likely speak multiple languages, attended an international school and sometimes holds more than one passport. Notable TCK examples include Hollywood actress Uma Thurman, who was was born in Boston, Massachusetts, but grew up in the Himalayan town of Almora Uttarakhand, India; Yoko Ono, who was born to parents in the banking sector and moved from Japan to the US during her childhood; and perhaps the most famous TCK of all, Barack Obama who, as well as being half Kenyan, was born in Honolulu and raised in Jakarta. “My mother is from Dhaka, Bangladesh, and my father is from Lebanon, New Hampshire,” says Laila Plamondon, director of operations at School Choice International. “My father’s state department career took us to the Ivory Coast, Thailand and finally Bangladesh, where I graduated from the American International School. I went to Smith College, and was interested in how multiracial, multicultural, and multilingual individuals straddle multiple worlds and forge their own unique identities and communities. New York City and Dhaka are my cities. My homes are wherever my families are,” she continues.

Stories like Plamondon’s were once limited to a niche segment of the population that included the children of diplomats, missionaries, military workers or those involved in the set-up of new cities like Abu Dhabi that started with core contributors during the Sixties and went on to include the diverse spectrum of society that had flooded into the Gulf by the late Nineties. Indeed, today TCKs have parents that cover roles in myriad industries including teachers, construction workers, bankers, and transnational businesspeople, and while exact figures are difficult to pinpoint, in Pico Iyer’s TedGlobal talk, “Where is Home” (2013), Iyer estimates the growing tribe of people “living in countries not their own” to be 220 million.

The communities and identities of the past were understood through geographical location, but now we exist in a different world.

Despite their proliferation, TCKs are a segment lacking narrative in popular culture which can account for the feeling of unease that tends to arise when the harmless and all too common question, “where are you from?” crops up. “Often there’s a feeling of being ‘undefined’,” says Perryhan El-Ashmawi, a TCK who was raised by Egyptian parents in Bahrain. “My idea of home is dependent on where my parents are based. My family lived in Bahrain for almost 30 years, and then we recently moved to the UAE. And while my childhood memories are all based in Bahrain, for some reason when someone asks me where I’m from, I naturally answer Egypt, although I’ve never lived there.” Identity confusion, and at times isolation can be common traits of the TCKs who are often required to bid farewell to school friends and family members and start afresh at an early age.

A posterchild for TCKs today, during his presidency Obama was both applauded and antagonised for his accepting worldly view and unassigned origins. But increased cultural empathy and the ability to transition easily between religious and societal customs are all part of the benefit associated with a nomadic upbringing. “I’m able to have a broad, global perspective on life,” explains Plamondon. “I can see past the American bubble. I’m comfortable travelling abroad and visiting different countries. I have a lot of respect for people from every country, religion, background.” Indeed, being able to see the bigger picture often gives TCKs a unique perspective and greater understanding when it comes to work and relationships. TCKs often develop an affinity with other cultures without having full ownership of it. “You become a sort of cultural hybrid,” says El-Ashmawi. “You balance between two realities, juggle between languages and accents, beliefs and customs. It may feel incompatible, but you grow adaptable to different environments.”

Cities like Hong Kong, Dubai, and Singapore have served as TCK hubs in recent years, but will they continue to be relevant to this segment of society in the future? Perhaps not. “There will definitely be an increase in children with mixed backgrounds (race, ethnicity, language, etc.), but I don’t know if there will be an increase in TCKs with the technical definition,” says Plamondon. “I don’t think large corporations are sending expats abroad like they used to and technology has made it much easier to work remotely.” The communities and identities of the past were understood through geographical location, but now we exist in a different world. Technology and the reshaping of the traditional workplace might render expat cities as useless, which means that our understanding of the role of the geographical border is due an update.