Third Culture Kids: Navagating new cultural spaces

Lynn Yeo || Contributing Writer 

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it solely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Mark Twain


Most of us can agree that culture and identity are two things that make us who we are as individuals. In an essay by anthropologist Paula Gray, the author states that “human beings are social animals. Our lives depend on other humans. We develop and learn about the world around us through the filter of other people. Our connections to others are key to not only our survival, but also to our happiness and success of our careers.”


The sense of belonging in a specific sociocultural space makes sense to those who grew up in a consistent social group or community, but what about those who don’t have one? What about those who don’t feel like they fit in a single culture? These people are called “Third Culture Kids,” also known as “TCK.”


The term TCK was first coined by sociologist and anthropologist Dr. Ruth Hill Useem, who is considered the founder of TCK research. According to the website TCK World, Dr. Useem and her husband were sponsored by the Hazen Foundation to study overseas Americans in India. They took their sons with them to live abroad on both of their visits, and their experiences led them to coin the term “Third Culture Kid.”


Amy Jung, TCK and assistant professor in the Department of Communications Studies, describes a TCK as a person who spent significant time in another international culture as a child or adolescent for the purpose of their parents’ work. According to non-profit organization TCKid, backgrounds of TCK include military, government, religious and business work.  


“So many things about it are open and free and flow possibility, and I think that’s one of the things about being a TCK that’s not as well understood,” said Jung.

The concept of liminality is strongly emphasized within the TCK community. According to Victor Turner, who came up with this particular concept, the attributes of liminality are ambiguous, since the individuals transcend the classifications of cultural space. Liminal entities are neither here nor there.

Using this concept, Jung compared the TCK experience to that of a coming of age or transition from childhood to adulthood. In the middle of it, there is a processan experience or timeframe spent in the space between childhood and adulthood. All the rules are broken, expectations are suspended and there is immense potential.


“This concept helps understand why TCKs are not just a blend,” said Jung. “A blend is when you combine and work together with the rules and expectations of both. With TCKs, it’s both a combination and it’s a whole new culture, and the whole new culture is constantly changing. It is not geographically based, so the rules of culture don’t apply.”


TCK World, the official home for Third Culture Kids states that a TCK can never revert to being a monocultural person. Parents of TCKs can return “home” to their country of origin, but the children, enriched by having shared life in their formative years with another people group, will find characteristics of both cultures in their very being.


Raffelia Yong is a TCK who was born in Malaysia and moved to New Zealand at the age of 15. Yong said that despite differences in both accents and culture, she has taught herself how to adapt.

“I have learned to keep myself in check every time I go back to Malaysia,” Yong said. “I did not want to be judged because my accent was different, so I developed this skill to just switch my accent.”  

She added that she finds herself having to be the middle person, explaining different cultures to different people. She considers both New Zealand and Malaysia her home.

“It doesn’t matter where it is; home is anywhere you feel comfortable in,” Yong said, who is now a nurse in New Zealand.


Junior biology major Valerie Valencia, who is also a TCK, said that she has had her fair share of struggles after experiencing life in both the United States and Mexico.

“I remember when I went back to Mexico, I was called racist names because I grew up in America and I spoke fluent English. I eventually made a lot of friends because they would come for my help with English homework,” Valencia said.

Valencia said that she eventually learned to adapt, although she did not quite fit in the culture of Mexico.

“I did have to explain a lot of culture differences when I went back to Mexico, because I adapted in America and I was used to doing things a certain way,” said Valencia. “I also became the translator of the family, translating from English to Spanish and vice versa to my parents.”

If Valencia had to call somewhere home, she would point to where she grew up in Indiana, the location of her childhood memories.


TCK Network President Heather Ardill, who was born and raised in Nigeria, believes that the time she spent as a child around people from different countries helped broaden her worldview.

“Being a TCK has given me the opportunity to have greater appreciation for people coming from different places. I can understand people from different cultural backgrounds more than someone who maybe has spent the majority of their life here in this country, “ said Ardill. “I grew up with people from Lebanon, India, China, South Korea and Australia. I’ve grown to understand how they do different things and the way they interact with people.”

Growing up, Ardill was acutely aware of her surroundings. When she goes on missionary trips, she finds herself advising other people to embrace the discomfort of cultural differences and to seek attunement to the rhythms of other’s customs.

“Whenever you come into a situation that you’re not familiar with or uncomfortable with, or a culture that you’re not aware of, just watch and observe,” said Ardill.

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