Understanding Third Culture Kids

Wikimedia Commons (By Yuvipanda)

Wikimedia Commons (By Yuvipanda)

June 1998: Wearing a white t-shirt 2 sizes bigger than my usual one, I say “goodbye” to my parents at the airport’s passport control desk. After that, I join the group of twenty-odd students wearing the same t-shirt, all bound to Miami. From there, each one of us heads to a different region of the United States to meet for the first time their host families.

June 2003: Same airport, same passport control desk. Once more, I say goodbye to my family and prepare for the 2 years of university double-degree program. A small group of students from Rio and I fly to Paris, where we join a larger group of Brazilians, coming from all regions. Together, we wait for the bus that will drive us 400 km south to our new host families. Before classes start, we have a summer ahead of us in Vichy, to learn French and get accustomed to their traditions.

June 2014: After 11 years living abroad, in exactly one month I’ll take an equally important flight. This time it’s heading the opposite direction.


In between those 3 Junes, there were many other flights. More than I can count! There were flights for each month of the year. Enough for me to know the airports’ layouts like the palms of my hands, the fastest line through security check and the baggage weight limitations of each company. Yet, those 3 flights will probably remain as the ones I’ll never forget.

To understand a little more about the meaning of those 3 flights, I’ll have to tell you about TCKs.


According to David Pollock, author of the brilliant book “Third Culture Kids: Growing up among worlds”,

A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.

The term “Third Culture Kids” was coined to refer to children growing up inside expat communities in a country that is foreign to their parent’s home culture (“First Culture”). The host country is the “Second Culture” and the international community of expats (represented originally by the agency behind the expatriation, such as the army, corporation, religious or diplomatic mission) the so-called “Third Culture”.

What’s so interesting about TCKs is that, despite the enormous differences in the location and nature of each person’s 3 cultures, TCKs have a lot in common in the way they think, experience life and see the world.

From decades of longitudinal studies, psychologist have been able to unveil not only the advantages but also the challenges linked to their rich experience. What’s even more interesting, TCKs have a sixth sense for finding, building lasting friendships and even marrying other TCKs.

At this point, I should make a confession. According to the original definition, I’m not a TCK: my family has never lived abroad. And neither did I until my 17th birthday. The thing is, since I was a little child, I’ve always felt drawn towards expat life, so it’s not surprising that I’ve adopted a TCA (Third Culture Adult) lifestyle throughout my tween years.

In this way, and through the many other characteristics that I share with TCKs, their lives greatly echo with mine. This is so true that I have even designed specifically for TCKs and expats a group coaching program and have worked with them to fully embrace the riches of their identity.


So, why should we care about TCKs in the first place?

First of all, due to a series of technological, political and economic changes of the last 20 years, they’re rapidly growing in number. In this period, bi-cultural marriages have significantly increased, often resulting in higher mobility to the children (even when that doesn’t necessarily entail an expatriation experience).

Second, due to their rich intercultural experiences and often highly developed empathic skills, TCKs have a leadership advantage in today’s world. A living example of a TCK in action is Barack Obama.

This does not mean that all TCKs are the same. Different people perceive similar experiences differently. Some, due to negative experiences, have even developed more prejudices towards a particular culture or have remained closed-minded to other worldviews. In the past, this was a common behavior within the expat communities in the former European colonies and was very well portrayed in movies such as Empire of the Sun. However, in our days, those examples are clearly a small minority within the TCK community.


What are the benefits of a TCK experience?

Besides an expanded, three-dimensional view of the world, TCKs have acquired a set of useful skills such as:

-          Observational skills: to readily detect the unwritten social rules in any given environment

-          Cross-cultural skills: to dismantle potentially stressful situations in intercultural situations, to bridge between groups and to help organizations understand local constraints

-          Social skills: to see the common humanity in people, to quickly develop deep and meaningful relationships, to take risks due to confidence acquired in managing difficult situations

-          Linguistic skills: to have access to international careers and to fully understand thinking patterns. The latter is a skill commonly seen in highly empathic people.


What are the challenges of a TCK experience?

Aside from the temporary unpleasant experiences of separation, transition and cultural shock, TCKs can face more permanent challenges such as:

-          Rootlessness: a disconnected sense of belonging to a particular cultural group or place. To them, home is everywhere and nowhere.

-          Restlessness: a migratory instinct, motivated by a persistent expectation that the next place will be home.

-          Emotional flattening: an emotional detachment to moments of great joy or pain. This defense mechanism is developed in childhood to cope with the many separations from friends and loved ones. If carried through adulthood, this behavior can lead to intimacy avoidance (fear of abandonment). For those who are in a relationship with a TCK, here are some advices from other TCK significant-others.

-          Arrogance: Whether real (in the form of snap judgments and intolerance towards others who didn’t have a multicultural experience) or perceived (due to misinterpretations of TCKs attempts to share life experiences as bragging), the shadow of arrogance tempts TCKs into a life confined inside the expat bubble.


How can we help TCKs overcome those challenges?

At the source of such behaviors are limiting beliefs inferred during childhood and unrecognized losses. Having the opportunity to reframe their past experiences and grief over unrecognized losses can go long ways in reducing significantly, if not eliminating altogether, those negative behaviors.

Albeit disruptive to the child’s sense of security, most of the time these losses aren’t properly grieved because they are dismissed by the parents or the child as unnecessary. Sometimes, the sheer fact of grieving is taken by the child as a renouncement of all the positive aspects of expat life and, therefore, is met with guilt.

These losses come in various shapes and colors, such as the loss of friendly or familial relationships, of role models, of possessions with sentimental value, of a lifestyle, of a status, of an identity to a system or even of the past that wasn’t (the alternative life he would’ve had if he had stayed in the home country).


What can TCKs teach us?

TCKs unusual upbringing can teach us a lot about organic growth. It is precisely from their struggle to fulfill the basic needs of security and belonging (levels 2 and 3 of Maslow’s pyramid), to define an identity in between worlds, that the full force of TCKs empathic potential emerges. Thanks to their incredible adaptation to the worlds of minorities and majorities, top-dogs and underdogs, TCKs can teach us all about the paradoxical and ever-changing nature of life.

They teach us about the middle path and about an identity that is ultimately built by the sum of our human connections.


Do you know any TCKs? What have they taught you?

9 TED Talks that celebrate Identity

Ted_logo 2Give me a hammer and all I’ll see around me are nails!

The golden hammer expression certainly matches my current state and the way my passions combine in this post.

On one hand, I’m an avid TED consumer, having spent (without exaggeration) thousands of hours watching and re-watching some of my favorite talks. On the other hand, over the past years, I’ve been quietly and surely walking towards a project that’s starting to take form: a book about awareness. In many ways, my curiosity towards intergenerational, intercultural and public speaking topics have at the source this same project.

The main premise of the book is that human growth is the product of a circular loop of identity and empathy. In other words, one deeply depends on the other. One is the beginning and end of the other, the yin and the yang. Growth happens in spiral, as the result of each incremental turn.

Since the concept of interdependency of identity and empathy is unusual, I’ve decided to make 2 lists of my all-time favorite TED talks to illustrate it. Today’s post is about identity. The next one will be about empathy and diversity.

If after watching those videos, dear reader, you find yourself with the same difficulty I had to tease out where identity ends and empathy begins (or vice-versa), then I’ll consider my mission accomplished. Enjoy the selection!

  1. Thandie Newton: Embracing myself, embracing otherness

One of the most intricate and, at the same time, profoundly beautiful talks, Thandie Newton’s paradoxical tale of self-discovery and change gives me goosebumps every time I watch it. It’s the story that best conveys the profound connection between identity and empathy (and portraits awareness is a circular process of holding pieces of our identity and losing them in presence of the other, of the whole). A talk full of yin, of oneness, to be watched over and over again.


  1. Jill Bolte Taylor: A stroke of insight

The 4th most watched TED talk to date is a personal journey into our perception of reality. By showing live a human brain and describing her experiences during a stroke, neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor, embedded in her viewers an experience of how the brain works that is difficult to forget. Though the knowledge of the subtle differences between the brain hemispheres existed long before her talk, her talk has certainly helped catapult this knowledge into public domain.

It is, however, in the fine and touching mix between science and spirituality, between our experiences as individuals and as part of the whole, that we can see the most important aspect of her message: when we embrace the paradoxical nature of our brains, we’re one step closer to embracing the paradoxical nature of our individual and empathic nature.



  1. Pico Iyer: Where is home?

Expats, “Third Culture Kids”, global nomads, many are the words used to describe those who have developed an identity based on multiculturalism and movement. In one of the most personally engaging TED talks I’ve seen, Pico Iyer describes the lives of this ever-growing group: the freedom they experience in movement and their diffuse sense of belonging. He describes also the phenomenon by which multicultural individuals are drawn towards each other, despite belonging to very distinctive cultural backgrounds.

For global nomads, the build-up of our identity is as much a function of the movement that propels us to experience different realities as of the stillness that allows us to build our homes inside ourselves.


  1. Sarah Kay: How many lives can you live

Sarah Kay’s talk explores the construction of our artistic identity. She reminds us to accept the choices that invariably limit our possibilities in all the lives we could’ve lived. She reminds us to abandon our need for perfection and surrender to time, in order to let our true essence emerge. And finally, she reminds us the process of making sense of our reality, moment after moment, through artistic expression is how our deepest identity teases itself out and shines.


  1. Lemn Sissay: A child of the state

A child of the state, Lemn Sissay shares with us his life struggle in search of his identity. A reminder of the importance of family and friends as a mirror to our own identity and a harrowing testimony of a utilitarian government that neglects to provide its children the building blocks of a meaningful existence.


  1. Meg Jay: Why 30 is not the new 20

Mistakenly took for an intergenerational talk (a subject that raises all sorts of emotions), Meg Jay’s talk was one of the most controversial of TED 2013. I believe that this phenomenon is in part due to a romanticized view of what life in the 20s should be like: a period of thoughtless exploration.

From my perspective of someone in his 30s (and proud of his 20s, mistakes included), Meg Jay’s talk is an inspiring invitation to building identity capital in a life stage that largely defines the number of options we’ll have later in life. She reframes the 20s as a period of conscious exploration. Under this new perspective, the 20s then become a period that invites us to work on the direction we wish to give to our lives, the person we want to be, even when the destination remains unclear.


  1. Shane Koyczan: To this day

Speaking from both sides of the bully-bullied camp, poet Shane Koyczan denounces the lasting impacts of bullying on a person’s identity. He tells the story of the underdog, the story of all of us, who, in a moment or another in our childhoods, had to make a conscious decision to reject other people’s projections on us. This is a poem that raises awareness to the identity massacres happening daily in our schools and, at the same time, provides hope for those who discover their beauty and passion.


  1. Brené Brown: The power of vulnerability

Perhaps one of the most important social studies from the last decade is Brené Brown’s research on the power of vulnerability. By freeing us from the hold of shame and our scarcity culture (of “I’m not enough”), her work provides a roadmap to embracing identity and connecting with others. Moreover, the way she defines shame, as the fear of disconnection, also explains the empathy crisis we’re living in today. When we’re afraid of disconnection, we put on an armor to protect ourselves, thus stopping ourselves from seeing or being seen.


  1. Anne-Marie Slaughter: Can we all “have it all”?

Decades after the feminist revolution, Anne-Marie invites us to venture into the last identity undiscussable: the millennia-aged confusion between gender identity and gender role. How the archetypical paternal role (“the breadwinner”) and the maternal role (“the caregiver”) are accepted by society when played respectively by women and men? What impact for modern families does this amalgam in identity and role create? How can we, especially in patriarchal societies, re-socialize men to embrace their caregiving roles, without feeling threatened in their manhood?