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Third-Culture Kids

Edward Lake

As economic ties across the global community grow stronger, the likelihood is becoming greater that educators will teach expatriate children who grow up with identities in multiple cultures. With cultural links to both their parents' countries and their host countries, such children are in a category all by themselves, which has been dubbed a distinct "third culture."

For example, an American who works for IBM is sent to Beijing. He continues to work for IBM in Beijing for more than 20 years but retains his U.S. citizenship. In the meantime, he and his wife have three children, who spend most of their lives growing up in China. They become fluent in Mandarin and are heavily influenced by Chinese culture, yet they still have some aspects of their parents' American culture. These children are not culturally American, nor are they Chinese. But what exactly does being part of a third culture mean?

According to sociologist Ruth Hill Useem, who coined the term third-culture kids (TCKs) in the 1960s, children who spend their significant developmental years in a culture other than that of their parents develop relationships with all cultures, but do not have real ownership of any one culture.

There are both positive and negative implications in being a TCK. TCKs have a great ability to fit into other cultures; have excellent interpersonal skills; and are tolerant, flexible, and possess a broad world view. At the same time, there are negatives, which include lack of identity, insecurity, and the inability to feel that any one place is home.

While living in China, I met a woman who grew up as a TCK and was now working as a teacher in China. She was great at making friends with those around her, but because she was used to moving on frequently, she kept these relationships on a surface level. She continues to live a very mobile life—she does not stay in any country for more than two years—and has married a man who also grew up as a TCK.

Studies have shown that TCKs feel more comfortable around others from similar situations. For example, you might think that a Canadian child who spent seven years growing up in Nepal would feel more comfortable around people from Nepal; however, you might be surprised to learn that this person feels more comfortable around a Tanzanian TCK who grew up in India. The fact that they are both TCKs usually provides a more common experience than TCKs would share with people from their home countries.

Third-culture kids, also called trans-culture kids, are a growing community of whom educators need to be more aware. The number of TCKs has grown exponentially as businesses and military and religious groups expand into developing countries. In 1992, researchers reported that 300,000 U.S. students were living abroad annually, and that a third of them eventually return to U.S. schools. In years ahead, teachers face the strong possibility that they will be teaching either foreign or repatriated TCKs, and they should know how to support these students in their classrooms.

Tips for Teaching TCKs

The expatriate community is a very mobile one, and TCKs might have had many home countries. I met an American TCK who spent four years in Israel, then moved to Tongo, then to South Korea, and finally to China. It is important for teachers to know their students' backgrounds to better understand and teach them.

  • Recognize that TCKs might not understand your analogies, cultural references, or allusions to things like television shows.
  • Understand that TCKs might not recognize certain values and aspects of your culture as positive. For example, in the United States, freedom is viewed as flawless, and Americans rate freedom as a top value in their culture. Some TCKs, despite U.S. citizenship and American parents, might value restricting certain behaviors for the benefit of the society as a whole. For instance, they might recognize pornography as harmful to society and applaud government restrictions of it.
  • Know the countries in which the TCKs have lived and invite students to add their perspectives to history, literature, art, or other classes.
  • Remember that TCKs are often multilingual; in language classes, ask them to share their strategies for learning new languages.
  • Allow students to incorporate their hobbies and talents into their projects and assessments; for example, using Indian dance to demonstrate an understanding of an historical era or playing the didgeridoo to display the emotion of a character in a novel.

Diverse Experiences Foster Creative Choices

Not only do TCKs have hobbies and talents that others might find peculiar, but many also have future plans that may be considered out of the ordinary and often ambitious. Many TCKs go on to Ivy League schools and top music and arts universities. Others go on to pursue meaningful but atypical careers. One young man, after growing up in many different countries, moved to a remote area of China to study under a Dutch cheese maker. He passed all the government-authorized exams in Mandarin, and the Chinese government granted him official permission to operate a dairy farm. Interestingly, he now goes by his Chinese name. He did well at university, but like many other adult TCKs, he chose to pursue a nonstandard career in a remote area of a developing country. TCKs are often creative, and teachers should pay special attention to helping them develop their creativity and direction in life.

Third-culture kids are an ever-growing population. Educators should be aware not only of how these students can contribute to the growth of the school, but also of their special needs. Teachers must encourage TCKs to develop a sense of community with their school and see it as a place where they can demonstrate their unique personalities and talents; at the same time, teaches may expect to learn a great deal from these students.

Edward Lake teaches at the Chinese International School of Singapore. He currently teaches English and theory of knowledge to students in grades 11–12, most of whom are third-culture kids.