“Where are you from?” – a short speech about third culture kids

When I meet new people I’m frequently asked, “Where are you from?” It’s a fairly straightforward question, isn’t it?

Well… for someone like me, it’s almost impossible to give an honest answer without reciting my life-story, which can be quite awkward.

So, when I meet a new person I try to guess what it is they want to know: Do they mean “Where I live?” Or “Where I’m from before that?” Or are they asking where I was born?

This is a classic problem of a Third Culture Kid.

Continue reading ““Where are you from?” – a short speech about third culture kids”

NZCFS Youth & TCKs in New Zealand

I was recently interviewed about my experiences as Third Culture Kid (TCK) by Faye Zhang who runs the NZCFS Youth website. NZCFS Youth is part of the New Zealand China Friendship Society (NZCFS) – an organisation that aims to foster links and cultural understanding between the two countries.

Originally from Chengde, China, Faye came to New Zealand to do her university degree. She later moved back to China to work. However, on her return, she felt like a foreigner in her own country. She was still Chinese, but not quite. Her way of thinking changed and she found it easier to make friends with foreigners. She came back to New Zealand, but didn’t feel quite like a New Zealander either. That’s when a friend told she’s got the “Third Culture Kid syndrome”. Immediately interested in this phenomenon, Faye did some research and found the experiences ascribed to TCKs very applicable to herself and to many of her friends. She decided to undertake the project of writing about other TCKs in New Zealand and their experiences. She has posted several TCK interviews on the NZCFS Youth website.  That’s how I found her, and well… made it onto the website too.

Read mine and other stories here.

The impact of the TCK phenomenon: why study it?

Third culture kids, or TCKs, are individuals who have spent some of their developmental years outside their parents’ home country (Tanu, 2012), and were thus submerged into two or more different cultures. They have adopted elements of each, to form what has become known as a “Third Culture” (Barker et al., 2011, p.688).  Studies conducted over the last fifty years have shown that the third culture experience has significant implications for these individuals, on how they see the world and on their identity. Being a TCK poses many challenges, like a feeling of rootlessness, but also offers benefits, such as intercultural skills. However, these studies remain few and most focus on how the phenomenon affects the individuals, rather than the communities they grow up in or live in as adults. Nevertheless, the TCK population is increasing rapidly and has a significant impact on society, particularly on areas of education, business and politics. Many educators, politicians and employers recognise TCKs’ intercultural skills and apply them with benefit to these areas. TCKs’ unique education needs led to establishment of many international schools. Some adult TCKs have become well-known politicians and businessmen and have significant influence on their organisations and communities. As migration and blending of cultures continues, further research of the impact of TCKs on society is crucial for better understanding of the present and preparation for the future.


TCKs are becoming a significantly large group within society. As migration is increasing due to developments in transportation and communication, for economic and ideological reasons, more and more children of migrants, employees of international businesses, foreign embassies, military and missions become exposed to a variety of cultural experiences. Many terms exist for these “geographically mobile children” including global nomads, cultural hybrids and cultural chameleons, but “third culture kidss the most popular (Barker and Moore 2011, p.553). Their population is likely to keep on growing, due to continued migration. Understanding the effect of the TCK phenomenon can be useful to educators, employers, policy-makers and the wider public.

TCKs are unique in that they are submerged into different cultures before their personal and cultural identities are fully formed (Barker et al., 2011).  They have neither fully retained their home culture, nor completely acculturated in their host countries, but have adopted elements of both to become multicultural. This often presents many challenges such as a confused identity, not fitting in or belonging anywhere and cultural homelessness or rootlessness. Being frequently on the move can result in a sense of loss and grief and lead to depression. However, international upbringing also has benefits that may even outweigh the detriments, including intercultural skills, fluency in several languages, ability to adapt easily to new circumstances, open-mindedness and interpersonal sensitivity  (Barker and Moore, 2011). The positive and negative effects of their experiences make TCKs different from others. It is important to understand what these differences means for society, and how TCKs can be aided in overcoming their challenges and realising their strengths, for the benefit of communities.

The educational needs of TCKs demonstrate some effects the TCK phenomenon has on the wider society. Momo Kano Podolsky, an adult TCK and a Japanese sociologist, is one of the few scholars to focus her study on this (Pollock & Van Reken, 2009). Her research revealed that Japanese children who spent a number of years abroad, due to their parents’ jobs, and returned to Japan, no longer fit into its monocultural society and were perceived as “deficient Japanese” because they did not have a full grasp of their native culture and language. However, the Japanese government tried to resolve this problem by providing better educational opportunities for them. This included developing a re-entry system and building Japanese schools abroad. As internationalisation became an economic and political necessity for Japan, the TCKs rose to the status of a “new elite”, due to their cross-cultural and language abilities. Kano Podolsky (2008, p. 49) summarises this this impact developed:  “With their dramatic increase in number during the 1970s and the 1980s, [TCKs] attracted at first the attention of educators, scholars and policy makers, and subsequently the interest of the media and Japanese society at large”. This study vividly illustrates how the TCK phenomenon can impact the educational and political sphere and subsequently the wider society. It also shows how the involvement of educators and the government helped TCKs overcome their challenges and apply their unique skills to benefit Japan’s economy and politics.

Japan is not the only country that was affected by the specific educational needs of this group. International schools started emerging around the world from the second half of the 19th century for children of expatriates working abroad (Jyotirmay, n.d.). Over the past decade, the number of international schools worldwide has more than doubled (Nagrath, 2011) in response to the growing TCK population.These schools usually follow a curriculum that is different from that of the host country, teach some or all subjects in a different language (often English) and place emphasis on diversity and global citizenship. Many of their students are children of employees of international businesses and organizations, foreign embassies and missions, but international schools are growing in popularity amongst local students whose parents are willing to pay higher tuition to equip their children with language and cultural skills (Nagrath, 2011). According to ISC research, international schools provide education to 3.3 million children around the world (ISC 2004-2013). They also employ hundreds of thousands of educators and administrators and generate large incomes.  Nagrath (2011) points out that international schools provide opportunities for teachers to live and work overseas and believes “they benefit immeasurably as they learn the same life lessons along with their students”. International schools exemplify how the educational needs of the TCKs influence educators, administrators, local children and their parents.Further research of this topic would therefore be useful to policy makers and educators for a better understanding of and preparedness for the changes within the sphere of education.

TCKs also impact society as adults. They pursue a variety of professions and leave their mark on many industries in the public and private sector. Lambiri (2005) points out that they’re increasingly visible in the areas of education, politics, and business. USA President Barack Obama is the most famous TCK today. He was born in Hawaii to a Kenyan father and a white American mother, spent some childhood years in Jakarta, Indonesia before moving back to Hawaii (Thomson, 2012). Van Reken (2008), feels he possess many of the traits common to TCKs and, has “benefited from his chameleon power to make a lot of different people feel he represents them” (Thomson, 2012). This demonstrates the potential of TCKs to influence the political direction of countries. Further studies could help to identify how measurable the impact is and assess the implications.

In a climate where intercultural encounters become a part of the daily routine in many organisations, TCKs, with their adaptability and intercultural skills, may be valuable assets (Royer, 2009). Certainly, mono-cultural individuals can learn cross-cultural skills, and can achieve just as well in most areas, but TCKs acquire these skills naturally, and use them intuitively. Muhtar Kent, the CEO of the world’s largest beverage company, Coca-Cola, exemplifies this. He is a son of a Turkish diplomat, was born in the US, spent his childhood in Thailand, India, Iran, and Turkey and is able to speak several languages (Machan, 2013). “That cultural immersion alone made Kent well suited to run Coke. He can step off an airplane in Malawi, and will know what to do, and know people there,” says Howard Buffett, a Coca-Cola director (Machan, 2013). During his tenure as CEO, Coke’s shares have risen by 52% (Machan, 2013).  Kent’s TCK experiences appear to be a major contributor to his and Coke’s success, and his case is not solitary.

Smaller organisations are also effected by the TCK phenomenon. TCK Brian Linton was named to Bloomberg Businessweek’s list of “America’s Best Young Entrepreneurs” aged 24 (Aguiar, 2011). His apparel brand, United by Blue, promises that for every product it sells, it will clean up one pound of trash from the ocean. He believes that growing up overseas gave him a global perspective, and allowed to expand his brand internationally sooner than most companies would (Aguiar, 2011). It is clear to see that in times when globalisation is so important commercially, TCKs are making significant contributions to governments, corporate giants and entrepreneurial projects alike. Researching these trends will be useful for better understanding of economic and political environments, which would in turn help to make better policies and decisions.

TCKs are unique in the sense that their cultural identity is formed of elements of several cultures they are exposed to as children. They may lack a sense of belonging but may also develop good adaptability and cross-cultural understanding. Their population is increasing as is migration, and Lambiri (2005, p. 5) believes that “TCKs have an untold impact on society”. Kano Podolsky’s (2008) Japanese case study demonstrates how the involvement of government and educators to meet the education needs of TCKs can benefit the individuals themselves and their country, as they are enabled to apply their cross-cultural skills. Another effect of the TCK phenomenon on education around the world is the growing number of international schools. These schools often apply a different education system to the host country and influence not only the learners, but the educators, administrators and local communities. The adult TCKs prove to be influencing politics and business as exemplified by USA president Barack Obama, Coca-cola CEO Muhtar Kent, and the young entrepreneur Brian Linton. Their TCK experiences and cross-cultural skills appear to benefit them in their chosen career paths. Further research could help to assess these trends and evaluate the impact of the phenomenon. As the world is turning into a global village, it is clear that the influence of the third culture phenomenon extends beyond the individual, affecting education, business and politics. Research findings about their effect on society would offer greater understanding of the changing world and serve as good indicators of what the future social environments will look like as migration and blending of cultures continues.


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