Third culture kids, Cross-Cultural Kids, or Global Nomads

Do you have a child who feels more at home in China than your home country? Does your child excel in many ways, but seem to feel insecure? Does she tell you she just “doesn’t belong anywhere? Most likely, your child is not functioning fully in either the country from his home country or from China (or whatever country you may have worked in before). He or she has a different culture – one which is a combination of the two (or three or four) places he has grown up. This is why we call these children, third-culture kids (TCK), Cross-culture kids, or Global Nomads.

The term TCK or ATCK (adult third culture kids) was coined in the 1950’s by John and Ruth Useem, anthropologists who lived abroad with their own children, and working with American children “who had spent a good part of their development years in a culture and language different from their parent’s culture.” Per author Ruth Van Reken of Third Culture Kids: Growing up between Worlds, “ A Cross-Cultural Kid (CCK) is a person who has lived in-or meaningfully interacted with-two or more cultural environments for a significant period of time during developmental years.

Norma McCaig coined another term, “global nomad” and defined it as those children who spend a significant part of their developmental years in another culture, and develop some sense of belonging to both the host culture and the home culture, while not having a sense of total ownership in either. Elements from both (or multiple) cultures are blended, resulting in the third culture.

Many studies have examined feelings and behavior of children of diplomats, military, missionaries, and businesspeople who have grown up outside of their parent’s country. Sometimes the children have parents from two different countries and often the children have lived in multiple countries. How long the child is in another country, how many different countries, the involvement in the local culture, acquisition of a second or third language, identity with the host country, and much more impact how the child is affected. The age during which the child lived abroad, exposure (or lack of) to other children from his or her home country, differences between the culture of the child’s home country and the host country (ie. England and the USA versus China and the USA) makes generalizations about struggles and strengths of these children inaccurate. In the past, studies showed that these kids were 4 times more likely to get a bachelors degree, and many were highly motivated, successful adults, often involved in international work and able to see the world from a unique, multicultural perspective. Some kids, however, despite language and cultural advantages, struggle with feeling restless, not belonging, not having a “home”, and not “fitting in.” Many of these children mature earlier than their peers, but have challenges in early adulthood with self- esteem and finding their niche.

Despite my knowledge as a family physician and researcher, somehow I did not expect the challenges my children would have upon returning to the USA after living for 6 years in rural Nepal.   In fact, only the older two, who were ages 12 and 10 when we moved back to the US, seemed to struggle with “fitting in” and re-entering into the American culture. Even now they process things differently from our two children who were ages 8 and 5 when we moved back. These differences are strengths in some ways, but it helps us (and them) to realize that some of their emotions and actions are affected by their culture, which is unique and different from ours. For example, my oldest daughter, while in dental school, was initially perceived as lacking confidence, until one of her professors who had experience with cross-cultural kids recognized her behavior was not due to lack of confidence or ability during dental surgery, but due to the effects of Nepali village life in early adolescence. His counsel coupled with our family’s encouragement was important in helping her to be a successful dentist.

If you are a parent to a cross cultural child, be sure to talk with him or her about how they feel in different cultures and where they feel “at home.” Help them to voice to you their struggles and feelings, and share with other families and children who may have similar situations. Try to make one place, preferable a location with grandparents or relatives, your “home base”. This helps kids feel more connected and lets them not struggle when someone says, “So where are YOU from?”