Raising Bilingual Kids & Little Global Citizens


Third Culture Kids: The Challenges and Triumphs of Little Global Citizens

Third Culture Kids

Last Updated on December 20, 2021 by Bilingual Kidspot

Third Culture Kids: The Challenges and Triumphs of Little Global Citizens

“Where are you from?” sounds like an easy question to answer for most children. However, it can actually be a struggle for what we call “Third Culture Kids” (TCK).

While living the life as a global citizen can sound glamorous and exciting, getting to travel and experiencing different cultures, many Third Culture Kids also struggle living this type of lifestyle.

Read on to find out all about Third Culture Kids, who they are, how they live, and what they experience from their challenges and triumphs.

What is a Third Culture Kid?

 “Third Culture Kids” or TCK’s, refer to the children who were raised in countries other than their parents’ homelands. They build relationships to all the cultures they come across while not claiming complete ownership in any.

Third Culture Kids are the “army brats”, children of expatriate workers, missionary kids, diplomatic dependents, or children of transnational couples.

By the age of 18, these children will have experienced more than most people will in their lifetime.

As the number of Third Culture Kids are on the rise, researchers are looking more at their adult lives and the long-term effects of their upbringing.

Third Culture Kids live a totally different life than “normal children”. And while they have many challenges as they grow up, being a Third Culture Kid also has many advantages.

Here are 5 challenges and 5 advantages of being a Third Culture Kid

Third Culture Kids - Challenges and Triumphs

5 Challenges of Being a “Third Culture Kid”

Let’s dive straight into the challenges of being a Third Culture Kid. What difficulties TCK’s have being citizens of the world.

1. Culture Shock

An obvious challenge of being a Third Culture Kid, and from which other challenges may stem from, is culture shock. Culture shock can have a devastating effect on adults, but even more so on children.

Third Culture Kids may feel disorientated after experiencing a sudden move to an unfamiliar way of life. They may feel isolated and helpless, not knowing what exactly they are feeling or why. They may experience withdrawals and lack of excitement to mingle.

Third Culture Kids may easily get irritated and lash out on their own family members. They long to be back home as they miss their old friends and the familiarity of their former society.

Although TCKs experience culture shock after entering a new host country, they experience it a greater degree when re-entering their home country. The experiences they gain from living abroad can make them feel foreign to their peers.

Likewise, the idealized image that TCKs have of their home do not match the reality and it may just prove adapting to be too difficult.

2. Feeling no Sense of Belonging

According to American psychologist Abraham Maslow, one of the fundamental needs of humans, especially in childhood, is social belonging.

Bouncing from one culture to another, a Third Culture Kid’s life can often feel lonely and dislocated. Third Culture Kids may experience culture shock and not feel like they fit in the new culture they find themselves in.

Finding friends gets to be too tiresome and difficult when you’re often the new kid. And if they do go back to their countries of origin after being gone for so long, they may feel out of sync after gaining life experiences elsewhere.

Their outlook in life may be broader, their understanding deeper, and their exotic upbringing may no longer be aligned with their former lives.

Dubbed as “citizens of everywhere and nowhere,” TCKs often do not feel like they belong. Getting asked “where are you from?” becomes tedious, not to mention anxiety-inducing. They may perpetually endure being an outsider in varying host cultures. They simply have nowhere to call home.

3. Lack of Close Relationships

Moving from one country to another means leaving everyone else behind – grandparents, cousins, other relatives, childhood friends, classmates, and neighbors among others.

While the rest remain permanently rooted in the society they were born in and constantly surrounded by their families and friends, Third Culture Kids lack this support and will always have to start over with relationships.

Third Culture Kids will not have anyone who knows them since birth outside of their immediate family who are in proximity. The distance and life get in the way and TCKs will have to exert further effort to maintain these relationships.

Along with this, holidays can get lonely not having extended family around to celebrate or having traditions since birth.

Holidays may also mean spending a lot of time travelling to see extended family, or having too many friends and family to see, but not enough time to do so. The drastic changes and constant mobility can result to lack of close friendships and relationships.

4. Managing Absurd Questions

Not very many people realize how absurd they sound when asking questions such as:
“So you grew up in Norway, do you see Vikings walking around everywhere?”
“You say you’re from Norway, but you don’t look Norwegian. Aren’t they tall and blonde?”
“Wow, you speak English very well considering you grew up in Asia!”

Eventually, Third Culture Kids learn to distinguish these questions and respond without taking offense. For people who don’t travel outside their city’s limits, living all over the world and picking up on habits and behaviors from different cultures are not within the grasp of their imagination.

Third Culture Kids must keep in mind that no matter where they go, they may always encounter such questions.

5. Keeping Up with Immigration Laws

Personality may play a small role in how this challenge gets handled. An organized person may not find it so difficult to keep up with updating official documents required in getting passports or visas, going through immigration, or filing applications at the embassy.

Different countries have different sets of immigration rules. Certain countries have visa exemptions, while others do not.

Some countries require you to apply for a visa in their place of residence, while other countries allow applications to be processed upon arrival at the host country.

The time it takes for certain documents to be processed needs to be taken into consideration. After all the comings and goings in multiple countries, it may feel like drowning in paperwork if a person lacks organization skills. A good calendar and attention to detail should be an easy resolve to this issue.

5 Benefits of Being a “Third Culture Kid”

Don’t let the challenges get you down, Third Culture Kids actually have some amazing advantages in life.

1. Multilingualism

One of the most prominent benefits of being a Third Culture Kid is learning different languages. It’s far easier for children to learn a language than for adults. So naturally, Third Culture Kids speak at least two languages, if not more, fluently from a very young age.

Being able to speak the native tongue of their host country makes travelling for Third Culture Kids easier. It increases their chances of assimilating far more quickly than if they don’t know the language.

They get to meet new friends, find new hobbies, read street signs, or engage in conversations. It fuels their sense of belonging. The feeling as an outsider dwindles.

As Third Culture Kids move on in life and traverse the working world as adults, they find there are more career opportunities as a multilingual. In America, and various other countries, there are many jobs which require knowing another language.

As each language has its own nuances, it is sometimes satisfying to be able to express yourself in different languages as some words don’t have a direct translation. It can also come in handy as a globe-trotter, should trouble arise, to know how to communicate with the locals.

2. Intercultural Sensitivity

Being able to immerse in a different culture than your own teaches Third Culture Kids s to be sensitive to other cultures. They learn that it is okay to be different. In fact, it is something to be celebrated.

The worldviews of Third Culture Kids expand and they become more open-minded and understanding. They possess cultural empathy and recognize the struggles and the joys of the inhabitants of their host countries.

Being sensitive to others who are different is a highly desirable skill especially in today’s world. It promotes kindness and acceptance. It encourages camaraderie. It fosters inclusion and tolerance.

3. Relationships All Over the World

Writer Cici Haynes says, “I can travel to pretty much any country in the world and see old friends from my childhood. I have a wealth of memories scattered across continents and my life holds an imprint of multiple cultures.”

For many Third Culture Kids, home is not a place, rather people. They are truly the epitome of the idiom home is where the heart is. They build friendships with people across continents and the memories they make stay with them forever.

Having a diverse group of friends is also beneficial as they prove to offer a plethora of perspectives regarding life, politics, religion, and people.

4. Adaptability

Third Culture kids are often highly adaptable and flexible. With how quick they can sometimes come and go from country to country, they may not have the chance to slowly test the water, rather they must jump in with both feet.

Learning that the world is vast and there are many different cultures they’ve yet to discover, Third Culture Kids have a better capacity to handle the unforeseen and the unfamiliar. They prefer getting caught up in new or challenging circumstances.

With the outlook they have developed from the societies they’ve been a part of, Third Culture Kids understand that there is more than one solution to a problem and more than one way to assess a situation.

They think outside the box. They can manage their emotions. They become more and more adept at picking up societal norms and cues.

They learn how to cope with transitions especially with the knowledge that being transients is their life. They tend to exhibit strong communication skills, cross-cultural and social skills because they must adapt to their new surroundings.

5. Getting to Travel the World

Perhaps the absolute best thing of being a TCK is travelling the world. Seeing different landscapes, experiencing different cultures, tasting different cuisines, talking to different locals, and living different lives.

Third Culture Kids learn to go out of their comfort zones and discover an independence and confidence within themselves.

It’s an incredible and exciting adventure that many spend a big fortune to do, while others do not get to at all.

Third Culture Kids Are the Future

With the whirlwind that is their life, it’s no surprise that challenges arise as much as advantages. Though quite frankly, the benefits certainly outweigh the challenges.

Third Culture Kids are not a new breed and the number is only growing.

Getting to travel the world, one would say they may have enjoyed a privileged upbringing; however, it’s an upbringing that gives them a better understanding of the world.

Research on American adult Third Culture Kids has shown that they are more successful than their homegrown peers.

Other studies have also revealed how TCKs personally adjust, adapt, and cope in their lives to come.

But as far as we know, there have been no studies conducted regarding the positive contributions Third Culture Kids have made, are making, and potentially could make within their inner circle and on a larger scale.

With their degree of understanding and acceptance of diverse cultures, there can only be great things to come. Sociology professor Ann Baker Cottrell says, “TCKs are showing us where we are going, and we are just catching up.”

After all, Third Culture Kids are the future.

Third Culture Kids - All you need to know

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