Family Friday: What Makes Me a Third Culture Kid?

There was a letter to the editor in my newspaper this week from a Palm Beach County neighbor who was born in the United States but grew up in Asia as the result of her parents’ missionary work.

Like the children of military members, diplomats, and, in my case, missionaries, I became what is called a TCK, a Third Culture Kid. Our backgrounds are different from that of our parents’ home country and from the country where we grew up.

Angela Grant, The Palm Beach Post, 7/15/21

I’m a TCK, too. I was born in the USA to Midwesterners, but we flew into the Foreign Service when I was just six months old, and my sister (born in Caracas) and I grew up mostly in Europe and Latin America. We were professional Americans overseas, but our international experiences made us an odd fit when we moved to the States. I’ve been trying to bridge the gap my entire adult life.

Cross-cultural expert Tanya Crossman

TCK’s deal with some unique challenges in integrating that experience into what we’ve done with the rest of our lives. It’s the subject of research being conducted by Tanya Crossman, an Australian who lived in China for over a decade.

Tanya is a noted cross-cultural consultant and TCK/Cross Culture Kid advocate, and the author of Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century. She writes that the term Third Culture Kid was coined by in the 1950’s by Dr. Ruth Hill Useem while studying children of American families living in India.

These children were not Indian, though they lived in India. They were American – though they weren’t experiencing that country. This childhood experience was neither that of an Indian child nor that of an American child. It was somewhere in between – in a Third Culture.

Tanya Crossman, July 2016 blog post

Legal, geographic, and relational culture

Tanya writes that culture can be defined in three ways:

  • Legal: the place in which you have a passport or permanent residency
  • Geographic: the place(s) in which you live.
  • Relational: the experiences woven together from life lived in between cultures.

Legal representative of America overseas

I had an American diplomatic passport, and, as an embassy kid, understood that I represented the USA. Sarah Mansfield Taber, whose overseas childhood as the daughter of a CIA officer is an almost exact match with mine, writes this about having a diplomatic passport:

Only representatives of foreign governments were issued these, my father told us. I could feel an American flag waving inside me.

Sarah Mansfield Taber, Born Under An Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy’s Daughter

But not a geographic American

I was an official American when I lived in Venezuela, Italy, Colombia, and Spain. But my identity morphed when we moved to the States.

Though I looked American, I was not; I was a sort of clandestine foreigner.

Sarah Mansfield Taber, Born Under An Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy’s Daughter

I am from the Third Culture

The connection I feel with Sarah Mansfield Taber is the TCK’s relational cultural identity.

The Third Culture is the childhood home of those who did not experience comprehensive connection to a single place as children.

Tanya Crossman, July 2016 blog post

My memoir, Embassy Kid (being assessed for publication by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training), looks back at where I am from. I have shared the Preface and will be sharing chapters in the coming weeks.

I cannot imagine being a citizen of any other nation. We are the freest, the most fortunate people on earth. Whether our people arrived on a recent flight or a wooden boat, and whether we choose to wear hijab or a yarmulke or spray paint our hair with the colors of the rainbow, we are all from somewhere else, and we are all here now.

Angela Grant, letter to The Palm Beach Post

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