Identity of third culture kids a growing area of research

Migration patterns have led to a global community of cultural chameleons. 


There are thought to be more than two hundred million ‘third culture kids’ worldwide. Photo: elitatt / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

“That’s the story of my life – I’ve felt like a nomad, not in a sense that I transfer between cultures, but that I can’t fit into one,” Josh Isleta, an International Relations university student in the Philippines, says.

“I feel like my identity isn’t just in one place.”

Josh is not your average university student; before living in the Philippines, his family spent several years in different countries such as Germany and the US.

Growing up, his group of friends always included kids who spent most of their lives constantly moving to different countries.

After his family returned to the Philippines, Josh began to feel that a part of his identity – his culture – was missing.

Visiting fresh food markets or hanging out with his Filipino friends, Josh realised that he “stuck out like a sore thumb” among Filipinos who lived their whole lives in the country.

While he is still able to socialise and connect with his peers, Josh finds himself relating better with students who have had similar multicultural experiences – students who spent their lives being immersed in different cultures as well.

“I’d say that being in a melting pot of cultures kind of melts down your own,” he says.

In 2018, Pacific Prime research estimated that 230 million people around the world are – like Josh – third culture kids (TCK).

Today, that number has increased by two million according to data from the expat survey, of whom many are piecing together their cultural identities as families move back and forth in different countries.

One shared experience that all TCKs have is the feeling of being rootless.”

How much do people really know about the third culture kid community?

It all began when an American sociologist and anthropologist Ruth Hill Useem published an article discussing American families living in India which talked about how wives and children had to adapt to Indian culture to mitigate the stresses of living in a new environment. In that process, they would develop a “third culture” of their own combining their home culture with that of India.

In 1999, David C Pollock and Ruth E Van Reken published the book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds that introduced the TCK global community to a wider audience. In fact, the book helped people discover that they were actually TCKs and gave a justification to the feelings they have been negotiating within their lives.

Pollock and Van Reken defines a TCK as a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture(s). Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relation to others of a similar background.

Research by Emiko S Kashima, a professor from La Trobe University’s Department of Psychology and Counselling, shows that people who have spent their lives living in different countries develop a sense of acculturation or cultural integration and understanding.

She believes her own experiences, together with her children, strongly reflects the research she has conducted.

“I observed that there were moments when their cultural identity was an issue for them, including myself,” Prof Kashima says.

“There have been some times when I felt more confused than ever.”

But cultures shift and change with the world around us and, Professor Kashima says, experience is never static.

Instead, moving and adapting drives life as people encounter others and grow their cultural knowledge.

“It’s not that they get stuck in that issue but that [they] live through it,” she says.

Appreciating more than one culture

A student studying at Cedarville University, Scott Gocon, shares some of his cultural challenges living in the US state of Ohio.

Prior to moving there, he had lived most of his life in the Philippines; his background is Filipino-American with his mother being an American missionary and marrying a Filipino pastor.

“I don’t feel like I really belong in either culture, but I do understand them [both] better because of my parents and my upbringing,” Scott says.

Two years after moving to the US, he says he still finds himself relating and developing stronger relationships with other TCKs compared to local students.

Engaging in a community with a melting pot of cultures also strengthened his appreciation for the two that make up his identity.

“After I moved out of the Philippines, I realised how much I loved it in the Philippines because when I was over there, I almost hated it,” he says.

TCKs around the world have a whole spectrum of life experiences based on the countries they have lived in and the relationships that have sprouted from those experiences.

But one shared experience that all TCKs have is the feeling of being rootless.

Despite this unwavering feeling of being in limbo among various cultures, Josh describes a TCK’s situation as similar to being like a tree.

“They plant roots and when they plant roots, it’s hard to uproot those – it’s hard to take them out of their solid foundations, and when the branches grow and produce fruit, it’s always gonna be different,” he says.

“We’re blessed in this circumstance but it means that we have to adjust to different cultures. We have to take it in, take it as it is, and eat what’s in front of you.”