Third Culture Kids: A Culture of Their Own

By Stephanie Roofner
I was born in the U.S. but when I was nine months old my parents moved to the country of Italy where I was raised until I returned to the U.S. for college. I learned the language, went to school, and incorporated the cultural ways and expectations of daily living, such as going to school on Saturdays and taking a mid-day break for lunch, the most important meal of the day when most stores close down.

In our home we spoke English, sometimes an English and Italian hybrid, and created our own mixture of American and Italian traditions. In interacting with my peers at school, I always knew I was different and was many times treated so because of my religion and my more open-minded approach to life. When visiting the U.S. and interacting with my American peers, I was also aware of my “different-ness,” specifically in life experiences and my inability to always relate to cultural trends. But interacting with my missionary kid peers I felt more at home knowing that we had grown up between cultures, mixing the two yet feeling not fully integrated into either. You could say we bonded in our identity confusion.

What I began to discover was that I was part of a phenomenon called third culture kids or TCKs who are just that, persons who are from one culture but spend much of their childhood within another, or more cultures, and must incorporate all those cultures into their identity.

There are in fact many common characteristics that TCKs share. One of the most notorious characteristics is the difficulty of knowing one’s place in the world or being able to solidify one’s identity because of the many pressures, influences, and expectations one must uphold and abide by. One of the hardest questions I had to answer growing up was “where are you from?” This questions always caused internal turmoil because I had to decipher the purpose behind person’s question, their level of actual interest, their possible reactions to the answer, and how detailed I was going to be in my response. Yet this question is to most people an easy one and the beginning of what makes them who they are.

Another common characteristic is a greater open-mindedness toward worldviews and ways of living. This leads TCKs to have a greater understanding of the world and its’ variety. The world is their “playground,” so to speak, and they are not intimidated by distance or diversity.

Many times TCKs will have difficulty building and maintaining relationships because they have come to expect that they will soon move on and it’s not worth the effort. This is more typical of military kids whose environments change often because of their parents’ work demands. The opposite can be true as well in that a TCK will quickly build deep relationships because they’ve come to expect time limitations and they feel the need to be understood given their feelings of “different-ness.”

Overall TCKs typically find themselves to be very successful in life, however, because of their ability to relate on a global level and their out-of-the-box kind of thinking, not to mention their multi-lingual capabilities and adaptability, TCKs have formed a culture of their own that is not without its difficulties, but is certainly an asset to a world that is becoming more globally minded and multicultural.

For more information see Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds by David Pollock and Ruth Reken (2009) or