Third Culture Kids, Cross-Cultural Kids and Defining Home

“A third culture kid is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture.”

The concept of Third Culture Kids was developed by Dr. Ruth Hill Useem, an American sociologist and anthropologist. I initially thought, this could be me. Or our kids. The term is used to describe children who create a third culture from their parent’s home country’s culture and their host country’s culture. The term Third Culture Kids (TCKs) are used for children of missionaries, diplomats, business people (ex-pats), and military personnel. (Oh. Not me. Not my kids.) The concept assumes that the families will eventually return back to their home country. (Hmm. Could be me?)

This is the main difference between children of migrants, who are technically also third culture kids based on the loose definition above, and TCKs. When a family migrates, it assumes that the immigrants settle in their new country, make it their home, and no longer return to their native country (for good, that is). Immigrants normally want to leave their home countries because by moving, they can improve their family’s lives. Ruth E. Van Reken, author of “Third Culture Kids : Growing Up Among Worlds”, coined the term Cross-cultural Kids to include children of migrants, refugees, and others that don’t quite fit in the TCK definition.

As a child of immigrants, I would be a cross-cultural kid. But, I also belong to a wave of “Balikbayans” (Filipino immigrants that returned to the Philippines) that rooted themselves in the Philippines again after living abroad for over a decade (probably a phenomenon not studied yet by Useem with her studies mostly from 1940s-1980s). Tom would also be a Cross-Cultural Kid. And our own kids too. Born in the US, raised in the Philippines. Born in the Philippines, raised in Canada. With the amount of moving between me, Tom, and our kids, one would wonder about how we establish roots, define home, or the culture we embrace.

The nuance made between TCKs and CCKs resonates deeply with me though – that TCKs eventually “return home”. In this highly globalized world, with many people moving here and there, there is also a movement of second-generation migrants searching for themselves, and finding their way back to their roots. I see a generation with a desire to understand their parents, and their grandparents more. There is also a greater ability to return, probably because our immigrant parents have attained the better life that gives them the ability to choose going back (even if it is for a summer adventure).

Because we live a “third culture”, we know we don’t fully fit in our new country, and funnily enough, we don’t perfectly fit in our native country either. But the feeling of “home” can be both here and there too. What a blessing to belong here and there, and such deep loneliness to not truly fit in.

It is empowering too though, this acceptance and acknowledgment of this “third culture”. We are accepting that culture is not static, that we take what is good, beautiful, and fair from our heritage, and blend it with what is wonderful, just, and kind in the culture we are in here and now. Wish us luck, as Tom and I try to raise our CCKs.

Interested in learning more on TCKs, CCKs, and the adults that they’ve become? Admittedly, I am. Here are some of the links I’ve been browsing and the books I am keen on reading: