When “where are you from” is one of the hardest questions to answer. The curious case of “third culture kids”


Instead ask, “who are your close personal relationships with” to know the person

Many moons ago I was on a business trip in Singapore.  Over a fabulous dinner in the fish market one night a local colleague and I got to talking about our lives.  I spoke about my itinerant life, how I had never lived in one place (one home) for more than two years, and in most cases, each move involved a change of country.

This was not alien to him, but his experience was doing that as a parent with children—so living it from the other end of the telescope.  He told me about a study sponsored by Stanford University that followed 10,000 children over a period of 30+ years.  The study looked at the impact of these types of changes in cultural milieu on a child’s development.  The study was called “Third Culture Kids”.  The study spawned a book, and my colleague urged me to find it and read it.

The conversation then turned firmly to him wanting to probe me, getting an adult peer’s view into the minds of his own children.  It was a very personal but also illuminating conversation.  I did buy the book, and it is around here somewhere, but I can’t just find it right now, so may make errors of omission or commission in the retelling.  When I find it I shall do a more formal review.

The concept is essentially this.  When a child grows up moving to different cultures, three cultures will emerge as dominant in their lives [as opposed to just one in most people’s lives; or as opposed to one for each place they live].  The first culture is the one of their parents…their home life and child development.  The second culture is the one of their most common and adopted homeland.  The third culture is a common culture of the “Three Culture Kid” or “TCK”.  In other words, the discombobulation that results from moves produces a common culture for all TCK’s above what is created by a place.

The specific elements of this culture are quite interesting.

  • TCK’s are far less attached to places than to people.  Place almost doesn’t matter to them.  A TCK, however, will focus on a person and develop and maintain ties to that person, no matter where they are in the world or what they do.
  • TCK’s will typically have fewer friendships, but those that they do have are typically longer lasting and deeper.
  • TCK’s are characterised by loyalty.
  • TCK’s will typically marry another TCK.  Divorce rates are less than half than they are for the population at large.

I certainly see the parallels to my own life.  Other parallels I see are that it is easy to let go of a place and of people who are not close.  It is also easy to “not bother” with people at first, to be aloof, because the expectation is that they won’t be around for long.

Most importantly, though, we latch onto people.  When someone we come across is “worth it” or is a “keeper” we spend a lot of time and effort investing in them so as to stay relevant in one another’s lives.  

When I talk to other TCK’s, and in all honesty, almost all of my close friends are TCK’s, there is no questioning any of this—it is a shared experience.  But for others who didn’t grow up this way, it is hard to imagine. 

How many people say they wouldn’t want to do that to their kids?  Parents often say they think children have to stay put to grow up well, that it is traumatising for them to have to find new friends.  And yet, TCKs are typically wealthier, happier, and healthier than an average citizen.  

I wouldn’t have changed this for the world.  It was an incredibly rich way to grow up.  

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