The positives of growing up overseas as a Third Culture Kid

There are many advantages to a TCK upbringing. Third Culture Kids develop valuable skills, including multilingualism, open-mindednessand adaptability.

The positives of growing up overseas as a Third Culture KidUS President Barack Obama, who lived in Indonesia as a boy, shone a spotlight on Third Culture Kids during his election campaign. His intercultural childhood instilled in him the aptitude for cultural sensitivity and cautious deliberation that gratifies his supporters and makes his detractors tear their hair out.

Adult Third Culture Kid (ATCK) Norma McCaig, author of “Growing Up with a World View,” writes that “in an era when global vision is imperative, where skills in intercultural communication, linguistic ability, mediation, diplomacy, and the ability to manage diversity are critical, global nomads are probably better equipped than others.” Obama and other successful ATCKs embody the positive aspects of growing up in a foreign environment.

TCKs are highly adaptive

Because they must master a new set of behavioural norms every time they move to a new country, TCKs are keen observers of human nature. Since they understand that there’s a reason driving every attitude and behaviour – no matter how strange it may seem – they tend to be accepting of different perspectives.

Their mobile lifestyle turns them into what Ruth Van Reken and David Pollock call “cultural chameleons.” The authors of Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, write that TCKs easily adapt to new situations. They often take a “fake it till you make it” approach to learning the appropriate ways to act in a new environment. They’re successful at fitting in because they’re able to quickly internalize many of the core values that drive behaviour in that culture.

TCKs cross cultures with ease

The adaptability of Third Culture Kids, combined with their knowledge of other cultures, gives rise to excellent interpersonal and intercultural skills. They are natural mediators whose multi-faceted outlook on the world enables them to span cultural divides.

Most Third Culture Kids learn enough of the local language to get by, and a large percentage go on to become fluent. Fifteen-year-old Bilal, like many TCKs, is multilingual. He’s spent the past nine years on the move, living in Dubai and Canada, with a brief return to his native Pakistan. Despite the numerous benefits of speaking several languages, for Bilal it boils down to one simple fact: “The more languages I know, the more people I can talk to.”

TCKs are generally social creatures. They enjoy meeting new people and tend to quickly move friendships beyond the acquaintance stage. Bilal’s girlfriend Erin, a Canadian repatriate who grew up in Singapore and France, says “I make friends a lot faster – if it’s your first day in an entirely new school, you can’t afford be shy.”

TCKs keep their minds open

Third Culture Kids often experience life at the extremes. It’s not uncommon for TCKs to exchange an unremarkable middle-class lifestyle for a sojourn in a developing country lacking basic amenities. Or for that assignment to be followed by one in a major cosmopolitan city, where they’re chauffeured to private school and live in a gated community.

Being raised in a foreign culture brings them into contact with vastly diverse values, attitudes, behaviours, and expectations. The happy outcome of this exposure is an expanded worldview. “It really opened my eyes,” says Erin, 16, of her expatriate experience. “It made the world feel like a smaller place, but in a good way.”

Expat life affects everyone differently, and some TCKs become more insular and xenophobic after moving abroad. The majority, however, develop into inclusive and open-minded global citizens. “If you have multicultural friends, it’s less likely you’ll be prejudiced,” says Bilal. “You can’t afford to be prejudiced when you’re the only white kid in the class,” laughs Erin. “There’s no room for it in an international school; it’s not tolerated by the kids.”

TCKs live in the moment

When life is unpredictable – as it often is for TCKs, who never know when they’ll be told a new assignment is on the horizon – everyday living takes on a sense of urgency. Many global nomads focus on the here and now, and try to savour each experience as it unfolds. “You have to live in the moment, because it might not last,” Bilal agrees. “I appreciate every day because I don’t know how long I’ll be here.”

For better or worse, President Obama’s overseas childhood helped shape the man he became. He’s not alone in getting mixed reviews as a result. There’s no denying the negative side of TCK life, but growing up as a third culture kid is also deeply rewarding. “I loved it, and I’m so grateful for the experience,” Erin says simply. “It absolutely enriched my life.”

This article originally appeared on Suite101.com on June 26, 2010 © Maria Foley.

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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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14 Responses to The positives of growing up overseas as a Third Culture Kid

  1. Mette Weber says:

    So true – i am not a TCK. I have lived my last 20 yeats outsider my homecontry 5 different contries? I believe I have developed  similar scills . To Day I work with expats , coach and teach intercultural communication and kompetences . I want  to spred the word  – to make a better World which it will  be with intercultural kompetences . I dó write blog too but only in Danish . Your blog is a Good inspiration to me Thanks 
    Mette Weber 
    http://www.metteweber.dk 

  2. pneighbors says:

    Wonderful overview of expat life in the eyes of a child!
    I will definitely pass this article on to my two teens
    as a little reminder of how truly blessed we really are
    to have the chance to live abroad~
    Every assignment a new adventure !!

    • Maria says:

      I’m going to show this to my kids, too. The “Erin” in the article is my oldest daughter, and I want to remind her what a blessing her TCK experience has been. Thanks so much for commenting.

  3. Lyn says:

    I’ve told people that President Obama’s experience living overseas made him more appealing and more representative of me as a TCK and ATCK than any other candidate I’ve had a chance to vote for to date. And I’m a Texan :-)

    I’ll never forget years ago in Hong Kong sitting around a table over some beers with about 10 of my fellow young adult buddies – we suddenly realized none of us were from the same country. You learn a lot about being open to other points of view in an environment like that. I think that’s something we can use a bit more of these days.

  4. Tony says:

    Hi! Definitely an investment for the future of the kids!

  5. livgaunt says:

    Even if children only gained mulitlingualism from the experience it would be amazing, but the fact that so much more is offered is really wonderful.

  6. Thanks for the article. Have you written an article on the challenges or the downside of growing up as a third culture kid? I do agree that the advantages are great but there are huge challenges too. How TCKs get through depends on many things: what kind of school they go to, how parents guide them through the many moves (major life events), at what stage in their development they make the transitions, debriefing etc. For some kids the challenges are greater than for others. Have you heard of Ruth van Reken’s book “Letters Never Sent”? She wrote it at the age of 40 because she was still struggling with issues from the past….

  7. Sine says:

    Great points. I would add to that the fact that a bilingual upbringing makes you smarter (I’m working on a blog post on why this is so, just as soon as I can get my African hence fickle Internet up and running again). There is research on that which I find very interesting. Meaning the language itself you are learning isn’t really so important as the mere fact you’re learning it.

    I also agree on Obama. Unfortunately many Americans will see a threat in his background when it’s really a huge asset. Can’t wait to vote for him this time around after working on the campaign in 2008 and becoming a citizen two years ago.

  8. As a child of Navy parents who had to sometimes move from one point of the world all the way across to another point in the world — I agree with the writings in the post.

  9. It’s always nice to see writing about the amazing benefits of an international childhood. If TCKs can overcome some of the challenges that the internationally mobile life brings, they have so much potential to help make the world a better a place! I run a mentoring program for TCKs around the world, and we place equal focus on minimizing the challenges and maximizing the benefits. I grew up as a TCK overseas and the experience absolutely helped shape my career for the better -I feel extremely lucky!

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