Third culture kids are at an advantage when it comes to establishing themselves in the world. This is why.
Third Culture Kids. If you’re reading this, it’s highly likely that you either are one or are the parent of one – or at the very least, you know one. But what exactly is a ‘third culture kid’ (TCK), and what are the unique benefits and challenges that such an identity brings?
At ZIS, where the student body is drawn from 55 different countries and students speak 40 mother-tongue languages, it’s almost the norm to be a TCK. At its simplest, the term describes children ‘who accompany their parents into another society’. That was the formulation used by pioneering American anthropologist Dr Ruth Hill Useem, who coined the term ‘third culture kid’ in the 1950s.
Neatly, the label didn’t just fit Useem’s study subjects – the offspring of American citizens living and working abroad – but her own three children, who accompanied Ruth and her sociologist husband to India for year-long research periods among expatriate communities. To this day, TCKs usually fall into one of four major groups: the children of diplomats, military personnel, missionaries or corporate executives.
But if the origin of the TCK phenomenon – globetrotting parental career choices – remains essentially unchanged, the experience itself has grown ever more complex since Useem’s initial observations. “Once, what you called third culture was really second culture,” says Professor Harry Korine, Class of 1980 (1977-80), Adjunct Professor of Strategy at INSEAD. “You had parents from the same country, and they lived in another country with their children. But now we increasingly have a true third culture with families like mine: my mother was American, my father from the Middle East, and I grew up in Switzerland.”
As the great global cities and top universities draw together people of many nationalities and it becomes increasingly common to undertake overseas postings, people are falling in love – and raising families – across borders. And if those families relocate to yet another country, the result is a fully third culture experience for the children.
Hasan, Grade 3, is American with parents born in England and Canada, and grandparents from India and Pakistan. He is in his second year at the Lower School.
Jessica Hull, Grade 6, already has roots in Greece (where her mother’s family is from), her father’s home country of South Africa, and in Dubai, where the family lived for 11 years. Now aged 12, and newly arrived in Switzerland, Jessica relishes the variety her well-travelled life has brought her. “I’m able to live comfortably in different environments,” she says. “In Dubai I lived in the desert, and back in South Africa I enjoy the city and beach environment. Here in Switzerland I live in the mountains.”
To the languages learned at home – English and Greek – Jessica’s schooling has added French and Arabic, and now German. And then there’s the food. “My Daddy loves South African meat, my Mommy likes Greek cuisine; my sister loves South African milk tart, and I like Arabic cheese bread.” By any measure, it’s a wonderfully enriched and varied upbringing, and one that many families will recognise.
“The benefits of the TCK experience are well-documented, but there are challenges, too.”
Indeed, the benefits of the TCK experience are well-documented, as Lower School counsellor Jill Wagner explains. “TCKs are often highly flexible and adaptable. They can also be very resilient, which is advantageous. Many speak more than one language, opening doors both socially and in their careers. Their lives are often rich with experiences.”
Nonetheless, Jill is mindful of the challenges that TCKs can face. These range from the straightforwardly circumstantial – education gaps due to time lost in school transitions – to the harder to quantify and potentially more serious, such as anger or guilt between parents and children, or a reluctance to show vulnerability or attachment.
In particular, she notes: “Some TCKs may struggle to form really strong, intimate relationships with peers.” This is partly about an unwillingness to form attachments that may only lead to loss – friends left behind when a family relocates again. But it is also about the lack of a shared culture.
“In a community that is not full of TCKs, it can be harder to make strong connections without the shared background,” says Jill. “But it’s something we at ZIS are keenly aware of, and it’s in our DNA to be able to give these kids exactly the type of support when and how they need it. For instance, among a range of offers we have there is a buddy system for new students, dedicated counsellors and various sessions for individual students and parents. We understand the issues and we’re there to help.”
Anais, Grade 10, is American but speaks Mandarin, courtesy of time spent living in Singapore. She is in her second year at the Upper School.
It’s a predicament that Emilie Leffler, Class of 2006 (1994-2006), understands all too well. The child of a Swedish father and English mother, Emilie was born in the UK, lived in the US through her early childhood, then was raised and educated in Switzerland. The one geographical anchor was the family’s holiday home in Portugal. England became the choice for her higher education, “but it was there,” she recalls, “that the whole TCK thing came to the fore”.
“At the grocery store in Switzerland there were just three flavours of crisps – here there were aisles of them.”
Her university, in Surrey, was “fantastic, educationally”, but it soon became apparent that despite her maternal heritage, UK citizenship, and English mother tongue, Emilie was much more of an international student than she appeared. “There were the small but important things: I’d grown up with none of the traditional English TV soap operas, for example. At the grocery store in Switzerland there were just three flavours of crisps – here there were aisles of them. My accent isn’t English, but it’s not American either. And with speech, there’s a difference between colloquial English and international English.”
But if university proved a dislocating time for Emilie, she has found that as an employee her TCK identity is a considerable asset. “I’ve worked for big, multinational companies with a really mixed workforce. So [as a TCK] you can deal with that well. And it’s also a conversation starter. Whenever I talk to people, they try to work out my accent. You’re able to stand out. I’m in a sales role, and that helps.”
Professor Harry Korine notes that school alumni networks, rather than the more common university alumni networks, could become a key support and mentoring provider for transitioning TCKs, something ZIS is planning to introduce. “I identify very much with the anxieties, particularly with the transition to college,” he says. “I’ve seen many young people feel the pressure of not only being away from family, but also having to adapt to a monocultural environment. That’s where the idea of a mentoring scheme comes from.”
Indeed, many international schools are paying increasingly close attention to how they can best prepare, support and inspire their students. One new recruit to the teaching body at ZIS is Dr Jeff Steuernagel, university and career counsellor at the Upper School. His doctorate explored, among other questions, the intercultural sensitivity of adult TCKs working in international schools, and found that “having these diverse experiences early in life has a profound impact on how we experience the world later”.
Jessica is in Grade 6 at the Middle School. She is Greek/South African, is in her first year at ZIS and can “live comfortably in different environments
The defining TCK trait may be the ability to ‘code switch’, and this, he says, is where school intervention can transform a challenging experience into something that will stand the TCK in good stead for the rest of their life, as he explains. “Mom may be of one cultural upbringing, Dad another, and school represents a different education environment than either of them may have experienced. On top of that the culture of the country they are in could be different again. Eventually students learn to ‘code switch’ from one environment to the other, almost subconsciously, but international schools like ours have a role to play in adding cultural learning to our students’ bank of knowledge and skills.”
The school peer-group is where Jeff locates some of the most powerful opportunities for both supporting and inspiring TCKs. “Welcoming young professionals back to ZIS to share their experiences of how being a TCK and ZIS graduate have opened doors for them is so valuable,” he says.
“TCKs can be very skilled in the art of the present. They appreciate what they have.”
“Their stories can make a significant impression on current students, hearing how students ‘like them’ have succeeded.” Examples Jeff points to include the annual Career Forum for Grade 10s (featuring a panel of business people offering insights into what it takes to succeed), internships, work placements and the range of networking opportunities around the world through the alumni programme.
While the path of the TCK may not always be a smooth one – and is, indeed, less a path than a zigzagging series of global journeys – it nonetheless provides enrichment and opportunity that’s inaccessible and unimaginable to those raised monoculturally. Life as a TCK may equip individuals uniquely well for our globalised world.
“TCKs can be very skilled in the art of the present,” says ZIS guidance counsellor Jill Wagner. “They learn to appreciate living in the now and can be good at appreciating their experiences and what they have.” Or as Jessica puts it: “Each time I move, I meet wonderful people that I make friends with. The people I meet, the cultures I learn, the religions I understand – it’s all made possible because I come from a multicultural family.”
Maximilian is in Pre-Kindergarten and speaks Hungarian with his dad, Polish with his mum, English with his friends at the ECC and German with his neighbours.