Third culture club

Third culture club

12th August 2008, Comments 0 comments

How far will cultural and ideological differences affect our life in a globalised society? A third culture kid himself, Chris Lenton looks at where the global nomad is coming from, or going.

Paul Crowe, 27, lives in Hawaii, where he captains a boat and teaches scuba diving. He has thick blonde hair and a sturdy build; wears faded jeans, a red rugby shirt, and sports a deep copper tan.
He is articulate, has a degree in marine biology, and is at ease discussing virtually any topic. He likes the Lakers, and tends to vote Democrat. His accent is sharp and smooth, his choice of words, careful. In many ways he fits the bill of a well-educated twenty-something American. Except Paul doesn’t know where he is from.

The child of American diplomats, he has lived, at various stages and for varying lengths of time, in Sri Lanka, Jamaica, Egypt, Switzerland, Thailand, Florida, New York, Hawaii, Indonesia, Oman, Malaysia, the Marshall Islands and Maryland. His nationality is merely a term that exists on a piece of paper known as a passport, a document littered with stamps, visas and tacked-on pages that he carries discreetly in his jeans' pocket.  “When I tell people where I’ve lived, where I’ve been, where I’m from, most of them think I’m either bragging or lying. So I keep it quiet,” he says.
Nomads through birth
Paul is not alone. He is part of an expanding group of young Americans who grew up in a smattering of countries, none of them necessarily the one indicated on the cover of their passports. These nomadic people have been given a name: Third Culture Kids (TCKs). Professor Ruth Hill Useem of Michigan State University coined the term in a series of lectures and papers. Loosely, the term applies to people who as children were lugged around to foreign countries by parents pursuing work in rapidly growing international fields.
According to the Wikipedia entry on TCKs, “third” refers to the culture created when a person integrates their parents’ culture with the culture (or cultures) in which they were raised.
Paul’s reluctance to let people into his life neatly illustrates Professor Useem’s theory that TCKs hide themselves in an attempt to blend into constantly changing surroundings.
Blending in
“On the surface, most adult TCKs conform to what is going on around them in such a way that attention is not drawn to them,” Useem wrote recently in an article for the International School Services magazine. “As they meet new people and situations, they are slow to commit themselves until they have observed what is expected behavior. If what is expected is unacceptable or incomprehensible, they will quietly withdraw rather than make fools of themselves or hurt the feelings of others.”
Like Paul, they are rootless and malleable. Useem continues: “They are the most interesting people because their rich inner lives belie their often bland… and sometimes wary, presentation of themselves to others." TCKs are also, studies now show, bright, and courted by employers.
In the early 90’s, Professor Useem conducted an extensive survey of some 700 TCKs. The results were instructive: as a whole this group is highly educated. 90 percent of those surveyed had bachelor degrees—four times the US average—and over half of those with BAs had graduate degrees. More than 80 percent were professionals, semi-professionals, managers, officials or executives. One-fourth worked in an academic field and close to 20 percent were self-employed. Few (2 percent) worked in large corporations.
These statistics show that TCKs have the desire to continue learning and the curiosity that comes with travel and exposure to new cultures, ideas, and ways of
Forever young
On the flipside, argues Professor Useem, these same qualities may lead to what psychologists call a “prolonged adolescence.” Over 90 percent of the people surveyed report being out of step with people of their age group. TCKs change jobs frequently and marry and have children far later than the average North American. They continue to move around a lot. They have trouble identifying what they want to do with their lives and most attest to having changed their course of study numerous times.

“When you grow up seeing and experiencing so much, you realise how vast and enormous your options are,” says Paul. “This makes staying put and choosing things that will make it difficult to change, to move, unattractive. Decision-making can be tricky. You’re always wondering if what you decided was right, constantly second-guessing. There is often a tradeoff between exploration and stability.”All-different-ethnicity-by-Sweet-TradeTEXT

TCKs tend to live, at least as young adults, on low, insecure incomes. They have “champagne” tastes, but exist on “beer” wages. The bottom line is rarely their priority. And because they’re constantly on the move and are so good at hiding their backgrounds and interests, relatively little is known about them and how they contribute to the societies in which they live.

They are rarely in one country long enough to be counted on a census; many TCKs, in fact, live in nations where they’re not permitted to vote.

In sum, a large generation of highly educated, curious, independent women and men—2 million in the U.S. alone, according to the TCK World website ( —go almost unnoticed by policy makers, sociologists and even, sometimes, their own friends.

At Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA)—a school spawned from the ideas and lives of what could be called the initial post-war TCK community—I recently met with a cadre of global travelers and thinkers who, using Professor Useem’s terminology, might more accurately be described as fourth culture kids.

Most have lived a majority of their lives away from their supposed nations and some no longer claim a national identity. Some have never even lived in their parents’ countries. Others have parents who themselves are TCKs. And they have all come to Columbia to pursue a Masters in International Affairs, a degree that will serve to prolong the nomadic lifestyle they had as children.

“When people ask me where I’m from, I tell them whatever would be easiest at the time, or whatever response I think they’d understand best,” said Alexandra, a second year student of the programme.  Alexandra is from Argentina, but has never lived in South America. She grew up in Asia, and now lives in New York.

I saw living proof of Useem’s conclusions in this group of students. Of those I spoke with, all declared that living an international life was their career priority. All of them were unmarried and above the national average marrying age (25). Each person was acutely aware that her relationships suffered as a result of her past and current choices. Few knew where they would be in five years. Many attested to changing the focus of their lives repetitively and to constantly questioning larger questions of identity. Most didn’t know who to root for in the Olympics. What is consistent from the stories of TCKs, however, is the assertion that having a peripatetic upbringing enriched their lives in myriad ways—adding new ideas, friends, and worldly perspectives.

“Above all I’ve learned how to deal with turmoil,” says Justin, a Columbia Masters graduate who grew up in Japan and California and now resides in Thailand. “I may have lost the sense of ever being settled but I’ve gained a fierce sense of independence and perspective.”

When he’s going through a rough spot, Justin can draw upon a wealth of experiences and cultures; his extensive travels also allow him to measure his own concerns against the wider pool of human experience in a way that many of his peers cannot.

And what is next for Paul Crowe? “My wife and I are thinking of moving to Belize, or maybe Costa Rica,” he says. He adds that Jessica, his wife, is a fellow TCK he met ten years ago while studying in the Overseas School of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Chris Lenton was born in Delhi and raised in Sri Lanka, and has British and Argentine passports. He has lived all over Asia, Europe, and Latin America, but has settled (for now) on New York's Lower East Side, where he is a writer.

Reprinted with permission of

August 2008

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