Third Culture Kids

What’s a third culture kid? I’d never heard the term until I began teaching in Hong Kong international school. A third culture kid is a young person who has spent some part of their childhood living in a culture other than that of their parent’s home culture. They don’t have full ownership in either culture so they create a kind of unique or ‘third’ culture which is a combination of their home culture and the cultures of the other countries in which they have lived.

Third culture kids can be the children of military personnel, refugees, diplomats, business people, missionaries or professionals who accept jobs overseas.

I was vividly reminded that my students are third culture kids after a class party at an ice rink located in a huge shopping mall near our school. Twenty of my students showed up. After we’d finished skating we went to a restaurant for refreshments. When it was time to leave the kids whipped out their mobile phones to call home so their parents could come and pick them up. I listened while the children all around me chatted with their parents in Cantonese, Japanese, Thai, Korean, Mandarin, English, Italian, Tagalog, Malay and Taiwanese. At school the children always speak English. Hearing them talk to their mothers and fathers in their native tongue reminded me of how culturally diverse a group they really were. Nobody at the tables around us seemed the least bit surprised to hear all those children speaking in different languages. Hong Kong is full of third culture kids. A local magazine ran a feature story recently about young people from a dozen different countries that have come to live in Hong Kong because of their parents’ job relocation. Hong Kong issues 80,000 new work visas to foreigners each year. If even half of those people bring at least one child along when they move to Hong Kong you can imagine how quickly the population of third culture kids is growing here.

Psychologists fascinated with these young global citizens are establishing a growing body of research about them. They’ve discovered advantages and disadvantages to being a third culture kid.

Sometimes they feel rootless. They wonder where they really belong. Some find it hard to establish long term relationships because they have moved so frequently. On the other hand many tend to be much more outgoing and sociable and can easily get to know new people. Most speak more than one language and tend to have a much wider variety of friends. They are more flexible and ready for change. They have a broader world view and are less inclined to be prejudiced towards those of other nationalities, races and religions.

In a time when international travel is easy and globalization means businesses are sending their employees to live all over the world, the population of third culture kids is bound to continue to rise. If the wonderful students I have the privilege to work with are typical of third culture kids than I have no doubt that our world will be a better place because of them.