Home is Everywhere and Nowhere: Third Culture Kids (TCK) | campus.sg

third culture kid
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

You may have seen a few in your school. You may also know a couple of them in your class. You know, those peers who speak with an atas accent, or are unfamiliar with Singapore culture even though they’re Singaporean. You may even be one. In an age of globalisation, Third Culture Kids are quite widespread in Singapore. But who are these Third Culture Kids, and how much do you know about them?

Who are TCKs?

A term coined in the 1950s, Third Culture Kids (TCKs) refer to children who have spent their formative years in places that are not their parents’ homeland. They’re called ‘third culture’ because their ‘first’ culture is the origin country of their parents, the ‘second’ refers to the culture in which the family resides, and some sources refer to the ‘third’ as the amalgamation of the two.

While many are children of expatriate workers, missionaries, diplomats or military families, they can also be from transnational marriages, which is increasingly common across Asia. In fact, 1 in 3 Singapore marriages these days are transnational, and children of these marriages sometimes end up moving around places that are neither of their parents’ home countries.

Even the idea of ‘family’ may be different from what many people understand. For example, a typical Singaporean family will have Singaporean passports for all members, but a TCK family may have parents with different passports each, which also may be different from their children’s. Sometimes, it’s not unusual for each family member to be holding different passports or even multiple passports. Some of their siblings may be born in different countries.

For example, fresh grad Julian has an Australian passport, and his family comprises a father with British and Australian passports and a mother with a Swiss passport. One of his brothers was born in Switzerland, the other in Singapore.

This could be why TCKs are sometimes referred to as cultural hybrids, cultural chameleons, and global nomads. A 2011 online survey by Denizen found most of the 200 participants made their first move before the age of nine and had lived in an average of four countries. 

Notable TCKs include Barack Obama, who moved to Jakarta after his mother married an Indonesian; North Korean leader Kim Jong Un who was educated in Switzerland until he was 15 years old; and actress Uma Thurman who grew up in a Himalayan town in India until she was nine.

Photo by Helena Lopes from Pexels

What sets them apart

Some TCKs stand out in class – they may be of mixed culture – while others are harder to tell from first looks. 

Accents: While many of us tend to categorise Singaporeans who speak with an atas Western accent as those who’re just trying to sound posh, the accents of Singaporean TCKs are often acquired through interactions with peers and educators from all over the world. Interestingly, while TCKs typically have a Western accent, they are usually also able to adjust to their environment depending on where they are. For instance, they may use Singlish when ordering at a kopitiam.

Language skills: Just like many Singaporeans are bilingual thanks to multiculturalism here, TCKs often acquire their language skills based on where they live or what their heritage is. Some TCKs are bilingual, or even multilingual depending on circumstances. For example, Karim has German and Egyptian ancestry, and having lived in France and the UK, he is fluent in English, German, and French, and a bit of Arabic.

Openness: A recent study examining TCK alumni from an international school in Japan showed that third culture kids were more open to new experiences and more conscientious. This is probably due to the fact that, in the midst of moving around, they need to learn fast and adapt. 

Cultural intelligence: Most TCKs tend to be able to easily navigate across national, ethnic, and organisational cultures. This gives them the cultural sensitivity to know how to behave or when not to ask intrusive questions.

Independent: Because they’ve had to adapt to life without the same set of friends growing up, they’ve also learned to be independent at an early age. This means they’ll be able to adapt to a new environment – ie. university abroad – easier than someone without their experience.

Travel experience: TCKs tend to travel a lot with their families; wherever they’re living, they may fly to their parents’ home countries every summer and winter holiday. They are also perfectly fine to travel alone to a new destination, and have a network of friends around the world.

What they struggle with

While TCKs seem to have an envious jetset lifestyle, it doesn’t mean they don’t have their share of issues. 

Idea of ‘home’: Ask any TCK where they’re from, and most of them may stumble with that answer. It can be difficult if their parents are from two different countries, or if they’ve grown up in multiple countries, and/or have multiple passports. Life as a TCK can create a sense of rootlessness, because their home is both everywhere and nowhere.

Sense of restlessness: TCKs may also feel restless as adults, who are proven in multiple studies to have less emotional stability. This could be because TCKs don’t have a sense of belonging, commitment, and attachment to one culture, affecting their self-esteem and identity. The need to constantly move around may be rooted in their psyche, making it difficult for them to form close bonds with anyone. 

Difficulty maintaining friendships: Many TCK families move as often as every two years, forcing children to leave close friends and make new ones on a regular basis. This means they’re always the new kid at school – but in an international school where most TCKs study, that’s the norm among students. However, maintaining friendships can be hard, since their friends would most likely be in different time zones.

Culturally homeless: While TCKs are more tolerant of different cultures, they can often experience confusion over their cultural identity. This can often be seen in returnee TCKs – for example, Singaporean TCKs who return to local schools sometimes aren’t able to understand local jokes or Singlish. Some of these TCKs may even be perceived as standoffish because of the accents and/or world experience, which can make it difficult for them to blend in. While their personalities may not gel with any one local culture, all TCKs share the same perspective.

Stress and trauma: Every time the family moves, children are forced to let go of everything – friends, homes, belongings. This is obviously stressful for anyone, and TCKs are also at risk of PTSD if they live in a difficult environment where instances of violent crime, kidnapping or political unrest can happen. One TCK who lived in Australia was kidnapped twice because his father was a prominent figure in China. 

Can’t be a hoarder: One of the downsides of frequent relocation is the fact that you have to give up owning things, like favourite toys, souvenirs, or even mementos from friends. What is now seen as an ideal minimalist lifestyle is borne out of necessity, as many TCKs grow up not being attached to things.