December 1, 2015

Third-Culture Kids: Being Different Has Its Advantages!

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Third-Culture Kids: Being Different Has Its Advantages!

Third-Culture Kid ... aha; that explains it! When I was younger, I didn’t know there was a term to describe a child who lives in a country (or countries) that’s different from their parents’ home country—an experience shared by many relocating kids! Now I do, and now I know that the Third-Culture-Kid (TCK) experience has had a profound impact on my life, both personally and professionally. This realization struck me recently when I was asked to introduce myself in a meeting. When I finished, my boss asked me, “Why have you never mentioned that you grew up as a third-culture kid?” My answer was simple: “Because it made me feel different.”

I’ve always felt different. It wasn’t so bad when I lived overseas in Spain, Venezuela, and Chile, because everyone I knew was in a similar situation. When I moved to the United States at age 13, though, boy—were those differences evident! To begin with, all the kids in my class had known each other since primary school. They had a shared history that I knew nothing about. I quickly learned, as all kids do, what I needed to do to fit in. And one of those things was to refrain from talking about my past—especially, not mentioning that I went to summer camp in Switzerland! Even though it was the same distance away for me as Vermont was for my friends, I just knew that talking about summer camp in Switzerland was somehow wrong.

The Positive Side of Being a Third Culture Kid

My friends also had a shared cultural history. I remember attending a friend’s wedding while in college. A group of us were getting ready for the event, and the iconic American children’s TV show “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” happened to be on. For those of you who don’t know, at the beginning of each show, Mr. Rogers would appear onscreen and immediately sit down and take his shoes off. As I was watching this, I asked, “Does Mr. Rogers always take his shoes off?” And the whole room erupted: “YES!!! Of course ... he always takes his shoes off!” Who knew!?

But here’s the deal. Yes, there is a void in my knowledge of U.S. cultural history, and I certainly have a love/hate relationship with the question, “Where are you from?” But as I get older, I often describe being a TCK as the greatest “gift” ever given to me. What are the odds that I would end up working in a field where I would use my TCK experience on a daily basis? (I am a cross-cultural coach and trainer.) Who knew that being bilingual (I speak fluent Spanish) would open doors for me, both professionally and personally? Or that being a TCK would give me an insatiable sense of curiosity about the world? I always want to know more about others: how they live, what they eat, what they like to do; you name it, I want to know about it. I am addicted to the new and different. I love exploring new places and spaces. I feel the adrenaline pumping through my veins when my plane lands somewhere new. 

Embracing Being “Different”: Facts for Parents Expatriating with Children

When parents who are expatriating with children are worried about their kids growing up in a culture different from their own, and feeling “different,” I share these facts with them:

  • TCKs are four times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than non-TCKs (81% vs. 21%)1
  • 40% of us earn advanced degrees (compared with 5% of non-TCKs)1
  • TCKs adapt to new situations faster and with greater confidence2
  • TCKs have excellent communication and diplomatic skills2

Hmm … seems to me being different has some noteworthy advantages!

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2 (source:

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Diane Mullen

About Diane

Diane Mullen is Manager of the Intercultural Academy for Cartus. She delivers cross-cultural training programs to Cartus clients around the world. A fluent Spanish speaker, she has worked, lived, and studied abroad, spending a total of 15 years in the Netherlands, Chile, Spain, and Venezuela.

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Leonard Bentley
Great blog, Diane! Helping our children deal with cultural issues is a must for any relocating parents - is this the start of a series?
Well Diane, you certainly grew into a lovely young woman! What should I call myself, the parent of the TCK? We were very young when first entering Brazil, with an 18-month old little boy.

When you made the summary at the bottom I felt it was the same for the parents of these kids. Education aside, as we had already done that, I also love new and different people, places, and things. I want to know all about people which I often find uncommon in the average American. I have a lot of confidence from that experience. As a 25 year old wet behind the ears mother and wife, it was not uncommon to be entertaining business associates of my husband much higher up the ladder then he. I had no doublt I could do it. I've grown to realize that there isn't anything I can't do and that's at age 73. Thanks for the insight.
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