Identities Blur for ‘Third-Culture Kids’

By Darcia Harris Bowman — May 09, 2001 5 min read
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Elizabeth Dunbar calls England home because she was born there, spent four years of her life in that country, and visits at least once a year with her parents. But you’d never know it from listening to her talk.

After just three years of attending a private school in Indianapolis, the 7th grader can carry on a conversation without a trace of her parents’ thick British accents. She sounds like any other American child, which is exactly the way she wants it when she’s in the United States. When in London—well, then it’s all right to sound English.

“I just want to fit in,” Elizabeth said. “I don’t like to be pink in a green field.”

Roy and Hortense Dunbar’s 13-year- old daughter became a master at adapting to different cultures as her father’s job with the drug manufacturer Eli Lilly and Co. moved the family back and forth between Britain and the United States, and even to Venezuela for two years. But she is far from alone in knowing the joys and trials of the so- called third-culture experience.

Third-culture kids, or “TCKs” as many of them call themselves, are a growing legion of students who spent some or all of their childhood years in a country other than the place of their citizenship. As the children of diplomats, military personnel, missionaries, international executives, and expatriates, they typically grow up with one foot in each culture, without ever feeling completely at home in either. Many instead feel their greatest sense of belonging when they are among others like themselves.

“They’re sort of lost between both worlds, so they form a subculture of their own,” said Ruth E. VanReken, a co-author of the 1999 book TheThird Culture Kid Experience: Growing Up Among Worlds. “It’s about living in this way where you are all of the above.”

‘Map of the Future’

While growing up as a third-culture kid can be confusing, TCKs are also described as uniquely suited for life in today’s increasingly global society.

Third-culture kids typically feel comfortable as outsiders and see themselves as global citizens. They are often fluent in several languages, have an insider’s knowledge of different cultures, adapt quickly to new environments, and move with ease from one country to another.

In short, they are a dream-come-true for international business looking for future employees, said Ann Baker Cottrell, a San Diego State University sociologist.

“I think third-culture kids are the map of the future,” said Ms. Cottrell, who helped conduct some of the first research on TCKs with John and Ruth Hill Useem, the sociologists who coined the term.

In the experience of some families with TCKs, the United States is one part of the world that has been too slow to catch up, however.

The Dunbars are unequivocal in their belief that their children’s international experiences are assets, not disadvantages. But in the American Midwest, they describe struggling sometimes to find people who share their view.

“There are a lot of people [whose families] have lived here for generations, and it’s quite inward-looking, and I think they sometimes even resent the attempt to raise awareness,” said Hortense Dunbar, who is trying to increase educators’ understanding of the third-culture experience at the 900- student Park Tudor School in Indianapolis where her daughter and 6-year-old son are enrolled.

“I don’t want to be pushy, and I’m not trying to sell multiculturalism,” she said, “but if you have children who are not American and have a different life experience, there’s no way for them to share that experience in the schools here.”

New Zealander Anne Carmine, whose 13-year- old son, Kent, attends the private Orchard School in Indianapolis, agreed. Like Elizabeth Dunbar, Kent is reluctant to share his experiences living in Australia, Japan, and Korea and has adopted an American accent to fit in at school. But his efforts aren’t always enough to mask his unfamiliarity with American norms.

Ms. Carmine said one teacher was concerned about Kent’s math skills, for example, because he was unfamiliar with feet, inches, and pounds. Kent had been taught the metric system.

“There’s sometimes an insensitivity to some of these differences,” Ms. Carmine said. “That’s one of the hardest things, and it happens with adults and kids.”

Hidden Immigrants

Although adapting to a foreign culture can be tough, many TCKs, as well as the sociologists who track their experiences, say re-entering the countries of their birth can be more difficult than living abroad as a foreigner. After years of living on another culture’s terms, many returned “home” to find they were strangers in their own land.

Ms. VanReken, now 55, lived the first 13 years of her life in Kano, Nigeria, where her American parents were missionary teachers. The family returned to the United States when she was 13 and settled in Chicago.

That was the beginning of Ms. VanRekan’s life as “a hidden immigrant” in her own country.

“When I was in Nigeria, I knew who I was—I was a foreigner, and everyone knew that,” she said. “When I came back to the States, everyone looked at me and thought I was American. I was expected to be like everyone else. I looked like the people in my community in Chicago, but I had learned a different set of rules.”

Bethany Maxfield, an 18-year-old living in Costa Rica faces re-entry this year when she comes back to the United States for college.

The child of two American educators who have a passion for Latin America, Bethany has gone to school in the United States, the Cayman Islands, and, for the past nine years, in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Her parents, Paul and Brenda Maxfield, brother Nathan, and many of her friends live in Costa Rica. But her grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins live in the United States—the country her parents call home. She knows she is not Costa Rican, yet many of her life experiences are in San Jose.

Bethany’s parents are well-versed in the benefits and challenges of the third-culture experience and have tried to prepare their children for some of the difficulties: the struggle with identity, the lack of knowledge about one’s own culture, feelings of rootlessness and exclusion, the constant loss of friendships, and other changes that come with mobile lifestyles.

The Maxfields even founded a group to help deal with those issues, called Families in International Transition.

But Bethany still shows some of the confusion about identity that is so typical of third-culture kids.

“Home is America,” she said, confidently at first, in a recent telephone interview. “Well, I guess I feel like Costa Rica is really home to me because we’ve lived here for so long. But I can really connect with American culture when I’m in the States because I grew up in an American family.”

“But I think ... I don’t know, it’s a hard question,” she finally said. “I guess it’s both.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2001 edition of Education Week as Identities Blur for ‘Third-Culture Kids’


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