Citizens of Everywhere, Yet Nowhere

By Ailan Gates 2022-07-12 11:01:01

Before I begin, I would like to thank both Anabela Mok (Managing Editor) and Carrie Jones (Director of Counselling Services at Community Centre Shanghai) for their invaluable experience and insight on a matter that lies very close to my heart. There is a growing population of global nomads, a term that is common today, but only first appeared in print 23 years ago (Pollock, 1999).


The interesting thing about being an intercultural Third Culture Kid (TCK) is that as soon as you meet someone with a similar background, you are instantly drawn to one another. The unique blend of both has a karmic pull that is instant and magnetic. This was certainly true for Anabela and I, as our hybrid backgrounds and experiences paralleled one another and continue to be the same as we traverse through our adult lives as Adult Third Culture Kids who have opted to raise our children outside their home countries.



My childhood up to the age of 14, before I was sent to boarding school in Australia, was vastly different from most of my peers. Growing up in a multicultural/racial family as a Third Culture Kid (growing up outside my parents’ culture) was filled with tremendous angst. Being mixed, I didn’t really feel like I belonged anywhere, in either world. It wasn’t until I was in my late teens did I fully understand and appreciate the immense advantages of growing up within two worlds, and seeing the best of both. Thus, my own transition from being a TCK to an Adult TCK (ATCK) felt natural and went unnoticed. Now, fast forward a few decades, I find life has come full circle as I’m
raising my own children away from home.



What is a Third Culture Kid and Adult Third Culture Kid?


TCK was a term first coined by US sociologist Ruth Hill Useem in the 1950s to describe children who spend their formative years in places that are not their parents’ homeland. This often occurs due to TCK’s parent’s jobs and are generally mostly made up of children of expatriate workers, diplomatic and military dependents, missionary children, or children of transnational marriages. TCK and ATCK are not simply people who had to move to a different country, but also often refers to those individuals who have spent the first 18 years of their life in more than one country as global nomads. TCK experiences are unique to them in that it shapes their outlook on the world around them. Each experience, whether good or bad, has differing effects on many aspects of a TCK’s childhood that are carried into a TCK’s adult life.


One quote that resonates in most TCKs is Maya Angelou’s,

“The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

On the surface it may appear that the lives of TCKs appear glamorous and exciting, as TCKs get to travel and experience different cultures. However it can lead children to not fully understand the significance of what they might have lost by living a nomadic lifestyle, where they are periodically moving, and continually saying goodbye and hello to a new life with new beginnings. The loss of home, country and land which officially isn’t tangible and repeated separations from family and friends leaves TCKs with unrecognizable and unresolved grief. Carrie states: “some children are able to adapt and be flexible and thrive a little bit more despite all the difficulties and other kids need a little bit more of being rooted and grounded living at home.” The feeling of belonging to a tribe or a base doesn’t exist for them. Another side effect to being a TCK is never having the desire to stay in one place for too long. Some TCKs find staying grounded or rooted overwhelming and seek constant mobility. Sociologist Ruth van Reken (1999), discovered that although TCKs are more likely to speak more than one language, have a broader worldview, and be more culturally aware, they can however go through life with a deep sense of rootlessness.



“A rolling stone gathers no moss” can aptly describe the restlessness some TCKs experience. They pay a price for always being on the move, as they don’t grow roots in any place or to any one person and prefer to be continually moving to avoid being too inert or static. Their nomadic lifestyle of constantly moving from place-to-place leaves TCKs to question, where is home? As home is “everywhere and nowhere,” says Reken.


This is evident by the sheer fact that TCKs have a great propensity to learn to build relationships with people from all the varying cultures they meet, yet never claiming complete ownership of any one. They become chameleons whereby their identities are often rooted in people rather than places.



What is a Multicultural Family?


A multicultural or multiracial family is not just having differing passports. It also refers to having experience within the different cultures, traditions, religions, languages, and ethnicity which in turn forms an individual’s identity.



Types of multicultural families


Interracial Family: a form of family that involves members who belong to different races or ethnicities.


Third-Culture Kids: an expression used to refer to people raised in a culture other than the one of their parents. These people are often multi-cultural individuals.


Intercultural Family: couples from differing cultures and backgrounds who might have moved multiple times to distinct cultures or experience various cultures growing up.


As a result of globalization, people of mixed race have become a growing demographic. The melting pot of mixing of race and cultures creates an endless myriad of positive and negative characteristics.



Positives Characteristics




The more languages you learn, the easier it is to communicate to people.

“One of the main benefits of kids growing up as a third culture kid or growing up in a different culture and overseas is the fact that so often they are multilingual or bilingual.” -Carrie

Studies show that people who speak a second or third language are more likely to be less distracted and more focussed on tasks. They are also highly sought after in the global marketplace as corporations recognise that TCK’s ability to communicate in multiple languages fosters inclusivity, sensitivity, and tolerance.


Ethnic Ambiguity


Ethnic ambiguity has become the latest hot catch phrase to describe anyone who’s racial background isn’t easily identifiable. Advertising and marketing agencies are constantly casting people that fit within this demographic as it has become highly profitable for them, as interracial people are able to identify, be identified, relate and be relatable to a larger population seamlessly.


Global Family


Having family all around the world opens great opportunities to travel and experience various cultures.



Higher Self Esteem


TCKs are more adaptable and able to function well in both majority and minority environments and are more likely to reject racial bias and prejudice.




Multicultural/racial people can adapt and change their identity to assimilate with other racial groups effortlessly because they are more emotionally wired to be open and empathetic to other cultures. They are like the human version of the United Nations.



Negative Characteristics




They don’t exactly fit in with everyone. They’re neither one race nor the other. Even some family members may not accept them as being ‘full- blooded’ like other family members and face prejudice from society, because of mixing of cultures, languages, or traditions. Sometimes children from multicultural families may feel they have to choose one heritage over the other.

“As a third generation Portuguese born in Hong Kong, I was raised in five different countries before I turned 10. Culturally, although I am a large part Chinese, the interntional upbringing creates a lot of confusion about my identity. With local friends, they are quick to call me ‘gwai mui’, which translates to, ‘you are a foreigner’, and for my caucasian friends, they quickly write off ‘you are Chinese.’ I know I am a unique breed, but for a young child many of these comments could have a bigger impact on their lives.” -Anabela

Difficulties intercultural families may encounter, and how to overcome them Multicultural couples face the dilemma of resolving cultural differences. They may have to negotiate diverse cultural values, which, in some cases, may even be opposed.


One of the main decisions an intercultural couple faces is the place of residence. This decision is often affected by emotions, subjective viewpoints, and even the opinions of other relatives. Parenting and child rearing are other key aspects to consider: Which language or languages are the kids going to learn? Which one will they learn first? Which traditions are they going to learn? How is the family dynamic and structure going to look? How will they be educated?



Cross cultural attitudes and beliefs are also extremely important. Multi-cultural families must be able to make compromises to find a way to fulfil both parties’ interests and traditions, celebrations, and special dates, as well as religions. It is important for multicultural families to give their children enough guidance, reassurance, and support so that they feel proud of both cultural backgrounds. Anabela reflects fondly on the benefits of living as a TCK, “celebrating Catholic holidays, Chinese New Year as well as the lesser known Chinese holidays were a big deal for us, just as it was important for me to learn calligraphy.”


Multicultural families might need to figure out how they are going to stay connected with their extended family (grandparents, uncles, cousins, etc.) When the couples come from two very distant countries, they need to decide how and when they are going to spend time with each side of the family.



What other support can you offer TCKs and multiracial children


It’s also important for parents, teachers, and counsellors to be able to individually assess each TCK and their different experiences to pinpoint areas of transition that can lead to stress.


  • Adopt a broader perspective on culture and global living. Recognise there are subcultures within cultures and there is more to culture beyond race and ethnicity.
  • Check in on TCKs on a continual basis and encourage them to keep in touch with friends.
  • Acknowledge that there are differences in backgrounds and not all TCKs are identical.
  • Acknowledge TCKs grief and encourage them to talk about their loss about friendships, teachers, home, and family.
  • Try not to deflect TCKs losses by putting a positive spin on things as this undermines their grief and can lead them to become withdrawn, uncommunicative, angry, and embarrassed.


Encourage TCKs to name and identify their emotions. This will encourage TCKs to develop healthier responses to grief.

“Make sure to praise your kids often, that you’re seeing the things they’re doing, that you’re really seeing them for who they are. Acknowledge their strengths, their struggles. Value their self-worth and give them a strong sense of self.” -Carrie

Carrie also mentions the importance of giving our children a sense of stability and being grounded within a community with a secure attachment to you. So no matter what culture they live in, what country they live in, or where they move, they have their family.



Challenges of Being a TCK


Culture Shock


Being global and having to move from country to country and uprooting yourself can often lead to loneliness and dislocation. TCKs may experience culture shock and not feel like they fit in their new surroundings



Home is Everywhere Yet Nowhere: A Sense of Belonging


According to American psychologist Abraham Maslow, “human beings, especially children have a fundamental urge of ‘belongingness’.” It refers to a human’s emotional need to affiliate with and be accepted by members of a group. Belonging to a group and feeling identified with those in that group is an important aspect of our identity and sense of self. This primary urge or necessity to belong within a group is a natural and instinctive defence against an attack in the natural world. Look at a pack of lions in the savannah, the bigger the pack, the safer they are. Lions that are outcast become vulnerable against the elements.


Lack of Intimate Relationships


Many expatriates are on finite contracts as short as two years, forcing children to leave close friends and make new ones on a regular basis. The upheaval can also take its toll on those left behind. Some of the biggest hurdles come when TCKs repatriate as “everyone knew everyone, and no one knew me,” are all too familiar feeling for TCKs. Their new school might not have the transitioning support programme found in international schools, and TCKs may have a hard time talking about their feelings and experiences without their new classmates perceiving them to be showing off.


Thus, finding new friends can be difficult as having spent a time away, children may feel out of sync with their surroundings and people. Their outlook in life may be richer, their understanding deeper, and their exotic upbringing may no longer be aligned with their former lives. They’ve moved on, but so has everyone else. Referred as “citizens of everywhere and nowhere,” TCKs often don’t have a good grounding on belongingness and lack the processes to develop intimate relationships.


Explaining Where You’re From


Although a simple question, explaining where you’re from can be a very challenging and stressful question to answer for a TCK. What is home may consist of multiple addresses.

“Kids might not have a strong connection to home as they didn’t live there and they don’t feel at home here, so being asked the question ‘where 

is home?’ might be incredibly stressful.” -Carrie



Triumphs of Being a TCK


Multilingual and Multicultural


One of the most prominent benefits of being a TCK is learning different languages.

“There are many benefits to being multilinguistic and often I wish I had more opportunities to do that when I was younger.” -Anabela

As Carrie agrees, some of the main benefits of TCKs growing up in a different culture and overseas is the fact that so often they are multilingual or bilingual. Being immersed in a different culture or having to navigate through differing cultures makes TCKs more culturally sensitive. The worldviews of TCKs expand and they become more open-minded and understanding. They possess cultural empathy and ability to assimilate to others with ease. These skills naturally promote kindness and acceptance whilst encouraging camaraderie which fosters inclusion and tolerance.



Global Friendships


TCK’s can travel to anywhere in the world and meet old friends from their childhood. Their diverse friendships hold no boundaries because for many TCKs, home is people, not a place. They are truly the epitome of the idiom “home is where the heart is”. They build friendships with people across conti- nents and the memories they make stay with them forever.


Adaptable and Sensitive to Nuances of Host Country


TCKs transient lifestyle makes them more adaptable to change and quick to assimilate to their surroundings. They are adept at picking up their host country’s expectations and characteristics very quickly through exposure. “They understand there is more than one solution to a problem and more than one way to assess a problem,” says Carrie. They think outside the box and become acutely adept at picking up societal norms, cues, and nuances.


Travelling the World


Perhaps the absolute best thing about being a TCK is travelling the world. They see different settings, experience different cultures, taste different cuisines, talk to different people, and live outside their comfort zone, which helps TCKs to be more resilient, independent, and confident in themselves.



Helpful Tips on Raising TCKs


School counsellors have observed that problems are more likely to occur with children starting at age nine to early teenage years when friendships are an integral element to a child’s self-identity. Below are a few tips for parents to review to help them navigate raising TCKs.


Assist children with developing coping skills to handle questions and/or biases about their background. Help them answer the question- where are they from?


Carrie says that it’s so important to make time to connect with the whole family including extended family members no matter how busy life gets. Take the time to create family rituals and traditions that are uniquely yours. Prioritise family bonds and friends with regular facetime and skype calls to keep the lines of communication open.


Observe your children and if you see them behaving differently, then talk to them about what is going on. Listen and validate their feelings to help them move forward.



Encourage the One Parent One Language (OPOL) method to communicate with your child in your native language to ensure that both languages get established. It will also aid children in creating a lasting lingual bond to each parent, according to Francois Grosjean, linguist.


Locate books, textbooks, and movies that portray multiracial individuals as positive role models, as well as books about the lives of multicultural families.


Establish support networks for your child from the school, grandparents, relatives, neighbours, and the greater community.

“Now, with my own multinational family and with my own experiences, I am more aware of providing varying cultural experiences to my child to help shape her identity of being a triple citizen. I look for diversity in student population, and also look for an active parent community.” -Anabela





TCKs are a growing part of our global community. They will provide the world with incredibly strong communication skills, cross-cultural skills, and social skills. These 21st century skills will increasingly become invaluable and relevant in this global era in which we now live. TCKs life experiences will be a vital resource, thus providing them with opportunities to engage with new people from differing backgrounds, cultures, languages, and values. These skills will allow them to set and share common goals and apply their unique skills to cultivate a better sense of a global unity.