Culture Personal Travelling

The Third Culture Dilemma

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The Third Culture Dilemma is not new at all, but a recent conversation with a good friend of mine has brought me back to the idea and the importance of the Third Culture theorem.

The term Third Culture stems from the work of Useem and Useem (1963), where they observed differences between the children of American expats in India and their Indian colleagues’ and an emerging blended, ‘third’ culture, being different from the first (American) and the second (Indian) culture. This ignited various studies on ‘Third Culture Kids’ (TCK). Kids that are raised in a different setting, a different culture alongside or outside their parents’ culture.  This upbringing in more cultures hinders the full development of one cultural identity and the TCKs subsequently also lack a clear sense of belonging. However, as studies are most often conducted within and across international cultural boundaries,  Third Culture Kids are – according to the research – more often bi- if not multilingual and very skilled intercultural communicators. 

The Third Culture Experience

When I was talking to my friend, I realized that my, our problems, are related to the term of the TCK. The feeling of not being welcome in your ‘own’ culture and also not being able to (fully) adapt to a new one. Thus far, I’ve lived in six different countries, not necessarily during my years of upbringing and I would agree on most of the terms that fall into the TCK category, like ‘cultural homelessness’ or the urge to settle but at the same time a constant restlessness. And so would most of my friends. 
Furthermore, many of my friends and I would probably conclude that we are closer to a lot of people living thousands of kilometers away, than the local people we interact most with. It is – probably – exactly because we share the same – or similar ‘third culture’ experience(s) and are not on the same level as the ‘local’ people and communities. The urge of my friends and I to constantly want to move and not feeling at home at our parents’ or family’s place, seems absurd, even selfish and idiotic, but it is exactly that third culture experience, that leaves us, me, out of sync. 
In a way, having (and wanting) to constantly adapt to new cultures and interact with new people makes it – in some ways – boring to ‘come back’ and settle in just one cultural setting. It leaves you detached from your cultural heritage without being necessarily detached. 

Leaving the ‘Kids’ behind

Usually, theory and research about TCKs focuses – quelle surprise – on children, and their development, before their adult years, respectively before the age of 18. Once they grow up they are referred to as ATCKs (Adult-TCKs), keeping the focus on the upbringing with (possible) implications for their future.
However, my personal experience and those of many of my friends and fellow students in the international programs, have shown that there is something like a Third Culture Experience or Dilemma, even though one has not necessarily been brought up in a different or ‘third’ culture. 
Hence, there’s a need for another term, referring to those that have not be been brought up in two or more cultures, but those that experienced this on a different basis.

Existing literature also uses the term TCI (Third Culture Individual). While still being mostly used for exploring the development of children, it does not limit the experience to the upbringing. Hence, the individual could have experienced and developed the Third Culture later, at another point in life. Those that lived and have spent a long time abroad and in different cultures. This includes expats, international and exchange students, and those that needed to move due to work quite often – not necessarily international but between different cultures and regions.

In today’s global / globalized world we must address the Third Culture in more depth and prepare for an even larger share of cultural inbetweeners like my friends and I. 



Some TCK / TCI Literature:

  • Moore, A.M., & Barker, G.G. (2012). Confused or multicultural: Third culture individuals’ cultural identity. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 36(4), 553-562.
  • Hoersting, R.C. (2010). No Place to Call Home: Cultural Homelessness, Self-Esteem, and Cross-Cultural Identities. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 35(1), 17-30.
  • Useem, J., & Useem, R. (1967). The Interfaces of a Binational Third Culture: A Study of the American Community in India. Journal of Social Issues, 13(1), 130-143.
  • Useem, J., Useem, R., & Donoghue, J. (1963). Men in the middle of the Third Culture: The Roles of American and Non-Western People in Cross-Cultural Administration. Human Organization, 22(3), 171-179.

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