Two weekends ago, my family met up for a mini-Lovell reunion in South Bend, Indiana. In some ways, our weekend was a very funny expression of Americana. I say it’s particularly funny because in our family of 5, only one of us is actually American. The other four of us descended on South Bend, which we had elected as the central meeting point. We arrived from Vancouver, Melbourne and California to hang out, watch Notre Dame football and enjoy each other. 

Like many other third culture families, where we have our home base has moved numerous times, and now where we celebrate our holidays moves based on inclination and vacation days. Sometimes too, the holidays that we celebrate (Thanksgiving is a notable one) alter based on family whim and country we are currently present in. This year, more than ones in the past, we’ll be celebrating both Canadian and US Thanksgiving, with the US Thanksgiving spanning 2 different states. And then Christmas, rather than being where my parents are, is going to pull us all together into California. 

And for my family, this thought of where will we celebrate a holiday is a yearly question. In some ways, I have envied families who have a tradition of going to a certain grandparent’s home, a certain cabin, being together in the same certain city. That connection with one place and with that type of ritual imbued is something that I find myself alternately envious of and grateful for what I have instead. 

So I find choosing South Bend as the site of our family weekend, and choosing the very American ritual of football and tailgating as our activity, funny but not surprising. Just as we enjoyed Ramadan and added our own Lovell flavour to the celebrations while living in Kuala Lumpur, so we’re enjoying the same rituals, holidays and activities of our currently elected home country of America. 


The Future of Third Culture Kids?


Given multilateral globalization, what does the future look like for Third Culture Kids? 

Source: uncdan85

"In every generation there are a few souls, call them lucky or cursed, who are simply born not belonging, who come into the world without strong affiliation to family or location or nation or race. Those who value stability, who fear transience, uncertainty, change, have erected a powerful system of stigmas and taboos against rootlessness so that we mostly conform, we hide our secret identities beneath false skins of those identities which bear the belongers’ seal of approval. But the truth leaks out in our dreams; alone in our beds—because we are alone at night, even if we do not sleep by ourselves—we soar, we fly, we flee."

- Salman Rushdie
Source: turtleino

I’ve been attending a whirlwind of relocation conferences for my new position as the mobility specialist at a company in Vancouver. I visited two different vendor conference (a relocation vendor and a tax management/consulting vendor) and then the Canadian Employee Relocation Council conference in Calgary. I noticed a number of things which Kilian and I have touched upon in the past, and a number of trends I hadn’t been watching until these conferences brought them up. First, I was one of the few millennials in the audiences at all three conferences. Whether this is that millennials aren’t going into talent mobility/global mobility/relocation specialization, the millennials in the office aren’t the ones being sent to conferences or something altogether different instead is unclear.

I also attended a number of sessions where the idea of ‘developmental moves’ and 'Smart Moves' were discussed. Relocations aimed at younger employees, with the intention of training them in different markets/different countries/different offices of the large international firms. Coupled with this discussion was a discussion of how the ‘old model’ of expatriate relocation is out the window. The idea of having to vastly reward someone for going abroad, and that the countries they were going were considered a ‘hardship’.

This ‘new model’ of ‘talent mobility’, as I heard it called a number of times, is one where the business and the employee converse together to create a relocation as a step in development within the leadership of a company. Many companies are excited about this for a number of reasons, not least the idea that this type of conversation and type of move results in lowered costs, because the types of people moving tend to be earlier in their career, child-free, single, and often excited to be moving abroad. The young millennials in international pharmaceutical companies, natural resource companies, IT firms and companies that make black stretchy pants (like the one I work for) are thrilled to be staffed abroad and often see this opportunity as an adventure. And I definitely identify with this idea and appreciate this model of relocation. In this new world of relocation, global experience is a key asset to the resume of any globally minded person, and a well crafted conversation about the future of that person in an organization and the career pathway (which may include an international posting) bring a whole different timbre, tone and structure to the world of relocation. My title now is ‘mobility specialist’, but I have my eye on the world of ‘talent mobility’ in the near future.


When Entitlement Meets Unemployment - Andrew McAfee - Harvard Business Review

The most interesting part of this article for me are the comments with reactive, responsive and varied comments with thoughts of and about millennials in the workforce.

Thoughts to ponder… How will coming into one of the toughest job markets in recent history shape this generation? Does technology play a role? Do childhoods as third culture kids (feeling special and different) compound these feelings?


Third Culture Kids learn to deal with the “high mobility” of their family’s lifestyle for better and sometimes worse. High mobility points to the perceived psychological ease with which TCKs – people who grew up in more than one cultural/geographic environment – make geographic transitions, but also to the actual moves some expat families have to make frequently and at short notice. Authors David Pollock and Ruth van Reken see high mobility as the second defining feature of TCKs, along with a cross-cultural childhood.

Often accompanying the ease – and sometimes the itch – to move, is a sense of unresolved grief about leaving the old place behind. Time to process, permission to grieve and the acknowledgement of hidden losses can fall by the wayside in a quick geographic move. In addition, “everyone in the family [is] going through the overall transition process at different rates” (74), and “adults who busily mask their own sense of loss by denial can’t afford to admit they understand the sad TCK” (83). The point of this chapter is that the psychological trouble for TCKs starts when the grief of leaving and arriving remains unresolved.

From my own perspective, geographic transition is often embedded in further personal transitions: puberty, parents’ divorce/new family constellations, questioning sexual and gender identity, becoming aware of one’s multi-racial/multi-cultural/multi-lingual social status, discovering one’s creative and vocational path, first intimate friendships and romantic relationships, etc. Most of these transitions are, by today, a natural part of our social structures (whether socially sanctioned or not), as are geographic and cross-cultural transitions. These transitions and combinations of transitions are increasingly normal, and they can create rich, rewarding global experiences, unless painful experiences amass and remain unattended to.

I believe that all of these types of transition have something in common, and that is the potential for expanding our capacity to know our authentic self, our understanding of how families and societies work, and our ability to take on unlimited perspectives. The task here is to identify the parts of yourself that harbor the unresolved aspects of your many transitions, then neutralize and make peace with your past experiences. TCKs – just as anyone else – can hold onto their grief as if it were a part of their identity. But the grief itself has nothing to do with who we really are. How we learn and grow through our mobility — and immobility — does.


The interplay of “living in both a culturally changing and highly mobile world during the formative years” (40) is what influences the personal characteristics of TCKs. This foundational chapter in Third Culture Kids focuses on cross-cultural childhoods first. The basic gist is that our sense of identity and belonging is primarily influenced by the familial, educational and societal culture we grow up in; and when those cues of cultural normativity keep radically shifting, we can grow up with an expanded – yet confused – sense of self.

Pollock and van Reken use the “Weaver Cultural Iceberg” model to point out that our customs, food and traditions only make up the tip of the iceberg that constitutes what we call “culture.” What’s underneath the water’s surface – “invisible to all” – is one’s deep culture made up of worldview, values and basic beliefs. It makes sense that TCKs and CCKs can quickly master adapting to the external attributes of a new culture, but it’s the constant relearning of the multitude of unspoken rules of a culture that create the highest learning curve – and the biggest challenges to one’s personal identity formation. So by nature of growing up cross-culturally it may be difficult to determine where one “belongs.”

In fact, the authors emphasize the need for “tribal belonging” in a way that we as a species may be in the process of graduating from altogether. They say, “TCKs do have a community, an ‘interstitial culture’ that is there, but because it is not defined by place, nor is it understood by many who have not lived it, many TCKs have never recognized it as, in fact, their ‘tribe’” (49). The implication here is that it behooves TCKs to establish “tribal” affiliations with other TCKs.

But growing up in this “interstitial culture” might, in fact, be our highest calling to recognize the interconnectedness of all things, and that we are reflected in everyone, regardless of whether they “understand” us or not. The task, in my view, is, therefore, not to create a “new tribe” but to connect individuals of various “tribes” with each other and invite them to experience their interconnectedness from a higher perspective. This is one thing people who grew up amongst worlds are called upon to do, in small and big ways.


Recognizing that many people experience “third culture” traits, but didn’t grow up as traditional TCKs, the authors of Third Culture Kids have created a broader umbrella term: Cross-Cultural Kids (CCKs).

Some CCKs “simply grew up in an environment where they commonly interacted deeply between and among various cultural worlds around them, rather than moving to other cultures with parents who were engaged in international careers” (28). In the authors’ view, CCKs thus include “traditional” TCKs as well as bi/multicultural children, bi/multiracial children, children of borderlanders, educational CCKs, “domestic” TCKs, international adoptees, children of minorities, children of immigrants and children of refugees. The idea is that many TCKs also fall into one or more of the CCK categories, and that the ultimate common denominator is significant cross-cultural experience growing up.

This marks a shift away from place-thinking and high mobility to experience sustained difference. In fact, the “definition [of CCKs] focuses on the multiple and varied layering of cultural environments that are impacting a child’s life rather than the actual place where the events occur” (32). In other words, it’s the capacity to consistently and simultaneously hold multiple perspectives on any given situation that distinguishes CCKs from people who grew up in “monocultural” environments.

Even though the rest of the book continues to focus on the particular circumstances of highly mobile TCKs, the intention of looking “at the shared commonalities of the experience that transcend our usual ways of categorizing people” (33) makes important connections for modern-day families. I would additionally posit that any person who grew up experiencing “difference” in a sustained way – such as queer and trans kids; children of divorced parents; kids with disabilities; etc. – develops third culture traits. The Harry Potters of the world do, too.


In our quest to comb through the book Third Culture Kids, we have arrived at chapter 2, which picks apart the current standard definition of a TCK:

A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background. (13)

The authors highlight that TCKs are, first and foremost, people. People who grew up in extraordinary circumstances, but whose need for “building relationships in which they love and are loved” is the same as for everyone. This is an important premise, since the nature of finding commonalities between people with such diverse backgrounds requires looking at what makes us all similar or even the same.

A brief discussion about the origin of the term “third culture” and of the definition of culture itself are apropos here. A sociologist-couple, Ruth and John Useem, doing a field study with American expats in India in the 1950s, “defined the home culture from which the adults came as the first culture. They call the host culture where the family lived … the second culture. They then identified the shared lifestyle of the expatriate community as an interstitial culture or ‘culture between cultures’ and named it the third culture” (14). Characteristics of this “third culture,” which are shared between global nomads around the world, thus, take the definition of “culture” as a common bond people feel communally to the level of a “lifestyle ‘created, shared, and learned’” (16).

What TCKs share in this lifestyle is broken down as follows: a) “Being raised in a genuinely cross-cultural world” and b) “Being raised in a highly mobile world” (17). These are the main experiences most TCKs have in common. Furthermore, many, but certainly not all, TCKs may experience the following as well: a) “Distinct differences” between them and their peers; b) “Expected repatriation” to the parents’ passport country; c) “Privileged lifestyle” in structured expat communities, and d) “System identity,” i.e. kids representing their parents’ profession, becoming “little ambassadors” of their passport country and sponsoring organizations (e.g. the military, mission, etc.).

These experiences, characteristics and lifestyles are, indeed, common to a great number of traditional TCKs, although it appears that the young person’s identity formation hinges primarily around their cross-cultural experience and high mobility. And these are formative experiences no longer exclusive to expat families, but ones that happen in all spheres of society in all corners of the planet.