Third Culture Kids and the Book You Need

Parents of Third Culture Kids, grandparents, schools, friends, aunts and uncles, TCKs yourselves, supporting organizations…you need to read Third Culture Kids.

You need to.

The third edition came out last week, full of all the old goodness but also addresses fresh issues that TCKs face today: from interacting with technology to facing cultural complexity. There are resources for parents and educators and kids themselves.

I reread this book regularly.

Marilyn Gardner posted an essay, in response to the publication of this new edition and I highly recommend you read it here. She writes about the joys and griefs, celebrations and losses, advantages and unique challenges of life as a TCK and as a parent of TCKs.

I will also repost an oldie, by Ruth Van Reken herself, about who are Third Culture Kids but if you don’t have time to read so many essays, just go get the book: Third Culture Kids

And Marilyn’s books as well: Between Worlds and Passages Through Pakistan: An American Girl’s Journey of Faith


Ruth grew up in Nigeria as a USA citizen with an American dad who was born and raised in Persia (now Iran), she raised her own children in Liberia and her first grandchild was born in Ghana.

She says, “This topic is obviously important to me. However, because the term itself often seems to lead to confusion, I thought it might be good to set a clear foundation on who and what we are or are not talking about to hopefully expedite the important discussions that will follow.”


Who are third culture kids?

In the late 1950s, Ruth Hill Useem, originator of the third culture kid term, simply called them “children who accompany parents into another culture.” While she did not specifically say so, all those she originally studied were in another culture due to a parent’s career choice, not as immigrants or refugees. Dave Pollock later defined TCKs as those who have “spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture(s).” He then went on to describe them by adding “Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.

This descriptive phrase seems to be part of where some confusion rests. It is absolutely true that any given TCK or by now adult TCK (ATCK) often personally incorporates various aspects of his or her life experiences into a personal world view, food preferences, or cultural expectations. That’s why many TCKs and ATCKs relate to the metaphor of “being green” that Whitni Thomas describes in her lovely poem “Colors.” There she writes how she feels both yellow and blue in her different worlds but wishes there was a place to “just be green.” Ironically, many TCKs do feel “green” when with others of like experience, as Pollock describes. This is where they don’t have to explain this desire to be both/and rather than being forced to choose an either/or identity.

Other TCKs easily understand because many feel the same way, no matter which country their passport says is “home” or which countries they have lived in. But putting various pieces of different cultures together is not the third culture itself, although it is a very common (and wrong) way many describe it.

What is the “third culture”?

If the third culture isn’t a mixing and matching of various cultural pieces, what is it? Another common misconception is that somehow it means something related to the “third world.” Or that it measures the number of countries or cultures someone has lived in. Many have said to me, “Well, I must be a third, fourth, or even fifth culture kid because I’ve lived in…” and they list the extraordinary number of places they have lived or the cultural complexities within their family structure.

Perhaps having a simple definition of the original concept of the third culture itself would be helpful. A starting point is remembering that culture is something shared, not an individualistic experience. So how does that relate? Easily! In the late 1950s, two social scientists from Michigan State University, Drs. John and Ruth Hill Useem, originally defined the third culture as a way of life shared by those who were internationally mobile because of their career such as international business, military, foreign service, or missionary work.

The Useems noted those we now call “expatriates” had left the country their passport declared as “home” (the first culture) and moved to host country (the second culture). They noted that this community formed a way of life that was common to them but was unlike either the way they would have lived in their home cultures or how the locals were living in this host land. They called this an ‘interstitial” or third culture. Those who lived in this community may not have shared nationalities or ultimately, the same host cultures but there is much they share.

Then, as now, all who live this globally mobile lifestyle for reasons related to career choices live in a world of truly cross-cultural interactions. Entire worlds and cultural mores and expectations can change overnight with one airplane ride. High mobility – personal and within the community – is the name of the game. There is some level of expected repatriation as compared to a true immigrant who plans to stay. Often there is a strong sense of identity with the sponsoring organization. In time, Dr. Ruth Hill Useem because particularly fascinated with studying the children who grew up in this particular cultural milieu and named them third culture kids or TCKs.

So why do these distinctions make a difference to anyone but a high powered academician? Because it helps us normalize the results of a globally mobile experience for all. In particular, if we understand the difference between the TCK and the third culture itself, we can see more clearly how and why the typical characteristics of the TCK profile emerge. They do not form in a vacuum.

For example, if TCKs are chronically negotiating various cultural worlds in their formative years, no wonder they often become cultural bridges in later life and careers. Interacting with others from various cultures and world views hopefully develops an understanding that there are reasons and values behind how others live and hopefully helps TCKs and ATCKs clarify the reasons they hold the values and practices they do.

On the other hand, if the normal process of identity development occurs in conjunction with how our community sees and defines us as well as our inner perceptions, we can understand why frequent changes of our cultural mirrors can complicate the process of defining “who am I, anyway?” If relationships and the normal attachments that come with them are chronically disrupted by high mobility, no wonder there are often issues of loss and grief to attend to. We can also understand the isolation some TCKs ultimately feel as it seems pointless to start one more relationship if it will only end in another separation.

Better yet, once we have understood the “why” of our common characteristics, we can figure out the “what” we need to do to help deal effectively with the challenges so the many gifts of this experience are being maximized. And then we have to see how we will do those things. That’s the stage we are at now. I call it TCK Phase 2.  All over the place, new books are coming out telling us how to do better school transition programs, how therapists can work more effectively with this population, how parents and educators can work well with adolescents TCKs. I’m sure you will be hearing from many of these emerging experts in the coming blogs.

Personally, however, the reason I feel so passionately about keeping our terms clear is so that as we understand the “why” of the TCK story, we can begin to apply some of these insights and lessons learned to others in our globalizing world who are also living and growing up cross-culturally and with high mobility for countless reasons now than simply a parent’s career choice. But I’ll save those thoughts for another blog when I can hopefully share how lessons learned in the TCK experience relate to other cross-cultural kid (CCK) childhoods as well.


Ruth’s desire, and mine, for this series, is “the normalizing of experiences and then the empowering of TCKs and ATCKs to live life to the fullest potential.” Follow Ruth on Facebook and keep up-to-date on her writing, speaking, and other offerings of wisdom on her blog Cross Cultural Kids.

Letters Never Sent, a global nomad’s journey from hurt to healing updated, 2012, by Summertime Publishing



Our Tribal Elders, the Wisdom of David Pollock

Part Four today in the essay series by Paul Asbury Seaman. Both Paul and I are encouraged by the response to this series. For me, it is the first time I’ve posted someone’s work over the course of weeks and for Paul it has been a wonderful opportunity to share his heart with new readers.

In this part, you’ll find Paul’s own story of discovery – hey, I’m a TCK! It is a powerful moment. You’ll also find out what Pollock, Castro, Arafat, and Papa Smurf have in common.

Paul attended Murree Christian School in Pakistan. He currently lives in the Bay Area, California with his wife Catherine. He has published several articles about the impact of growing up overseas as well as a memoir, Paper Airplanes in the Himalayas: The Unfinished Path Home (West and the Wider World)

Website: Paul Asbury Seaman and you can contact him at

Thank you for sticking with us!

Part 1 Introduction

Part 2 The Heart of Ruth Van Reken

Part 3 Identity, with Ruth Useem

Wisdom of David Pollock

Wisdom… David Pollock (1939–2004)

The West represents the Magician archetype; it is the territory of shamans and priests, the place where we confront the unknown and learn to work with it.[i] If wisdom can be defined as the combination of knowledge, experience, and insight, David Pollock was the embodiment of those qualities. Prematurely gray, with a neatly trimmed beard, he resembled both Sigmund Freud and Ernest Hemingway, tempered by the casual sincerity of a college professor or career foreign service officer. Pollock combined heart and intellect and packaged them into his “TCK Profile” traveling medicine show. He was almost always on the road speaking to sponsoring agencies, teachers, parents, and adult TCKs around the world; and it’s what he was doing when he died unexpectedly in Vienna on Easter Sunday 2004.[ii]

Pollock understood the power of myth—in the truest sense of that word: to impart guidance about life through universal stories with sympathetic particulars that resonates with the individual. When the accumulated wisdom sparks in the immediacy of the present moment, magic happens. Pollock was an alchemist, a master at using anecdotes to illustrate a principle or make the research personal; and the result was gold. Pollock always described himself as a “TCK wanabee”—a way, I think, to emphasize the enviable positive attributes of our special background.

While still in his teens, Pollock worked as a youth camp counselor in the Adirondacks mountains (a wilderness resort area in upstate New York) where he came in contact with both children from other countries and MKs­—American missionary kids who had been raised overseas. Already at this time he began asking, “who’s going to take care of these people?” In 1959, at age nineteen, he spent a summer with missionaries in Yucatan, Mexico. Shortly before he left, a fellow camp counselor introduced David to his sister, Betty Lou, and while Pollock was in Mexico they corresponded regularly. The week he arrived back in the States he asked her to marry him. Betty Lou recalls seeing David on her front lawn, deeply tanned and with a new curly brown beard; she thought he looked just like Fidel Castro. She agreed to marry him, anyway. (Many years later Dave and Betty Lou were in Jerusalem for one of his speaking engagements about third culture kids. He was wearing a tan leather jacket and a keffiyeh, the checkered scarf common among Arab men. It began to rain and Dave placed the keffiyeh on his head, using the traditional braided band to hold it in place. A passing American tourist—carrying a big fat Bible, as Betty Lou recalled the event—said: “Look, there goes Yaser Arafat!”)

After graduating from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Pollock attended Houghton College, a small Christian liberal arts college in western New York, as a pre-med student. Although raised in Presbyterian and Methodist churches, he was ordained a Conservative Baptist and pastored an independent “Bible church” in New Jersey for seven years. From 1977 to 1980 Pollock worked at a Bible college in Kijabe, Kenya. With a young daughter and three sons of their own, Dave and Betty Lou also served as home boarding parents for high school boys attending Rift Valley Academy, a school for missionaries’ children. Pollock had become, in the language of anthropologists, a “participant-observer”—in effect doing the same kind of field research the Useems had done in India twenty-five years earlier.

When they returned to the States, Pollock took an organization he had co-founded in the 1960s, Manhattan Youth Services, and turned it into Interaction, now focusing exclusively on the needs of internationally mobile families. He developed the “TCK Profile” and a flow-of-care model that together would form the basis of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, Revised Edition, written with Ruth Van Reken. Many people could see the need for such a “manual,” not for scholars but for a general audience, primarily TCKs themselves, their parents, and caregivers. But with Pollock’s relentless speaking schedule and involvement in a number of organizations, the book didn’t get written for another two decades.

In 1983, Houghton College asked David Pollock to come back and help internationalize their curriculum. He worked as a consultant and recruiter—never as a fulltime professor—but Houghton became the Pollocks’ home for the rest of his life. He served as a part-time adjunct faculty with the imposing title of “Director of International Affairs.” In fact, it took the combined credentials of two other women and guest lecturers, and Pollock’s overseas experience in Kenya, to create an academically-justifiable course in cultural anthropology. In 2000 Houghton College awarded Pollock an honorary doctorate in pedagogy.

In 1984 Interaction co-sponsored the first International Conference on Missionary Kids in Manila, Philippines. This was followed by two more—in Quito, Ecuador (1987) and Nairobi, Kenya (1989).[iii] Dave was co-director of all three and on the board of many of the growing number of organizations related to TCK issues, including Association of Christian Schools International, MuKappa (aimed at college-age MKs), Families in Global Transition (co-founded by Ruth Van Reken in 1998), and Global Nomads International, created by Norma McCaig in 1984. Along with his demanding workshop schedule that took him all over the world in various settings, Pollock continued to speak regularly in local churches. Van Reken recalls that when she first visited Pollock at Houghton College, “I was shocked to see that all this worldwide operation happened in a little office with a copy machine and one volunteer secretary.”

In later years, with his mischievous eyes, shiny cheeks, and full white beard rounding out his face, the character David most resembled was Papa Smurf—from the Saturday morning television cartoon popular in the 1980s.[iv] I use these various visual analogies deliberately, in keeping with Pollock’s multi-facetted character. He could, as Saint Paul put it, become all things to all people, using every means possible to win over whomever he could (1 Corinthians 9:22). As his widow Betty Lou noted, “David was equally at home behind a lectern in a Singaporean suit or running his chain saw in jeans frayed at the cuffs.”[v] He had the passion of a political activist, but also the easy good-humor of someone who has learned not to take life too seriously. (One of Pollock’s memorable gems, poking fun at stereotypes, was the comment, “All Indians walk single file; at least the one I saw did.”) When the world caught up with him, or seemed to turn his world into knots, witnessing his anger was more sad than scary—coming from such a grace-filled man. And with all the bureaucracies he had to navigate behind the curtains of his lecture platform, I’m sure he sometimes wondered what rabbit hole he had fallen into this time.

In a personal preface to Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, Revised Edition the book Van Reken co-authored with Pollock, she writes, “Sometimes there is a specific moment in a specific day that creeps up so unannounced, it is hardly recognized for its significance, but ever afterward it marks the point when everything changed. Life is never quite the same again. I, and countless others who have grown up in countries and cultures outside that of our parents, have known such a moment. It is that first instant we learn that we have a name…”[vi]

Even today, more than twenty years after my own TCK epiphany, my eyes become moist when I read those words. In her Foreword to the same book, Norma McCaig makes a similar point, that “for many who have grown up globally, having their past validated and placed in the clear context of a shared heritage brings with it a stunning sense of safe homecoming.” For spouses, the effect of watching this unfold at one of Pollock’s workshops is both poignant and amusing: “They sit, wide-eyed and incredulous, listening intently as their beloved’s peculiarities are described in detail by a total stranger.”[vii]

I first attended one of David Pollock’s seminars in 1990, at American University in Washington, D.C. Indeed, I had the sensation of listening to a clairvoyant or fortune teller. It may have been a little spooky, but there was nothing vague in the patterns and illustrations Dave presented. Their power was in their indisputable accuracy—at an emotional level, even if the stories were not the same. That night, I went back with Pollock to the dorm room where he was staying and continued pouring out my heart on the issues that had been torn open during the seminar. Despite his rigorous travel schedule and the exhaustion of leading an all-day event, Pollock was an engaged listener. In those few short hours together Dave came to seem like an old friend. I look back on my earnest imposition with a mixture of gratitude, embarrassment, and wonder. For him, I was just one of thousands of such encounters, but for me it was the beginning of a life-changing catharsis.[viii]

Pollock’s workshop helped me realize there is a reason I was who I am (the different perspective, the trouble fitting in); it wasn’t all my quirky/rebellious/artistic “self-absorbed” personality. But more than an explanation, my “TCKness” gave me the community I had never really had. Focusing on the life-long impact of a globally mobile childhood, the stereotypes we had about each other’s sponsoring agencies quickly became irrelevant. And my own “uprooted” childhood—our family going to Pakistan when I was five years old, then back and forth to boarding school every spring and fall, then returning to the United States for high school—suddenly felt positively mono-cultural after meeting people who had lived in eight different countries in the same number of years while growing up. Norma McCaig used to say that we were not rootless—we are rooted horizontally rather than vertically. Despite our widely different experiences, parents’ professions, and host countries, we often feel more at home with other global nomads than with our peers in the society of our citizenship.


[i] Various color combinations are used for the four quarters, but in every indigenous culture where the medicine wheel is found the West is represented by black. It symbolizes the cave of introspection and is a reminder of what we don’t know, the vastness of the cosmos, the mystery of life itself. At the same time, it is the place (the season, the part of ourselves) where we grapple with these things and gain understanding, a place of knowledge, creativity—and reverence.

[ii] Pollock, who even as a teenager had been preaching as a guest speaker at local churches in his hometown of Troy, New York, literally collapsed at the podium while giving a TCK seminar in Vienna, Austria. It was determined that he had severe pancreatitis as a result of a gall bladder operation the previous year. Emergency surgery was performed, but the next morning he had a cardiac arrest. Pollock held on for nine more days—time enough that all his family was able to be with him when he died on April 11, 2004.

[iii] Subsequent conferences have continued to be held on a more regional basis. See Pam Echerd and Alice Arathoon, eds., Understanding and Nurturing the Missionary Family: Compendium of the International Conference on Missionary Kids Quito Ecuador January 4-8, 1987 (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1989).

[iv] The Smurfs was originally a comic strip created by the Belgian cartoonist Peyo (Pierre Culliford) in 1958.

[v] In David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, rev. ed. (Boston/London: Nicholas Brealey, 2009), 287.

[vi] David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, The Third Culture Kid Experience: Growing Up Among Worlds (Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1999), xxiii. Revised and republished as Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds (Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2001; rev. 2009).

[vii] Pollock and Van Reken, The Third Culture Kid Experience (1999), x.

[viii] Thank you, Gary Wright, Director of International/Intercultural Student Services at American University during the 1990s, for putting an intriguing flyer on a bulletin board at Wesley Theological Seminary, where I worked at the time.

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