Dear Parents Launching Your Third Culture Kids

Hey you, yes you, the one who just relinquished your child’s passport into their own hands to carry for the rest of their life all by themselves.

Yes you, the one who wonders how your child will introduce herself on campus. Is she from Minnesota? Africa? Kenya (which as everyone in Minnesota knows is the same thing as Africa)? Djibouti (what’s a Djibouti?)?

Yes you, who calls this move to his passport country an international move to a new, exotic, and slightly scary country.

You who has to not only turn around and walk out of their dorm room but who has to step onto an airplane in the international terminal.

You who will not be nearby, not even continentally (yes, that’s a word, I just made it up) nearby, on Family Weekend or on Thanksgiving or over Christmas break.

You who watched other kids move in with boxes of winter boots and hats and gloves and big, puffy coats, while your kids don’t own any of those items yet because they aren’t for sale in July in Minnesota and the winter gear they last owned (age two) won’t fit anymore.

I see you. Stumbling back to the car, wishing eyes came with windshield wipers so you could drive safely through tears, crying in the bathroom at the gas station or the airport or the borrowed house. You who aren’t even ‘home’ yet to cry into your own bed, or who are is crying alone because your spouse wasn’t able to make the international flight with you, or who is left to numb your sorrow with, I’m so sorry, airplane food and jet lag.

This is hard.

This is really, really hard.

You feel alone. You look at the other parents, the ones who live in the same city or the same state or the same country and you are jealous or angry or feeling protective. You think no one understands all the questions and losses and griefs and fears racing through your mind and heart. You’re confused because no one told you raising TCKs would end up here, would end up with you on the other side of the ocean finally appreciating what you’ve put your own parents through all these years abroad. No one told you this would be harder than moving abroad in the first place.

Or maybe they did, but when you heard it, perhaps at an orientation meeting, your only thought was, “This kid? University? Don’t they have to be potty-trained for that?!” And so, in the stupor of breastfeeding and surprise positive pregnancy tests and figuring out schooling options for kindergarten and worrying through vaccination records in multiple languages and multiple countries’ schedules, you didn’t listen. I know I didn’t. And now, here I am.

Let’s talk about it.

It is so right and appropriate and you’ve raised them for this, to be competent, generous, brave, tender, loving, creative gifts to the world.

You’re excited for them and for this new adventure. So much of life as expatriates has been an adventure into the unknown or into places that have stretched us outside our comfort zone. But you’ve done that together, with this kid by your side. Now they have to navigate it alone and you have to navigate this new stage without this particular child, without their take on experiences, their sense of humor, their insight.

You have a lot of questions about how to parent adult children and how to parent from a long distance.

I don’t have any answers, I’m winging it now. I’ve been winging it since they were born, like all parents, with the added twins times two thing happening. But maybe we can help each other.

What questions do you face now or did face when you sent your kids to university and returned to living abroad?

What hurts the most in this season?

What makes you the most proud in this season?

What wisdom have you earned through experience and time and perspective?

What do you wish your parents had done differently when you went to university? What did they do well?

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



4 Ways to Stay Content as an Expat Mom

I believe contentment has a lot more to do with our responses to circumstances than with those actual circumstances. I have seen families living without electricity or running water who ooze contentment and joy and I’ve seen families living in ostentatious wealth who seem paralyzed by a lack of gratitude and contentment.

And, I’ve seen in my own heart that I could go either way.

For thirteen years now, I’ve been raising my kids in the Horn of Africa. It hasn’t always been easy and there have been many days when all I wanted were five one-way airplane tickets out (and on the worst days? One ticket would have sufficed). But on far more days, I’ve experienced a deep and abiding contentment, a peace with our choice and life here.

4 Ways to Stay Content as an Expat Mom

Here are four things that help me make the choice to be content:

Don’t Focus on the Limitations

There is no English education (except it is coming – check out the International School of Djibouti!) There is no lush, green park. There is no playground (except for a few hours two nights a week). There are no grandparents. There are few extracurricular options. If I let myself sit in these realities, I quickly grow discouraged and feel like I’m failing my children.

But, when I focus on the opportunities, I realize what an incredible childhood they are having. Swimming with whale sharks, hiking inside active volcanoes, floating in the Salt Lake, the lowest point in Africa, speaking several languages. There is a tennis club, no it isn’t fancy, but it exists. There is a soccer team, yes my girls are often the only girls who play and they play on cement, but they are welcomed. No, there aren’t any relatives but there are local people who love my kids.

Don’t Put Fear in Charge

Health care here is pretty atrocious. There are armed guards at school, grocery stores, church, and on random corners throughout the city. There have been robberies, terror attacks, diseases, evacuations, sexual harassment.

Terrible things could happen anywhere, they do happen anywhere. There is also very little petty crime, people who stand up for us, a wonderful amount of freedom and space for kids to play and bike and walk to the corner store. There is diversity and community and exploration and discovery, there is a rich cross-cultural life.

Don’t Forget Their Roots

Living abroad, it could be easy to feel that my kids are disconnected, untethered to their history. But my kids come from somewhere, from someone. They have grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles. Their roots include farmers and medical professionals and business people, people of faith and character. Teaching the kids where they come from, even if they don’t live close to these people currently, gives us all a sense of being connected. And being connected, knowing that you belong somewhere can provide a strong sense of contentment and meaning no matter where you currently reside.

Don’t Refuse to Engage

Some days it is hard to engage with the local community and it can be easier to close the door, to speak English, to not be curious. It is exhausting to always be learning how to live, how to do things that come with instinct in my native Minnesota.

But engaging with the local community is what makes living abroad ultimately worthwhile. Taking the risk to make friends, to become part of that community even as outsiders, and watching my kids develop friendships and the ability to navigate cultures with ease, are some of the highlights of living here.

Contentment comes down to the choices we make, in response to the situations we face. Sometimes it is easier for me to focus on the garbage dump but the far better choice, when I think about raising my kids in the Horn of Africa, is to lift my eyes up the mountains.

How do you hold onto contentment?


Our Tribal Elders, the Integration of Norma McCaig

Where did the term Global Nomad come from and what inspired the woman who coined it? I never knew, until reading this lovely tribute to Norma McCaig.

Continuing today with part 5 in Our Tribal Elders by Paul Asbury Seaman. 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)

Integration with Norma McCaig1

Integration… Norma McCaig (1945-2008)

The North, at the top of the medicine wheel, represents the Elder stage of life, coming fully into our own in both responsibility and self-expression. It is the embodiment of mindful stewardship: having the ability to effectively apply our knowledge and resources for the greater good. It is also the place where we come to terms with death—the ultimate form of self-acceptance.

Norma Marie McCaig was born in Teaneck, New Jersey. Her father was an executive with an international pharmaceutical company and when she was two years old the family moved to the Philippines, where Norma attended the American School in Manila. When she was fourteen her parents moved to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Norma spent a year and a half at Kodaikanal International School, a missionary boarding school in South India; she then went back to the Philippines to graduate from high school in 1963. Her brother Doug, several years older than Norma, had already returned to the United States and her parents were now living in Hong Kong.

McCaig’s first significant job after college was with the Florence Crittenton Home for Unwed Mothers in Washington, D.C. But it was the Meridian International Center, also in Washington, that became the foundation for Norma’s life mission. The Meridian Center is a private not-for-profit institution dedicated to international collaboration and cultural understanding. Among other activities, it manages the U.S. State Department’s professional exchange programs. At the Meridian House McCaig worked as Home Hospitality Coordinator, providing part of the orientation for foreign students and government employees coming to live in the United States.

The time at “Kodi,” the boarding school she attended in India, had a lasting impact on Norma. Perhaps it was being in her early teens, that pivotal identity-establishing period, but I never heard her wax nostalgic about any other place from childhood. She loved Indian food and with the slightest coaxing would lapse into her Indian alter-ego, “Rani,” who spoke English with an affectionate parody of an Indian accent. (Think of the Dalai Lama’s distinctive lilt, or J. Z. Knight’s channeled entity “Ramtha” on steroids.)

In 1984 Norma McCaig went to a reunion of Kodaikanal International School. Initially wary, she found herself struck by an incredible sense of homecoming, far beyond what nostalgia might warrant. Not satisfied with the colloquial connotations of “third culture kids,” she wanted something more inclusive, something that would describe how wide this experience truly was—a phrase that alluded to our continuing journey as well as our upbringing. Thus was born “global nomads.” When Norma gave her first presentation on the subject a few months later, David Pollock was in the audience.

In 1987 McCaig attended the Second International Conference on Missionary Kids in Quito, Ecuador, where she met Ruth Van Reken. Norma stayed up all night reading Letters Never Sent and, like me, wept throughout. Ruth remembers vividly how she and Norma stayed up until the wee hours the following night discussing the commonalities between her upbringing as a missionary kid and that of Norma who grew up in the international business community. Along with those from volunteer agencies, foreign service, and military backgrounds, it is where these experiences overlap—and what we carry into adulthood—that offers the most insight. Norma McCaig was the first to see this so clearly.

McCaig borrowed heavily from her own retirement accounts to pull it off, but in December 1988 representatives from all these communities came together in Washington for the first conference of Global Nomads International. Norma never married or had children of her own; while this was not necessarily her preference, it did give her the freedom to pursue her vision. McCaig’s decades-long association with Meridian International Center made for an easy transition to more and more consulting work, lecturing at the Foreign Service Institute and writing articles for its Journal, leading cross-cultural workshops for the Foreign Service Youth Foundation, for Berlitz Language Centers, and at conferences sponsored by SIETAR (Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research) and NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

McCaig went through Georgetown University’s Training Specialist Program and used those skills to work with educators, counselors, and mental health professionals to increase their awareness and ability to better serve the globally mobile population. In 1990 she persuaded George Mason University (located in Northern Virginia, just outside Washington) to provide her with office space, even though she had no official position there. Along with David Pollock, Norma was among the first researchers and advocates to emphasize the importance of re-entry—and having an organized structure to support TCKs coming “home” for college.

At George Mason she started the first collegiate global nomads club, soon followed by one at American University and George Washington University (both in Washington) and at Duke University in North Carolina. Meanwhile, global nomad discussion groups had sprung up in Boston, New York, Atlanta, San Diego, and Seattle. In 1993 a Danish global nomad, inspired by a talk on the subject her Argentine fiancé had heard in France, started the first European group—in Geneva, Switzerland.


Norma McCaig’s life was about making connections—between individuals, groups, and ideas. She could muster an impressive turnout for a meeting, a project, or a social event better than anyone I’ve known. Global Nomads International (GNI) never became the institution McCaig worked so hard to establish, with formal chapters across the country and around the world; but her vision of a vibrant, interactive global nomad community has certainly become a reality—in no small part because of her early efforts.[i] Norma’s slogan for GNI was “Affirmation, Exploration, Action.” For those of us in leadership roles, our mandate was “to create an environment for global nomads to affirm their experience, explore it, and discover ways to use it.” We were to be “catalysts for the healthy integration of this special experience into the lives of global nomads, but also for effecting positive change—locally, nationally and globally.”[ii]

When Norma learned she had bone cancer in 2004, at first it only slowed her down a little. Her professional and personal lives had always overlapped, and in recent years she worked more and more out of her home in Reston, Virginia. Norma was known for her annual pumpkin-carving parties in the fall, and her summer birthday (July 25) was a major affair—bringing together people from many different walks of life. Norma was the networking queen, constantly putting friends and associates in touch with someone else who shared the same background or concerns. And this gift for connecting with people is perhaps our greatest loss with her passing.

Norma McCaig died in November 2008, after an unexpected relapse of the cancer she had successfully fought three years earlier. To me, it felt like the end of an era. In a few short years the global nomads community lost three of its guiding lights. (Ruth Useem died in 2003, David Pollock in 2004.) When I shared with Ruth Van Reken the huge loss I felt at Norma’s passing, she told me to think of the thousands of lives Norma has touched, just as Ruth had reminded herself when David Pollock died. (She and Pollock had worked closely on TCK issues for more than fifteen years.) Those many lives, Ruth said, are like seeds floating through the air, dispersed around the world, now blooming with the same generosity of spirit; continuing the vision.[iii] In a tribute letter read at McCaig’s memorial service, Van Reken recalled her as “this tiny red-headed marvel who packed so much energy and joy and brilliance into her little frame. . . . Norma is an example for all of us of how one person with a vision, a dream, a heart, and courage can, in fact, change the world.”[iv]

There used to be a life-size self-portrait of McCaig hanging in the hallway of her home, just inside the front door. She created this painting in celebration and gratitude after her first bout with cancer in 2004. A typewritten note taped beside the picture offered this description—one that is also a remarkable summary of Norma’s character and the strength and grace of her spirit:

“From the darkness of facing the end of this life to the deep blue of spiritual intention and constant loving support of countless people to the vibrant green of growth that comes when moving beyond adversity to the sense of being enveloped in bright, healing, life-giving Light, I feel the joy expressed in the face of the woman, Norma, who meets you eye-to-eye.”

Always connecting from the heart; pursuing a vision of service, supported by her creativity and respect for the sacred—Norma was an Elder, a leader who used all her resources to benefit others. Because of Norma McCaig, many of us have found reconciliation with our past and a new perspective on our future. We have found fellowship, friendship, and a sense of family. Norma helped us discover and create a community we can call home. A place to stand. We can now more confidently face the world because we better understand who we are and where we came from.

More than anyone, Norma McCaig worked hardest to make us a culture, not just an identity or a researchable “population.” The various local seminars, workshops, dessert-and-discussion evenings in someone’s home, the annual winter holiday potluck, and the national conferences—all of them expressed that holy trinity of connection, meaning, and nourishment. Norma’s life, and how she taught us to embrace the whole of our experience as global nomads, brings to mind the attitude of the Lebanese American poet, Kahlil Gibran: “I would not exchange the laughter of my heart for the fortunes of the multitudes; nor would I be content with converting my tears, invited by my agonized self, into calm.”[v] Norma McCaig helped us embrace the rich mosaic of our lives—a mosaic created by both accident and intent, from all the broken-tea-cup moments of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.


[i] Whether coincidence or synchronicity, it’s interesting that a spate of memoirs and other books on TCKs came out in the 1990s, just a few years after the first Global Nomads International conference.

[ii] Global Nomads DC (August 1991), 4.

[iii] I’m reminded of the quip made about Lou Reed’s proto-punk group, the Velvet Underground: Only 700 people bought their first record, but all of them founded a band.

[iv] From letter read at McCaig’s memorial service in Reston, VA, November 16, 2008.

[v] Kahlil Gibran, Tears and Laughter (New York: Wisdom Library, 1949), 7.


Website: Paul Asbury Seaman and you can contact him at


The Heart of Ruth Van Reken

Identity with Ruth Useem

The Wisdom of David Pollock

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