Is there a “third culture” mindset? (And do we need it?)

by David Week on 12 September 2010



Thanks to Desiree Adaway whose tweet comments on A life without borders prompted this follow-up.

Living among worlds

For many years, I took the kind of multicultural upbringing I described in A life without borders for granted. About ten years ago, I found the book Third culture kids: the experience of growing up among worlds.

The researcher, Ruth Van Reken, asked the following question: does the experience of living “between” cultures—i.e. growing up in a situation where the culture one met out on the street was different than the culture experienced at home—result in a different kind of person?

To answer this question, she interviewed the children of overseas-posted business people, military personnel, and missionaries —”mish kids”, they used to call themselves in my high school in Jakarta.

Here are some of the results of the TCK studies:

There are two quotes in the literature that absolutely resonated with my personal experience, and are frequently cited. I paraphrase them from memory here.

On one’s place in the world:

I don’t feel that anywhere in particular is ‘home’. On the other hand, I feel at home anywhere.

This reminds me of my first year in Papua New Guinea, when some Americans visited the Bagi Agrikalsa Senta (say it out loud and it will make sense—except “Bagi”, which was the name of the stream on which it was sited.) After a while, one of them asked me: “So where’s home?” I indicated down the path where I was living. “But don’t you plan go home one day,” she asked, meaning the United States. I said no, and I never have. Then, my home was the Gavien Resettlement Scheme. Today, my home is Melbourne.

On one’s worldview:

It’s as though everyone knows that you have to drive on the right, and you’re only person that knows it’s also possible to drive on the left.

This has led to me become, I fear, a contrarian:

A contrarian is a person with a preference for taking a position opposed to that of the majority view prevalent in the group of which they are a part.

This is because if I see my group all agreeing “okay, we have to do this”, I find myself becoming aware that there are other ways of doing things that I want them to consider. Sometimes this is helpful; sometimes not—so I have to be aware of this tendency, and sometimes put a lid on it.

Is this only for kids?

Over the years, I find that I have felt a special rapport with anyone who has lived or work “among worlds”, and this is not restricted to those who grew up among worlds. In fact, many of my high school friends who grew up in Jakarta in the 1970s, took the overnight Sendja III train to Jogja, and visited Kuta Beach in Bali when there were less than 100 foreigners there, seem to have integrated fully back into a single culture of origin.

On the other hand, those who grew up in one place, but came to live “among worlds”, I find see things differently. And for that reason, I like to hang out with them. It’s a special bond, among those who also know that “it’s also possible to drive on the left.”

So my present hypothesis is that is has nothing to do with age. It’s just about the experience. If you experience growing up, working, or living “among worlds”, this affects you, and the way in which it affects you is that it starts to stretch and dissolve your in-built, socialised boundaries.

Bane or boon?

Many TCK sites on the Web today are aimed at helping parents with overseas postings help their children “cope” with being TCKs. This bugs me, because it doesn’t sit with my experience at all. It’s given me the transcultural, boundaryless life that I have today, and that seems like a tremendous gift. (Though I’m still thinking about how to deal with the carbon footprint.)

And I believe that this kind of mindset, which arises out of living among cultures, is important.

My PhD, which was about the situation of professionals working in cultures other than their own, opens with two quotes, which for me explain why this mindset is important:

No one can say what will become of our civilisation when it has really met different civilisations by means other than the shock of conquest and domination. But we have to admit that this encounter has not taken place at the level of an authentic dialogue. That is why we are in a kind of lull or interregnum in which we can no longer practice the dogmatism of a single truth and in which we are not yet capable of conquering the scepticism into which we have stepped. We are in a tunnel, at the twilight of dogmatism and the dawn of real dialogues.
—Paul Ricouer 1

The next necessary thing (so at least it seems to me) is neither the construction of a universal Esperanto-like culture, the culture of airports and motor hotels, nor the invention of some vast technology of human management. It is to enlarge the possibility of intelligible discourse between people quite different from one another in interest, outlook, wealth, and power, and yet contained in a world where tumbled as they are into endless connection, it is increasingly difficult to get out of each other’s way.
—Clifford Geertz 2


  1. Paul Ricouer, ‘Universal Civilisation and National Cultures’ (1961) quoted in Frampton (1996). Modern Architecture: A Critical History. London, Thames and Hudson. p314
  2. Clifford Geertz (1988). Works and Lives: The anthropologist as author. Stanford, Stanford University Press. p147
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  • I left home when I was 16 years old to go to germany as an exchange student. No one in my family had ever been abroad…no one even had a passport. I lived abroad for 18 months — 6 of those hitch hiking around Europe. I was changed by this experience. Since then I have lived and worked abroad in many countries the majority being developing countries and who I am and how I view the world even what I call myself has been altered. I see things differently — fear, pain, risk, comfort — are all viewed through this lense.

    Thanks for this post and for helping me to tap into an essential piece of myself.

    • David Week

      Your story reminds me of when I was 16. My parents gave me $700 so that over summer vacation 1972 I could travel with my best friend Kirk:
      • by train to Bali
      • by DC-3 to Dili, in then Portuguese East Timor
      • by flatbed truck to Baucau
      • by small plane to Darwin
      • by bus, 96 hours to Sydney
      • to Far North Queensland
      • and all the way back to Jakarta.
      Quite… life-changing 🙂

  • Bob

    I lived in Karachi Pakistan between the ages of 4 and 8. My family had little interaction with the local culture – American school, expat social life – yet I can recount many times, even in elementary school back in the US, when I’ve “clicked” with a new acquaintance, and learned hours later that they also lived overseas as a kid.
    If I had to guess what it is that that connects us, it would be the very subtle sense of a larger, or more open, perspective. It certainly irritates me when people assert theirs is the only possible approach

    • I found that international development was my home, because I get to be surrounded by 3rd culture people all the time. Yet at Berkeley, a cosmopolitan place, I still felt out of place because many people thought that Indonesia meant Indochina, East meant New York, and West mean Hawaii. (I’m sure things have changed since then.)

  • cemilygo

    Yes, to openness.

    “If you have an apple, and I have an apple, and we exchange the apples, then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea, and I have an idea, and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.” -George Bernard Shaw

    and yes, I do not think of any particular place as home, or what binds me to Earth, instead it is particular people.

    and yes, I have never viewed being TCK as a problem or anything to “deal with” or “overcome”.

    • One of my favourite aphorisms:

      If you two people on a team think alike: one of them is redundant.

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