The Difficulty of Life as a Third-Culture Kid


When expat children return home after a long time abroad they often feel like outsidersThe Difficulty of Life as a Third-Culture Kid

Third-Culture Kids as Parents

Somalilandsun – Did you grow up in one culture, your parents came from another, and you are now living in a totally different country? Then you are a third-culture kid! Yet being a third-culture kid is not always easy; in fact many hardships may arise from this culture-hopping phenomenon.

A third-culture kid may not be able to immerse themselves as completely into their new surroundings as expected. Instead, the third-culture kid may always remain an outsider in different host cultures. Maximilien (17) experienced this fundamental feeling of strangeness throughout his life as a third-culture kid. “We left France when I was very little and moved to Portugal, then Peru and Canada, and now we’re here in Hong Kong.”

Although Maximilien enjoys the cultural diversity of his family’s lifestyle, he has never fully adapted to any of the countries he has lived in. “I have only ever attended international schools,” he explains. “I did quite well there, but the only foreign language I really picked up was English. Of course, I learned a bit of Spanish and Chinese, and I’m still able to recite a lot of nursery rhymes in Portuguese, but it’s not enough to be fluent.”

Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

Additionally, making new friends and saying goodbye to old ones will at some point become routine for a third-culture kid. While this can be a way for a third-culture kid to create a network of friends all around the world, it may also lead to an out-of-sight- out-of-mind attitude.

This is what happened to Maximilien. “I lost contact to all of my friends from Portugal and Peru. It’s hard to keep in touch when you are so far away and your life changes so drastically.” Due to the constant mobility, it can be hard for a third-culture kid like Maximilien to maintain close friendships and relationships.

Culture Shock for a Third-Culture Kid

For a third-culture kid, it is often easier to move to a new foreign country than to return to their “home” country. Leyla (25) learned this the hard way when, after living in Australia and South Korea for many years, she finally returned to Turkey as a teenager. “While I was always regarded as a foreigner when overseas, people suddenly expected me to behave the same way and know the same things as they did,” she recalls.

However, Leyla felt out of place when she returned to the country where she was born. Unlike other teens her age, she didn’t know anything about current TV shows, fashion trends or the latest Turkish pop hits. She was not in touch with Turkish culture and politics and did not quite know how to behave among her peers.

Leyla did not share the same values and modes of behavior as her friends and felt alienated even years after going back home. “At some point, my friends started to plan their university degrees. One or two even got engaged to their boyfriends. I did not want that. I wanted to see the world again.”

While a third-culture kid must let go of their identity as foreigner when he/she returns, the home country can prove to be more foreign than anything encountered before. The peer group a third-culture kid faces does not match the idealized image children have of “home”. This often makes it hard for a third-culture kid to form their own identity.