Category Archives: TCKs

Famous TCKs: Third-Culture Kids in the News and in History

What’s a TCK? Read here.

A much more complete list than mine can be found here (thanks, Sezin!).

Barack Obama: The world’s most famous TCK right now, and maybe that’s a good sign (perhaps it’s fortunate that few American voters recognized the term).

Other Famous TCKs

Santiago Cabreraactor, Hero

Julie Christie, actress – “Julie’s father ran a tea plantation in India, where she grew up.”

Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and author – born in Kenya

Elizabeth Edwards – late wife of John Edwards, US vice-presidential candidate – “Edwards is the daughter of a Navy pilot and lived in a dozen places by the time she was 18. ‘There is no better experience’ in preparing someone for the madness of a presidential campaign, she says.” New York Times, July 17, 2004. She wrote: Saving Graces: Finding Solace and Strength from Friends and Strangers

Scott Foley, actor – “Foley relocated often during his childhood due to his father’s career in international banking. He lived all over the world, including Sydney, Australia, and Tokyo, Japan.”

Michel Gondry – film director

Katharine Gun, whistle-blower:

“Her decision to follow her conscience sounds almost unthinking – I didn’t want to step back and think, ‘But, hey, what happens if I do this, and then this happens and then that happens?'” she says. But she has clearly thought in detail about what made her that way… “One of the things the research says is that third-culture kids tend to be extremely empathetic, and because they’ve usually lived in at least one other foreign country, they somehow feel a global alliance… ” Guardian

Mohsin Hamid, novelist:

“So where does Hamid belong? Does he feel a Pakistani Muslim, or an American?

“I’m fully neither,” he said, adding that he believed it was unwarranted to expect individuals to sign up for allegiance to the nation-state.

“What I feel like depends on the context you put me in,” he said. “In the Pakistani context, my attitudes toward religion, to the state, to gender relations are perceptibly American. That makes me American.” Yet when he is in the United States, he can feel quite Pakistani, he said.” International Herald Tribune

Teresa Heinz – John Kerry’s wife, born in Mozambique.

John Kerry, US politician – Attended boarding school in Switzerland while his father was a US diplomat in Germany.

Robin McKinley, author

Viggo Mortensen, actor: “I remember coming to the U.S. and not only having to learn the accent but the slang,” Mortensen says, adding that being forced to adapt quickly helped him later on. “Out of habit you assume that you have something in common with people no matter how different they seem.” Washington Post

Mervyn Peake, author and illustrator

John Rhys-Davies, actor – “Rhys-Davies spent his formative years in Wales and East Africa, returning to the UK when he was nine.”

Alexander McCall Smith – novelist – his books

Cordwainer Smith – A science fiction writer who spent many of his formative years in China and was bilingual in Chinese and English. I suspect that this is the reason for the unusual, even poetic, style of his writing. Cordwainer Smith’s books

W. Richard Stevens, UNIX guru

Kathleen Turner, actor – diplomatic “brat”

Dominique de Villepin, former Prime Minister of France

Mike Volpi, CEO of Joost

Joss Whedon, screenwriter and creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – partly schooled in the UK

Hugo Weaving, actor – born in Nigeria, has lived in Australia, South Africa, England.

let me know of any other famous TCKs you are aware of!

Third-Culture Kids: Growing Up Everywhere, and Nowhere

You who are on the road must have a code that you can live by.
And so become yourself, because the past is just a goodbye.

Graham Nash – Teach Your Children

“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 builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. 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.”

David C. Pollock & Ruth E. Van Reken

Third Culture Kids – available from Amazon UK | US – If you are a TCK or have a TCK in your life, read this book!

Do I Qualify? (As a TCK, that is)

See the timeline. Yeah, I guess I qualify.

Stephen Alter, a Woodstock alumnus a few years older than myself, published a book in 1998 called All the Way to Heaven: An American Boyhood in the Himalayas. It’s not an entirely satisfying book; he leaves too many questions unanswered about how he did finally deal with the confusions of identity and culture caused by his unusual upbringing – confusions very familiar to many of us. But there are some beautiful and funny stories and plenty of description, which makes it a good introduction to the place for those who’ve never been to Woodstock (and a great nostalgia trip for those who have).

Resources for TCKs

very comprehensive Wikipedia article
At Home Abroad (regular section of the International Herald Tribune) – e.g., When Expat Runs in the Family
Expats Reunite
Interaction International
Global Nomads International
TCK World
Third Culture Kids: Returning to their Passport Country
US State Department links page

April, 2004: In Memoriam

Dave Pollock, tireless advisor, counselor, and advocate for third-culture kids, died on Easter. I had the privilege of attending his TCK workshop at a Woodstock reunion; these workshops were epiphanies of self-understanding and healing for many of us. TCKs worldwide will miss him, and are grateful for all that he has done for us.

Coming “Home” to America

So I’ve returned to live (and work) in the USA. A number of people, particularly US immigration officers, have said: “Welcome home.” I am grateful for their friendly intentions, but “home” is not what the US represents for me. I’ve lived here only about a third of my life to date.

Having spent many of my formative years in Asia, I tried to come “home” to America once before, when I graduated from high school in India and entered college in the US. Like many third culture kids, I had felt out of place (though not unhappy) in the exotic countries I’d lived in, where I was very obviously foreign even after being there for years. I dreamed of returning to a country where I would feel wholly at ease and be accepted as a natural part of the scenery. It was a rude shock to discover that this homeland, for me and others like me, is a myth. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was a “hidden immigrant”: on the surface seemingly a local, but in reality a not-quite-native, which manifested in ways which confused and irritated the real Americans.

Continue reading Coming “Home” to America

Shut Up or Go Home – No Culture Likes a Kibitzer

I was recently interviewed for an article about third-culture kids, to be published in the Christian Science Monitor. In an hour,s taped phone conversation, Erik Olsen asked many questions, including: “Being an outsider in all cultures, how does that make you feel?” I thought for a moment, and said: “Superior.”

No doubt that statement will be quoted in the article. <wry grin> I tried to explain that, as outsiders in every culture, we TCKs see things with a more objective eye than insiders who are familiar only with their own culture*. This doesn’t mean that we despise every culture we encounter, or have nothing but criticism to offer. But it’s common for a TCK to think: “In country X they do this differently, and it seems to have certain advantages. Why couldn’t it be done that way here?” This is NOT the stereotypical case of ugly Americans who think that everything is better in America. In fact, most TCKs, including American ones, tend to criticize their “home” culture more than any other.

The problem is: no one wants to hear it. Cultures and countries often suffer from a form of groupthink in which “our way is best” or “we’ve always done it this way, why should we change?”And people resent criticism of their culture, however well-intended, from outsiders.

I was reminded of this when last week’s article about Italian Freedom Fighters got a few Italian backs up. I was accused (justifiably, for that article) of stereotyping Italians as a race of unrepentant scofflaws. Of course I don’t really believe that ALL Italians routinely break the law, though I do feel safe in asserting that a larger proportion of Italians than, say, Americans or Germans or Swiss, are inclined to disregard or evade laws that are inconvenient to them individually, such as those regarding taxes. This attitude goes all the way to the top in Italy, with consequences far beyond the embarrassment of having people in high government posts under indictment for tax evasion, bribery, and fraud.

I can take some ironic consolation in knowing that, if that article had been written by an Italian, many Italians would have leaped to agree with it. Italians (as they themselves have told me) are very fond of criticizing themselves and their country – but apparently it’s not okay for me to do it.

Then I received an irate email from an Italian woman living in England. She took exception to a number of my statements about the Italian education system, and pointed out how much better it is than the British or American systems. I will certainly grant that for the average American public school (I don’t know enough about the British to comment), but the point of most of my articles was not to compare the Italian system (favorably or un-) with other systems. We’re in Italy, and can’t afford the international schools even if we wanted to, so our daughter goes to Italian public schools which, while they have pluses, also have minuses – as is true of ANY school system.

What got to me about this lady’s email was her concluding sentence (originally in Italian): “Don’t denigrate the country in which you are a guest. As they tell me and my kids when we comment on England: ‘If you do’t like it, go back to your own country.’ ”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this sort of statement, though it is a first for me in Italy. It raises some questions: At what point will I have a “right” to criticize? How long does it take to no longer be a “guest” but a member of the community? I’ve been in Italy for 14 years, my husband and daughter are Italian, I work for an Italian company. All that’s lacking is citizenship, and I could have that if I bothered to do the paperwork. At the very least, as a payer of Italian taxes, I have a right to complain when I’m not getting my money’s worth from state services – perhaps more so than the many Italians who evade taxes!

But, no matter how long I live here, there will always be Italians who will resent anything negative I have to say about Italy, and will invite me to “go home.” The sad irony is that the same thing happens at “home“ Americans are, on average, the LEAST tolerant of criticism of their culture, from insiders or outsiders. Many’s the time I was told: “If you don’t like it, you can just leave.” So I did.

And you still can hear me singin’ to the people who don’t listen,
To the things that I am sayin’, prayin’ someone’s gonna hear.
And I guess I’ll die explaining how the things that they complain about,
Are things they could be changin’, hopin’ someone’s gonna care.

I was born a lonely singer, and I’m bound to die the same,
But I’ve got to feed the hunger in my soul.
And if I never have a nickel, I won’t ever die ashamed,
‘Cause I don’t believe that no one wants to know.

Kris Kristofferson “To Beat the Devil”

Note: The term “culture,” as used by anthropologists, means (definition Webster’s): “the ideas, customs, skills, arts, etc. of a people or group, that are transferred, communicated, or passed along, as in or to succeeding generations.” Culture, in this sense, is a shared set of beliefs and behaviors, and does NOT refer to so-called “high culture,” e.g. art and music.

Share your own cultural kibitzes below.

Cultural Assumptions

What You Think You Might Know About Somebody… Might Be Wrong

Years ago, before we were even living in Italy, Enrico and I spent a night in Courmayeur, on the French side of Mont Blanc, on our way to somewhere. Our hotel included breakfast (most of them do), eaten at large, bare wooden tables with benches. We were asked what form of coffee we wanted, then crusty rolls, croissants, jam, butter, etc. were brought, and we began eating, scattering crumbs all over the bare table just like everyone else.

The waiter overheard us speaking English.

“Are you American?” he asked.

She’s American, he’s Italian, we explained, as usual.

“You’re American!” exclaimed the waiter in horror. “Then you want this!” And he rushed to set the table with paper placements.

I wonder what traumatic encounter he’d had with an American to fix that notion so firmly in his mind.


I picked up some pictures that had been framed, and remembered at the last minute that I should have told the framer to put two hooks on the sides, rather than one hook on the top as Italians always do. With the two hooks, I can run a wire between them and have the picture hang from a hook behind it, rather than seeing a hook in the wall at the top of every picture. This seems an obvious improvement to me, but Italians prefer a hook at the top, perhaps because that way the picture lies flat against the wall.

The framer was happy to do what I asked. “You must be English,” he said. “The English always want the two hooks that way.”

Once Enrico and I were on vacation in the mountains. He would go off hiking all day, I was working intensively and happily on my novel, but would go for brief walks to stretch my legs and enjoy the scenery. To amuse myself on these walks, I collected wildflower seeds, to try planting them at home. I strolled along a level path that had once been a railway line, and found a huge meadow full of flowers. I was in there, collecting seeds, when a young man passed by, supporting his aged mother on her daily constitutional. Half an hour later, when they came back the other way, I was still there, intent on the plants.

“Crazy Germans,” the man muttered.


Oct 21, 2003

Last October we drove to Munich for a friend’s birthday. On the way, we stopped in Vipiteno, a town on the Italy side of the German border. We’d been looking for an enoteca (wine shop) to buy Markus some wine, and found a very good one there. We sampled several good wines, and had selected two or three bottles when the shop owner asked us: “Who is this for?”

“A friend in Germany, it’s his birthday.”

“Oh, then you don’t need to spend so much. Just get him this [pointing to the six-euro stuff in the window]; he’s German, he won’t know the difference.”

We still got him the good stuff; Markus does know the difference.