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Third Culture Kids – Growing Up Cross-Culturally

by Sharon Tan


There is one question every parent asks when considering an overseas missions or work assignment – “But what about my kids?” While most parents know that their children will gain much from the overseas experience, they are understandably concerned about the challenges of fitting into Singapore society and re-entering the Singapore school system on return. Everyone has heard about returnees who were unhappy in Singapore school, unable to settle back in Singapore, and clamouring to leave again.

Third culture kids

Increasing numbers of Singaporean children live overseas because of their parents’ work, whether on the mission field or in a secular job. These children grow up, make friends and go to school in a host culture, learn the host language and absorb aspects of this culture.

These children are third culture kids (TCKs): [A] person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently 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 the same background. (Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, 1st ed., 1999.)


Pros and cons of being a TCK

The third culture is not any combination of cultures but comes from the experience of living an internationally mobile lifestyle. Some of the positive outcomes for many TCKs are high linguistic ability, cultural sensitivity, flexibility, an international orientation, and curiosity about the world. Those who have seen poverty up close often display empathy for the poor and underprivileged. They are likely to be more mature and independent than average, and also more culturally accepting and thus able to create community from diversity. As adults, they are much sought-after by multinational corporations for these traits.

While these traits are very attractive, being a TCK comes at a price. TCKs often lack a sense of belonging and connection which can lead to psychological and self-esteem issues, as well as unresolved grief. They may suffer from a confused identity and feel rootless and restless. The pain from frequent goodbyes may lead them to avoid investing in deep friendships. Their education may suffer because of the frequent moves and changes of school.

Returning home

All TCKs experience some degree of difficulty when returning to their “home” country. They are asked to embrace a place and culture as home when they barely remember it, or have known it only as tourists for a few weeks a year. For school-aged children, especially teenagers, a sense of belonging to school and good friendships with peers are strongly associated with good psychological and social adjustment. If they encounter difficulties in making friends or coping with their studies, it can lead to a downward spiral of psychological issues, physical illnesses, and even resentment against God.

What TCKs need is help in building and maintaining some familiarity with their home culture and friends, and a positive attitude towards it, even during the years they live overseas. Impossible? It isn’t – but it takes some thought and preparation, and has to be an ongoing, long-term effort, ideally beginning even before the family leaves to go overseas. The bulk of the responsibility is the parents’, but they need their supporters and churches to partner with them too. These strategies range from telling stories about Singapore life and learning some Singlish, to arranging school immersions and play dates in Singapore. Waiting till just a few months before re-entry, or worse, only after returning, will be too little, too late.

Tips for parents and supporters

Our family spent more than 10 years overseas, and we did our best to make the transition easier for our daughters who were 14 and 16 years old when we returned to Singapore. Although it took quite a bit of planning and effort, it was a great joy and blessing to see them make friends and settle well into school and church in Singapore. Truly, God’s hand has been at work in our family’s journey.

We have written a book, This Is Home, Surely?: A Guide for Parents of Singaporean Third Culture Kids, based on our experiences in preparing our children for re-entry to Singapore during the years we were overseas. We hope that these ideas will be a blessing to other families with TCKs too.

David Tan is the Executive Director of Wycliffe Singapore, while Sharon serves in Communications. Their daughters are now 22 and 20 years old and pursuing university studies.

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