Third Culture Kids

“Where are you from?”

The UAE is often described as being a cultural melting pot, so it’s unsurprising that the question above is arguably the number one conversation starter here. The indigenous population of the UAE are a minority within their own country, and the expatriate community here make up the majority. However, the ‘expat’ community is also quite a heterogeneous group, consisting of many different nationalities, the majority of whom stay in the UAE for a limited amount of time. The impact of such migration can be examined in many different ways. In this post I will briefly discuss one of the outcomes of this phenomena, and that is globalisation and the birth of Third Culture Kids (TCKs).


The term “Third Culture Kids (TKCs)” or “global nomads” describes children who spend a significant amount of their developmental years in a foreign country (or several foreign countries), and as a result integrate “elements of those cultures and their own birth culture into a third culture”.The term was first coined in the fifties by the sociologist Ruth Hill Useem, after spending several years in India with her three children.

The first culture is that of the ‘home’ country, the second culture refers to that of the ‘host’ country, and the third culture is one that is created and shared by many. But where do TCKs stand within the international political economy? As a TCK myself, I often consider whether my upbringing has put me at an advantage or a disadvantage. In one regard, we can consider ourselves privileged to have experienced other cultures other than our ‘own’ – it has been argued that TCKs have good communication skills due to being exposed to more than one culture, whereby customs and methods of communication often vary between different cultures. This makes us more attractive to potential employers, as well as the fact that TCKs can often speak more than one language (put that on your CV fellow TCKs!). It can also be argued that we’re less likely to be sheltered and ignorant to many global issues – often with friends from a wide variety of different backgrounds, we’re likely to know more about different cultures and their respective social and political dynamics. Nonetheless, it is also possible for young people who have grown up being part of the ethnic majority in the same country as their parents to also be in tune with global issues.


On the other hand, growing up in a third space has also been linked to the inevitable ‘identity crisis’. TCKs often have difficulty in identifying and defining where they ‘belong’, and it has been suggested that some take so long to figure this out that it takes TCKs slightly longer to fully develop their personalities. A counterargument to this is that, even people who grow up in countries whereby they are part of the ethnic majority, many people inevitably face some sort of identity crisis of trying to decipher where they fit into their respective society.


My personal opinion is that although the issue of identity is important, some TCKs are guilty of overthinking the issue. In an increasingly globalised world it’s becoming more acceptable, and also expected, to have a hybrid identity. A sense of belonging is not necessarily always found in one place, but it is now possible to feel a sense of belonging within communities across a number of geographical locations. Do we even have any right to feel a sense of ownership over one culture? It’s not logical for me to state that I identify strongly with either the Arab culture or British culture, simply because both cultures (as well as almost every other culture on earth) are diverse and not even homogenous within themselves. Hence, I would argue that TCKs have the potential to be the winners within the global political economy, so long as we utilise the advantages and benefits that we are privileged to have. What do you think? Do the negatives outweigh the positives?

Deena Abdo (Dubai Campus)


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