Third Culture Kids: A Collision Of Worlds

July 7, 2011 in Inspiration, North America, Travelogue, United States

People often ask us if there’s a social deficiency for our children, being raised on the road, weaving in and out of so many different cultures. It’s a serious question, and it deserves serious consideration.

My answer is always, “No, growing up in the world is the most socially healthy experience any child could have.”

They learn to adapt, respect differences, navigate generation gaps, live flexibly and develop language proficiencies that will make them infinitely more socially comfortable in our ever shrinking world than they would be if we spent our entire life in the little town we left.

Nowhere was that more apparent than playing in the pool this week with the Korean delegation using the same techniques they’ve perfected for playing with kids when they are the ones who don’t speak the language.

There is not a social deficiency for our kids, or others that travel for a living, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t differences.


This month we’ve had the great blessing of crossing paths with long term virtual friends, the Vogel Family, of Family on Bikes. They’ve recently completed an epic cycling journey which earned their twin boys (13) the Guiness World Record for being the youngest children to cycle the length of North and South America.

Nancy and I have spent a fair bit of time, in her rented cottage on the Connecticut coast and over a campfire in southern Massachusetts discussing our dreams, our journeys, education, difficulties, victories and our children. All the while, our kids have been swimming, sword fighting, eating huge bags of cotton candy and otherwise running amok.

  • I laughed at her story of her boys not having the first clue how to run a microwave, to the shock and amusement of their aunt.
  • She laughed at my story of explaining what a “depanneur” (French for ‘convenience store’) in Quebec was by using a Czech word (potraviny) which our English-first kids didn’t bat an eyelash at.


We just “get” each other.

Our kids have had a blast. More than once my kids have come and said, “These guys are GREAT Mom! They are just like us!” And they are.

Our kids, and the Vogel boys, are what’s called Third Culture Kids:


“Someone who, as a child, has spent a significant period of time in one or more culture(s) other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture.”



These kids create a culture for themselves that’s a blend of their experiences.

The Upside: flexibility, adaptability, a high comfort level just about anywhere they’re dropped and the ability to roll with the punches like few people can.

The downside: they don’t entirely “fit” anywhere.

My family traveled a little, just two winters of my childhood, and we straddled the international border between the US and Canada as a dual nationality family. Even that relatively small amount of cultural diversity I can relate to the third culture experience.

We love being “home,” in the USA and Canada, because so many of the people that matter most to us are here. Our children’s dearest friends are very “fixed-location” kids and they embrace one another as if not a day has passed and the cultural divide just doesn’t matter a bit to them, or to our kids, for that matter. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

We’ve witnessed this several times, with families in Germany & the Czech Republic, other traveling families in Central America and most recently when our virtual friends became real world friends. There is something that happens with Third Culture Kids meet other Third Culture Kids that is inexplicable unless you’ve seen it with your own eyes. There’s an understanding, a belonging, of sorts, between complete strangers that bonds them deeply, and it’s such a joy to watch.

This weekend our worlds collided.


The very best of our chosen family joined us for an Independence Day camp out. We laughed, swam, told stories, and caught up after a long winter on opposite ends of the continent, and it was GREAT. And then, two of our favourite traveling families joined the party and added such an interesting dynamic.

I don’t know how our friends felt, meeting the “other half” of our lives. Perhaps they’ll comment and add their perspectives. For us, it was a complete delight to have them all in one place and to have, for just a few hours, both of our lives intersect in one place. There was a “wholeness” that we sometimes lack in the time spent with all of them.

Our kids miss people wherever we go. This is a common experience for Third Culture Kids. Not a day goes by abroad that they don’t wish aloud that their fixed-location friends were there to share an experience. When we’re “home” it’s the same, they wish for their abroad friends to share the day’s joy here.

Jeremiah, one of Hannah’s best friends, is spending the week with us this week. Last night he made a comment that stuck with me: “I’ll bet you guys could fill this whole campground with the people you wish were here!” And he’s right, we could.

I thanked Nancy and gave her a big hug as she wrangled her two big boys into the car with our parting gift to them : a huge trash bag full of cotton candy. I thanked her for making the drive, taking the precious time out of their already busy schedule to spend some time with us and for making it a priority to get the kids together and let them play.

Our kids get on great with kids anywhere they find them, in any language they don’t speak, but we both realized how very good is was for the kids to spend a couple of afternoons with other Third Culture Kids.

To just hang out and play, to be different and not care, to not have anyone ask them about their “amazing” lives or their “wonderful” journeys as a result of our long-term travel, to not be impressive or different in any way, but just to be kids with other kids who’ve been a couple of places. The kids are still talking about it and their eyes are still sparkling.