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Global Nomad, Third Culture Kid, Adult Third Culture Kid, Third Culture Adult: What Do They All Mean?

By Barbara Schaetti, Ph.D.

Let me begin at the beginning. The term 'third culture' was coined in the early 1960's by Drs. Ruth and John Useem, noted intercultural researchers and scholars. They used the term to describe the experience of those who live between two cultures, specifically between 'western' and 'non-western.' Their research suggested that such individuals became, over time, not fully a part of their culture of origin nor fully a part of the host country in which they lived, but part of something else, a merging and melding of the two into a 'thirdness.' Over the years, the term 'third culture' has come to be used more generally, irrespective of whether the cultures involved are considered western or not. Similarly, the term has been adopted by those who live between not only two cultures but between three or four or more. Eventually, the term 'third culture kid' (TCK) evolved as a way to distinguish and describe the children of these expatriates who, raised in a third culture context, are socialized to the third culture rather than to either their parents' culture of origin or the host culture.

In 1984, Norma McCaig, herself a TCK, coined the term 'global nomad.' The standard definition is 'a person of any age or nationality who has lived a significant part of his or her developmental years in one or more countries outside his or her passport country because of a parent's occupation.' The term is generally used interchangeably with that of TCK.

There are several key ideas held within the single sentence definition of a global nomad and TCK

  • Age: once a global nomad, always a global nomad. Even if as an adult a global nomad settles in one place and never moves again, the childhood and adolescent experiences of international mobility continue to exert their influences.
  • Nationality: while many of the studies of global nomads stress the USAmerican experience, global nomads are of all nationalities. One can get a very direct flavor of this by entering any international school worldwide, most of which have on average some 40 different nationalities represented.
  • Significant: what makes the experience significant? Must the person have at least five years abroad for it to be significant? Are two years sufficient? And at what ages - how much conscious memory must there be of the experience for it to 'count?' I suggest this is best left to personal interpretation; if the individual believes the experience to have been significant to his or her own development, then it was.
  • Developmental years: this essentially means the years from birth through adolescence, the years during which an individual's fundamental sense of self is in development. Ideally, of course, we continue to learn and grow and be changed by experience even as adults. The importance of these early years, however, even those eventually out of our conscious memory, is now taken as understood.
  • One or more countries: some global nomads move frequently, some live in a single host country their whole time abroad. This is to some degree influenced by the type of organization sponsoring them: missionary children, for example, often live in a single host country for a long period of time; diplomatic and business children may be multi-movers, living in several countries for only two or three years each.
  • Passport country: I use this term quite conscientiously, as the parents' 'home' country may be for global nomad children no more real than the passport on which they travel. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a significant number of global nomads are bi-national and in fact have two passport countries.
  • Parent's occupation: global nomads are typically the sons and daughters of people working in international business, the diplomatic services, military services, missionary services, international/non-governmental agencies, and international education.
  • As you might expect, the global nomad experience has much in common with that of 'home grown' individuals whose international mobility began only in adulthood. It also shares commonalities with those who grew up mobile but within a single national context (domestic nomads), and with those who as children were immigrants or refugees. At the same time, however, these many experiences have some significant differences not to be minimized. When we talk about global nomads, we're talking about a very particular population.

    Two other terms require quick mention here: 'adult third culture kid' (ATCK) and 'third culture adult' (TCA). An ATCK is simply a way to specify that the TCK under discussion is now an adult, no longer a 'kid' per se. That distinction isn't usually made when using the term 'global nomad;' in this case the single term is used regardless of whether the person is a global nomad child or an adult global nomad.

    The term 'third culture adult' highlights the ongoing evolution in expatriate terminology. Coined at the 2001 Families in Global Transition conference by Paulette Bethel and participants in her session, it speaks to the 'home grown' individual mentioned above whose international mobility began only in adulthood yet whose international experiences have wrought a profound identity change. No longer singularly rooted in one national culture, those who choose to self-define as TCAs recognize and are purposeful in the ways they engage the benefits and challenges of their mobile and multicultural lives.

    Barbara F. Schaetti, Ph.D., is Principal of Transition Dynamics (http://www.transition-dynamics.com). She coaches expatriates and repatriates worldwide by telephone and email, helping them learn through the 'living laboratory' of their daily experience to thrive across cultures.

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