Raising Third Culture Kids in the UAE: The benefits, the challenges, and how parents can help them flourish

Third Culture Kids
How to raise Third Culture Kids in an expat environment Image Credit: Shutterstock

A couple of summers ago, my sister and I made a pilgrimage from our homes in Dubai back to the motherland. The purpose of the trip was to introduce our children (mine aged 11 and 9, hers aged 5 and 1 at the time) to England – to the country of their nationality. In some ways, to a part of themselves they didn’t really know yet.

It was a delight. They loved writing themselves postcards and popping them into the quintessentially English postbox, which was shiny and red and licked with dew. And the excitement when the postman arrived a couple of days later and pushed the postcards through the strange and somewhat magical hole in the front door… Well, you can imagine. It was like they had received letters inviting them to Hogwarts.

Phone boxes, the London underground, the Natural History Museum, trains, rain, fields, stiles, cows, pick-your-own strawberries, Cornish pasties, slugs… The familiar, comforting joy of everyone speaking your own language. Everything that was simply, mundanely British was a thrill for them.

Citizens of the planet

Having spent their entire lives as expats in the UAE, the kids had been lucky enough to travel extensively and thought nothing of hopping on a plane to somewhere new (before the pandemic hit, that is). Sri Lanka, Kenya, Cambodia – they loved exploring different places and cultures. But the trip to England was different. This wasn’t about exploring a ‘foreign’ culture; it was about discovering something that was theirs. It was about connecting to their past (their near past in the sense of meeting family they hadn’t met before; and their distant past, in the sense of visiting Hever Castle and Big Ben and other historical sites).

While the difficulty of travelling during the pandemic has perhaps added a rose-tinted glaze to the idea of what it means to visit your home country, our trip was not just about the physical visit. It was also about my kids understanding themselves and the British part of their own personal identity.

My children are textbook Third Culture Kids – out of touch with their own culture, yet not fully part of anybody else’s.

– Louisa Kiernander

As expats, they have a strong handle on cultures. They know the difference between Diwali, Eid and Easter. In a line-up of curries, they could easily pick out a Sri Lankan, an Indian, a Pakistani, a Thai and an Emirati (and probably an English-style chicken tikka masala). They know a good few words in Tagalog and have spent more time with Filipino church communities than British ones. They could happily go to any country, eat the local food, chat to the local people and feel comfortable. Except, weirdly, their own.

This is not strange, or a hindrance. They are just textbook Third Culture Kids – out of touch with their own culture, yet not fully part of anybody else’s. Kind of floating between multiple cultures, with no real roots in any of them.

Third Culture Kids are a growing phenomenon across the world as globalisation has taken hold

A nation in its own right

I come from a family of Third Culture Kids (TCKs) – my father, my three siblings and my two children are all TCKs. So this way of being is not strange to me at all. My father left his homeland of India when he was a babe of just six weeks, spent his formative years on army bases in Pakistan, before moving to the UK at age 16. Children that grew up on army bases are typically TCKs, but my father is doubly so by the fact that he grew up with no knowledge of, or connection to, his native community in India, nor did he fully assimilate into Pakistani culture. So he was, to all intents and purposes, culture-less.

Following in his footsteps, although I was born in England, I spent most of my childhood outside of the UK and less than a quarter of my total life there. As a result, it feels quite foreign to me when I am there and I have always found it easier to connect with other expats and TCKs, than with people who are British born and bred.

‘Expatria’ (the imagined shared country of all the world’s expats), has a population of 232 million.

– United Nations statistics

According to the UN, Expatria (the imagined shared country of all the world’s expats), has a population of nearly 250 million. This point – this connection between TCKs, that makes us more similar to each other, irrespective of which passport we hold and where we have grown up – is what makes us a recognized cultural unit in our own right. It makes us a community, and a huge one at that. According to the UN, Expatria (the imagined shared country of all the world’s expats), has a population of nearly 250 million.

More ‘inter’ than ‘national’

But being a TCK is not just about being an expatriate, it’s about being rootless – existing outside of cultures. Being neither from here, nor from there. Being more ‘inter’ than ‘national’; foreigners when abroad, and when at home.

Put simply, if a child (whether they are British, South African, Dutch, Chinese or other) is brought up from a young age in countries such as America, or the UK, India or Australia, he will more than likely assimilate into that culture. He will (probably) go to the same school as the children from that country, probably pick up their accent, definitely pick up their cultural traits and beliefs, and become used to their customs, ways of living and traditions.

However, if that same child was brought up in Singapore, he may learn the language, but he would probably go to an expat school and his mother tongue would remain his first language. He may talk about living in Singapore, but he might never feel like Singapore was his cultural ‘home’.

Third Culture Kids (TCKs), meaning expat children who grow up outside of their parents’ culture, and on the fringes of the culture of their ‘host’ country, have a culture that is shared between other global nomads. Image Credit: Getty images

Shared experiences rather than shared soil

In their book, ‘Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds’, American sociologists David Pollock and Ruth van Reken explain that TCKs are not culture-less, but accustomed to a culture that is based in shared experiences rather than shared soil. Sociologist Ann Baker Cottrell called TCKs ‘global nomads’ and defined them as children who were raised in third cultures – ‘cultures which are created and shared by individuals in the process of relating to different societies’.

As such, our hypothetical expat child above would find he had more in common with a French child growing up in Bangalore, or an Indian child growing up in Dubai, than he did with a French child growing up in France, or an Emirati child growing up in Dubai. They would share the experience of being an expat, the weirdness of not really fitting in at ‘home’ and many other things.

Some TCKs might display an exaggerated patriotism, trying to prove their national identity as much to themselves as to others

– American sociologist and author of ‘Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds’, David Pollock

I’m not suggesting it’s all free-spirited, global-citizen wanderlust. Facing up to the fact that you are an alien in your own country can be hard. According to TCK expert Pollock, some TCKs may fight against this by displaying an exaggerated patriotism, trying to prove their national identity as much to themselves as to others.

Watching just my family alone, I can testify to this. My little sister left to go to boarding school in Surrey at age 15 and returned with the strongest London accent you have heard since you last watched [popular London-based soap opera] East Enders.

Similarly, my nine-year-old son has donned a mad obsession with Chelsea Football Club like a cape. I think it makes him feel like he has a connection to where he comes from. And, like every other culture he visits, British culture is one he will learn about slowly with each visit.

Understanding your child’s third culture

Do TCKs miss out because of this? I guess it depends on your perspective. If you are a ‘first culture’ parent (meaning that you grew up in the country you are from), it may seem strange to you that your child is not. It may feel to you that they are missing out on something, or that there is a piece missing from the jigsaw puzzle of their personality. And you may feel worried, or even guilty, about this.

As a TCK parent myself, I can tell you not to. You are right, your TCKs may grow up without many things that you took for granted – things that perhaps their cousins back home are already experiencing (which may just add to your guilt and worry).

For example, that internal magnet and compass which (eventually) draws some expats ‘home’. Your kids may simply never grow this homing instinct – they may (like me) grow up to be permanent expats, never really feeling the urge or the desire to return back to their home country, or to lay down roots.

Your kids may simply never grow this homing instinct – they may (like me) grow up to be permanent expats, never really feeling the urge or the desire to return back to their home country, or to lay down roots.

– Louisa Kiernander

They may not ever get to know how the landscape in your country changes with the seasons in the same way that their cousins already do. And they may not be growing up with the same childhood memories that you had of your country’s traditions and holidays and foods and festivals.

But they are growing up with other great things. Things which perhaps their cousins may not be privy to (and which maybe you as a child weren’t either): an open mind, a curious heart and respectful tolerance for all cultures.

Third culture kids
Third Culture Kids might miss out on certain aspects of their home culture, but in return they grow up with an open mind, a curious heart and respectful tolerance for all cultures

The benefits of raising a Third Culture Kid

If you are the parent of a TCK, try to look for the positives, rather than the negatives. And have faith in the knowledge that, as your TCK grows older, you will see those positives flourish. Whereas while they are young, you may only see what they are lacking, as they grow older, you’ll be in awe of many of the benefits of being a TCK, such as their independence, their inherent and unforced ability to connect with people from all backgrounds and all walks of life (also known as cultural intelligence) and their fearless, intrepid attitude to travelling.

Because in the same way that understanding a foreign culture is hard until you have experienced it for yourself, understanding your child’s third culture may be hard until you can experience it through their eyes.

Because from the inside, the third culture is not scary, or lonely, or strange. In the same way that you don’t know what it’s like to be from a third culture, they don’t know what it’s like to be from a first, so they don’t miss it.

It’s not that they feel unrooted, or unanchored, or like they are flailing around without an understanding of who they are. It’s just that their perspective of the world is maybe slightly different from yours. And that is OK.

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“Being a third culture kid can be such a wonderful experience, but it can also be a challenge,” says Dr Rose Logan, clinical psychologist at Genesis Healthcare Center. “We tend to see younger children and teens presenting with anxiety around identity and it is easy for hierarchies and bullying to develop between nationalities. Some families maintain a strong connection to their culture, while others become diluted by multiple influences. It can be confusing for children to carve out a secure sense of who they are when there are so many influences, many of them conflicting.

“I also see young adults struggling to adapt to living in their country of origin. They may have been there many times, but Dubai still feels like home. When they head off, usually after high school, they find that their peers have had very different experiences growing up and they don’t feel like they fit in. Outside of pandemic travel restrictions, many of us tend to visit our home countries during the summer, but living there year round is a quite different proposition. Some people manage these transitions with ease but for others it is much harder and can leave them feeling lonely and confused.

“It is important to talk to your children about where they are from and as well as to maintain ties to family, culture and mother tongue where possible. Grounding them in the values of your family that remain constant is a great way to provide security and a compass for them to follow wherever they are. It is also important to talk to them about what a transition back to a country of origin will be like for them when the time comes. For younger children this might be helping them keep a memory box of their home country when they are here, and one for Dubai when they move back. For older children and young adults, I think it is important to help them understand that while they may be moving ‘home’ it might not feel like that. You can help them think about how they might cope with any feelings of homesickness or not fitting in and where they can go to for help.”