Third Culture representation in Media
What does it mean to be a bit from everywhere and
nowhere at once?
With the boom in globalization, there has been an increase in what we call “Third Culture Kids” - A term coined by US sociologist Ruth Hill Useem in 1950 when she lived with her children in India (source: BBC). These are the kids of expatriate workers who spend their formative years living between various cultures, and lead private, nomadic lives.
As TCKs move through different cultures, languages, and festivals, they grow up to have diverse interests, and are oftentimes highly empathic. At the same time, a singular cultural identity sometimes leads them to feel a profound loss of community.
Written by Sneha Nair
Designed by Yash Saxena
But, who are Third Culture Kids?
Third culture kids (TCK) are kids born to parents from different ethnicities while living in foreign lands. They move around quite frequently, and from very young ages as well. According to Third Culture Global: 4.5 is the average age of a TCKs first move and 4 is the average number of cities lived in.
It’s hard to identify the exact number of third culture kids around the globe, but according to the TED talk “Where is Home?” by author Pico Iyer, the estimated number is approximately 220 million, and growing! A 2011 online survey by Denizen, a publication targeting TCKs, found that most Third Culture Kids first moved before the age of nine, and 85% spoke two or more languages.
The term is dubbed ‘third culture’ because these kids take on three cultures.
The culture of their parents.
Culture of the land they are born in.
And, the culture of the lifestyle they lead, shared with other TCKs and expatriates, and migrants.
Perhaps because this life is characteristically slippery, it struggles to become clearly defined in popular media or even in fictional stories. Rarely do we see films that tell the stories of the worlds these kids live in, the different identities they have, and the different experiences they go through.
Life as a TCK can create feelings of restlessness, anxiety, stress, displacement, and a struggle with personal identity.
Most films don’t depict a TCK’s life but manage to capture the same feelings of a struggle with identity that TCKs and immigrants go through.
Elio Perlman (Timothee Chalamet) in Call Me By Your Name (2017) directed by Luca Guadagnino is a boy stuck between the United States and Italy. His placement was dictated by his father’s job: a University professor. He is trilingual, switching between French, English, and Italian with an ease that many TCKs would relate to. Elio expresses different identities throughout the movie, his American one and his Italian one, but sometimes we see loneliness, an estrangement (source: NY Times). It is in those scenes that we see how the film has captured Elio’s abundance of culture is actually a lack of a singular cultural identity.
Like the animated movie, Turning Red (2022) directed by Domee Shi. The film is about a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian Meilin’s (Rosalie Chiang) struggle of identity between being her mother’s obedient daughter and being a 13-year-old teen in Toronto. The film captures Meilin’s experience of growing up with two different cultures and her struggle to balance both. We see a constant conflict in Meilin to choose between the identity her mother wants her to have and the identity that her friends seem to possess. This movie perfectly depicts the struggles of a child coming from a huge Chinese community in Toronto.
Lion (2016) directed by Garth Davis tells the true story of Saroo Brierley’s (Dev Patel) search for his birth parents after accidentally getting separated from them at the age of 5 and then being adopted by Australian parents. Lion captures the difficulty TCKs face in trying to connect with the land they are in. Saroo feels a loss of identity and a loss of belonging.
Mainstream media has also attempted to represent this struggle of identity with a show like Never Have I Ever (2020). Created by Mindy Kaling, the series attempts to show Devi’s (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) struggle between balancing her Indian “morals” and traditions while attending high school in America. But the show falls short of dwelling on the nuances of being an immigrant, by largely catering to a white audience.
The pluralistic lifestyle that exposes TCKs to different cultures, and religions often leaves them struggling to form their own belief system. A look at the Emmy award-winning TV show Ramy (2019) about a first-generation American-Muslim as he navigates life as an Egyptian-American in New Jersey, mirrors this aspect when we see Ramy come to terms with his own faith in a foreign country.
Third Culture life in media is also used synonymously with wealth and privilege, giving the idea that TCKs are snobbish, entitled kids. Like in the Netflix show, YOU (2018) where the character Blythe (Hari Nef) is a third culture poet who grew up around the world, is multilingual, and most importantly looks down on anyone she thinks comes from a small town.
Finding their identity in today’s digital age
As a global nomadic community, a TCK may find the advantage of Web 2.0 media, to feel connected, and build their sense of community.
The digitization of technology allows TCKs to maintain connections around the world with greater ease than ever before (source: LinkedIn). Many TCKs have spoken about how social media has given them the means to put a name to their identity. Like the website Third Culture Kid Global- a space dedicated to sharing the experience of being a TCK. Through their social media handles, they connect the Global TCK community with each other and aim to spread awareness of the TCK life through their stories.
Transition programs have been developed and implemented by some international schools to assist students living in a third culture; however, support and specialized TCKs’ programs that address transition, identity, and emotional issues continue to be largely unavailable.
A Third Culture Kid’s struggles with identity are not isolated to their community alone. A family forced to leave their home country, a child living away from home, or the racism and loneliness that one feels in a foreign country are collective experiences that immigrants feel. This is why it makes it so important for authentic media representation that makes a person feel seen. Media, film, and television exposes viewers to a life or experiences that may not be their own, which makes them sensitive to other people’s realities. This is especially true for a Third Culture Kid, who understands different lives, and cultures, but can find no relatability in media to their own narratives.
So how do TCK’s cope with this ambiguous loss of identity, and place themselves in a community in today’s day and age?