Thriving Thursdays: Third Culture Kids: Beyond and Between Borders with Ruth Van Reken

Growing up in different environments among diverse cultures, individuals, and languages has a great impact on people and how they perceive the world. It changes their mindset and personality and facilitates adaptation to diverse cultures and countries. However, it may also lead to certain issues. Being exposed to and growing up in different countries that are culturally diverse from each other can often lead to identity issues. “Who am I? Where do I belong? How can I fit in?” are some of the questions that many Third Culture Kids (TCK) ask themselves.

The term TCK is nowadays still unknown to most people. Raw Culture, in collaboration with SIETAR Austria, aims to spread awareness about individuals who have experienced growing up in different countries and cultures. With the invaluable insights and expertise of TCK professionals, we hope to increase intercultural sensitivity and assist other TCKs who are experiencing hardships trying to fit into a society. Furthermore, with the significant knowledge of experts, we want to create beneficial career choices and facilitate the journey of TCKs.

Ruth Van Reken

One of the most widely known TCK experts is Ruth Van Reken. She is a second-generation Third Culture Kid and was born and raised in Kano, Nigeria. Her father was born and raised in West Iran, whereas her mother was born and grew up in Chicago. At home, she spoke English, however, with her friends she often communicated in Hausa, a Nigerian language. By the age of 13, she moved to the states to live with her aunt and grandmother and attended an American high school. Later in her life, she moved to Liberia with her husband and gave birth to her first child. Her granddaughter was born in Ghana, hence, she had four generations of people in her family born outside of their passport culture.

The years of knowledge, the journeys and the challenges she collected throughout her life as a TCK encouraged her to help others. Hence, she published multiple books intending to spread awareness that there is an incredible world and community that many people belong to. She is the co-author of “Third Culture Kids – Growing up Among World’s – Third Edition”, author of “Letters Never Sent”, and the co-founder and former chairperson of “Families in Global Transition”.

Third Culture Kids (TCK)

The term Third Culture Kid was invented by Doctor Ruth Hill Useem. In the 1950s, she went to India to research different cultures engaging in business together. During her stay, she encountered children and families from the United States who had moved to India. According to Doctor Useem, these American children who had moved from their first culture to a second, the Indian culture, had formed their own subculture in India. It was a subculture between the American and Indian cultures. This is how the term “Third Culture Kids” came into being. David Pollock extended the definition when he went to Kenya in the 1970s.

In compliance with Doctor Pollock, children during the substantial time of their developmental years, specifically their first 18 years, spent this specific period outside of their parents’ culture. These years are essential for developing a sense of identity, language and social skills. This results in a different experience for the children relative to parents who are aware of their origin and identity and explore a different culture at an older age. A traditional TCK is a person who grew up in different cultures and, in many cases, children mix cultures to which they are exposed.

Identity Issues

“I never quite fit in anywhere.” This is a sentence that Ruth has heard throughout her life. As a TCK, it is simple to build bridges with other people and cultures. However, the drawback of living in many cultures is that people never know where they belong. TCK view themselves as different from others, hence, this creates barriers to blending in. For individuals who do not share the same experience as TCKs, it is easier to realise where they come from and what origin and culture they may have. To overcome this challenge of not knowing where one belongs, it is essential to normalise this experience of growing up in different environments and cultures. Ruth stated, “TCK is not my identity but the events that happened to me”, which means that she identifies herself first as a person, like every other human being.

Every person needs relationships, expresses their feelings, has the right to make choices, and so forth. Being a TCK means that you live out of sync relative to how people traditionally tend to do. Therefore, TCK is an experience that makes an impact on an individual’s life, but it is not the only thing that defines a person. When it comes to identity, especially with the current globalisation, it is important to be able to talk about both cultures instead of just one. There are many benefits and challenges resulting from being a Third Culture Kid. Nonetheless, the more we recognize and deal with these challenges and benefits, the freer we become and realise the tremendous skills that we are blessed with. Be who you are without being less.

Re-Entry and Reverse Culture Shock

There are huge differences between being a Third Culture Kid and an adult Third Culture Kid. As Ruth moved to the States at the age of 13, people assumed she was one of them, no one recognized the African part of her. Yet, she knew that she was different from the other children. Most external people do not see who you are underneath. Trying to belong to a certain community of people who have a different background and story was one of the biggest challenges for Ruth. To blend into other host cultures, we often tend to deny our true heritage and identity. Moreover, a child’s experience compared to that of an adult can differ drastically. When she visited her home still as a kid, her whole world had changed. The smell, the trees she used to climb, and many other things felt as if her world was gone. Later in life, when she went back to Africa again, she could feel a sense of home and connection again to her home country.


People need to understand the fullness of life that they have been given and that there are a lot of things not to take for granted because of the opportunities to see the world, having friends of many cultures, being able to speak multiple languages, and being part of something amazing. Being a TCK does not make one more special or better than someone who has only experienced one culture. It is an experience that shapes one’s life and personality and every individual has a different journey, which makes each of them unique. People should not marginalise or categorise themselves into an idealistic model. Belonging to a community delivers a sense of home. Nevertheless, it is not the only part of our lives and certainly not the only thing that defines us or our story. As people, we belong everywhere and nowhere at the same time. 

Final Words:  SIETAR Austria and Raw Culture are grateful to Ruth Van Reken for participating in this journey of spreading awareness of TCK and the importance of cultures with her valuable experience and insights as a second-generation TCK. 

You can find more information about Ruth Van Reken’s work at:

Furthermore, we are grateful to Weirong Li, founder, and CEO of Raw Culture, for working to increase the value of diverse cultures.

References and Sources: 

Information about Ruth Van Reken

YouTube Link to Expert Talk with Ruth Van Reken:

Raw Culture’s Community for TCK:

Cover Image:

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