Expat Essentials

Third Culture Kids are the antidote to the Brexit/Trump madness engulfing the world

In 1999 when we were moving our family to Turkey, so many friends told my wife Cheryl and me they’d love to take an overseas assignment with their multinational corporations, but they wanted their kids to grow up in familiar surroundings.

My response was, “No, you really don’t.” Those friends stayed in their hometowns and still have the same jobs in the same cities doing the same things with the same people. I wish I would have told them what a mistake they were making rationalizing their own inertia by saying they didn’t want to uproot the kids.

My theory is, predictable lives create mediocre people. And there’s a surprising amount of research about Third Culture Kids that backs me up.

Expats are already familiar with the term because they’re raising them. They know Third Culture Kids are the kids who dread the question, “So, where are you from?” Because they might have an American passport, but never have set foot in the United States. They often have parents from different national origins who met at university in a third country, got married in a fourth and relocated to a fifth for career opportunities.

Recently, I read my daily Quartz news digest and it really hit a nerve. It made me immediately think about Third Culture Kids.

In the intro to the news brief, Quartz’s Annalisa Merelli wrote this about the United States and the United Kingdom:

Xenophobia is a composite of two words from ancient Greek, one (φόβος) meaning “fear” and the other (ξένος) “stranger” or “enemy” (or even “guest,” which can also be a way to describe an immigrant). But as we watch these two nations bend over backward in order to keep out a relatively small number of foreigners, even if it harms their own people’s well-being, “fear” does not seem to be the right word.

“Hatred” does. A hatred of the foreigner portrayed as dangerous, ill-intentioned, and undeserving. And not just any foreigner: the poor, the jobless, the non-white. Also the non-Christian: Trump recently tweeted about “prayer rugs” allegedly found at the border — the ultimate sign of its dangerousness.

All that is ironic, given what these governments are hanging themselves up for: a hatred that’s quietly growing so large it’s destroying their stability from within, all for fear of someone coming from the outside to do the same.

Here’s the deal: If Third Culture Kids ruled the world, Donald Trump would never get elected president of anything, and Brexit would never have happened. In the future, they might be the antidote to the global drift toward xenophobic authoritarianism.

Big world, unlimited opportunities

Third Culture Kids are the opposite of the nationalists coming to power from Hungary to London to Washington. They not only understand the world is a big place, they have a little bit of it inside them courtesy of the multiple cultures, languages and globe-trotting upbringing that shaped them.

The anti-immigration, anti-globalization sentiments that have hypnotized the world with slogans such as “America First” and “Make Britain Great Again” make absolutely no sense to them.


Take my daughters Lucy and Lale.

Lucy was born in the States, but went to a daycare where she connected early with caregivers who were from many cultures including Russian Jewish emigres and African-Americans. In 1999, we moved to Turkey when she was 22 months old after I got a job as a military reporter. She grew up going to a Turkish day school where she learned to turn her palms up toward heaven and start reciting the prayers Muslims say before eating. Which was kind of unexpected in an ethnically Jewish family.

Lale was born in 2000 when we lived in Izmir. After Lale turned three, we moved to Baumholder, Germany, where she went to the local German kindergarten run by the Roman Catholic Church. In a few months, she was used to doing everything in German, immersed deep in the culture as she played all day with her schulefreunde.

Both kids lived for 9 years in U.S. Then in 2015, we decided to move back to Europe.


Here in Eindhoven, Lale has evolved into the ultimate Third Culture Kid. She went to an international school with students from maybe 20 different countries including Russia, China, South Korea, India, Malaysia and Singapore.

Her best friends are from … well, it’s difficult to say. What we can say is, they’re better educated and more worldly, adaptable and sophisticated than Lale’s cohort at her school back in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.

Take Maxime. His mother is Belgian and his father is Dutch. They speak to each other in English. But Maxim’s mother speaks to him in French, and his father speaks to him in Dutch. Maxime was born in the U.S., but grew up mostly in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Now he’s going to university in the Netherlands. He speaks English, Dutch, French and some Cantonese though if he has a “first” language, it’s probably Dutch. Or maybe French.

Take Leon, whose parents are of Sri Lankan descent. Leon was born in Malaysia, and spent most of his youth in Malaysia before his family moved to the Netherlands. Technically, Leon is Malaysian, though he, like Lale, has a humanitarian non-temporary residence visa. He speaks Tamil, Malay and English totally fluently.

No borders

In Lale’s world, there are no borders. Lale, Maxime and their Italian friend Dario went to Antwerp for their graduation trip.

On their graduation trip, Leon’s posse – though not Leon – went to at least four countries in East Asia including South Korea, Malaysia and Taiwan.

The limitations that come with borders, xenophobia and judging people by race or ethnicity literally are not in their DNA.

The world’s not threatening, it’s alluring.

Foreigners aren’t threatening. They’re interesting.

The ultimate Third Culture Kid might be Barack Hussein Obama, the son of two college students  – one American, one Kenyan – who met at the University of Hawaii. Obama grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, two rather exotic cultures, and ended up graduating with honors from Harvard Law School.

And, oh yeah, he was elected president of the United States. Twice. So he did okay.

Obama versus Thiel

Being a TCK is no assurance you’ll have Obama’s empathy or tolerance. Take Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire and political libertarian who started with the PayPal Mafia and was an early Facebook investor.

Thiel, who was born in Germany and grew up in South Africa, wrote “The Diversity Myth,” a book challenging the idea that a diverse classroom is beneficial … and arguing that woman selectively decide to remember casual sex as “rape.” He helped elect Donald Trump and stokes the culture wars in the U.S. while marrying his husband in Austria.

But love or hate his views, Thiel is a brilliant person who sees no limits and who’s changed the world with multiple companies including PayPal, Facebook and Palantir, the controversial big-data crunching surveillance firm.

Is it a leap in logic to say Peter Thiel would never have become Peter Thiel if he’d been born in, say, rural Nebraska and never left?

I don’t think so. And there’s ample evidence that even if Third Culture Kids don’t rule the world, they’ll run the world’s largest corporations, which will put them in a position to influence world leaders.

In her doctoral dissertation at Drexel University, “Adult Third Culture Kids: Potential Global Leaders with Global Mindset,” Patricia Stokke asserts third culture kids have a cultural latitude that makes them comfortable managing all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds … and qualifies them to lead multinational corporations through the global talent wars.

As business grows more global, today’s Third Culture Kids will become the visionary leaders we’ve raised them to be and rise to positions of power from Washington D.C. to London to Beijing.

If we get lucky and we raise more Barack Obamas than Peter Thiels, the world will be better for it.

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Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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