Third Culture Kids

American on paper but worldly at heart. These are the "hidden" international students at Northwestern. On the surface, Kirstin Nielsen is like any other outgoing Midwestern girl, originally from Chicago.

"But if I say I'm just from Chicago, people have this whole mental image of me. They assume that I've grown up how they have," says the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences freshman. "And that's why I don't feel like I can just leave out the other places where I have lived."

Nielsen has lived in South Korea for nearly the last nine years, attending the Seoul Foreign School. Before that she lived in Sweden and has traveled extensively all over the world.

"I think I'm OK posing myself as an American," says Kahn Fukui. "When I initially talk to someone, they can't really tell I'm international. … If there's nothing to talk about, I'll drop it in."

Fukui, a Weinberg sophomore, has spent his entire life in Japan. Born to an American mother and a Japanese father, Fukui carries dual citizenship.

These well-traveled students such as Fukui and Nielsen aren't recognized as foreign by the Northwestern University International Office. They're known as "third-culture kids," or TCKs, a term coined in the 1960s for a child who spends a significant amount of time outside of his or her birth culture and who often feels lost upon returning "home." These students, who blend elements of their birth culture with life in a foreign land, often feel most at home in their own distinctive "third culture" that they create.

"No one guesses when they look at me," said Cate Whitcomb, assistant to the vice president of student affairs who has studied international student issues. "I just look like this 6-foot-tall white woman. What could be different about her?

"But really, and I've learned to say this, I am from India. I finally came to this definition last spring: It's the only place I can go back to where people knew me when I was a little kid."

Whitcomb is a TCK who didn't realize it until she was an adult. Born to American parents, Whitcomb's entire childhood, from her second birthday to her 18th, was spent in Mussoorie, India, where she attended a boarding school. When she came to the United States for college in the 1960s, she had a tough time reintegrating into a society where she was supposed to belong but didn't.

"They're hidden, TCKs," says Whitcomb. "They look just like regular Americans, and no one ever guesses. It really requires people to sit with people and ask them about their story."

No one knows how many TCKs there are at Northwestern, because the International Office only handles students with student visas. In 2000 Whitcomb did an informal survey, looking for students with different countries listed for their passport country and their permanent address. She found 96 undergraduates and 49 graduate students, and she's certain the number has grown since then.

"Third culture kids have more resources than anyone here," says Jod Taywaditep, a counselor with Northwestern's Counseling and Psychological Services. "They have a lot of life experience, a ton of support and generally speaking, the adjustment is purely cultural. There are no linguistic barriers there."

However, TCKs have an entirely different set of expectations than other international students when it comes to U.S. culture. And it might take a little time to readjust to American life.

For example, during her first quarter at Northwestern, Nielsen was overwhelmed with the variety of food in her dining hall.

"It was really hard to get American food in Korea, and if you did, it was from the army base," she says. "Here, just having 10 choices of apples, it was just kind of crazy for me."

Nielsen also says that the reality of racial cliques in the United States is something she had to get used to.

"I'm used to being around people who are different from me. There weren't really cliques in my high school. You weren't divided by race," she says. "Here, just seeing the Asians hanging out together or the African Americans hanging out together, or the frats and sororities basically based on ethnicity, it's just a different feeling."

Taywaditep says that these perspectives on U.S. culture are not unusual for TCKs.

"They may be critical of the American culture in some ways, and people may think that they're foreign or stuck-up," Taywaditep says. "It's an odd place to be because they're supposed to be comfortable in this culture yet they're not. It's like when people leave home for college and then go back home to their families during breaks. They're supposed to fit in there, but they don't." — S.Y.