Third Culture Shock

Just another site


One common theme among TCKs is an intense restlessness or wanderlust that occurs when they’ve been repatriated to their country of origin.  Most people who grew up away from their first culture spent a good deal of time traveling.  One beautiful side effect of being a TCK is that international travel is a normal part of life. How cool is that!

When I moved to Pennsylvania at the age of 17 (somewhere I’d only visited before) I felt this intense need to hop on a plane about every four months.  During my time at boarding school, I would fly from Malaysia to Hong Kong every four or five months for school break. (Mostly on Singapore Airlines which is why I chose to use their picture to illustrate this post).  So…naturally my brain was wired to get up and go somewhere.

Oh the places I’ve been! Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Kenya, Finland, Norway, India (the airport anyway), Luxembourg, Amsterdam (or so I’m told…I was an infant), Russia…at the age of 12 my journey took me on the Trans Siberian Railway from Hong Kong to Finland with stops all along the way.

And then…bam! It all stopped.  Between the ages of 21 and 35 I took ONE trip requiring me to hop on a plane. ONE!  And it was only across the United States to California.  Nothing fancy. 

When I sat down and thought about the reality of that…I felt very stuck.  I felt pretty lonely.  I felt like somehow I’d failed to accomplish the things I always wanted to do.  I couldn’t believe I hadn’t taken my kids out of the country to see the world.  I almost started to itch. 

I am so very blessed to have been giving the experience of travel in the way that I was.  When I tell my children that I got to go to Thailand for family vacations, they look at me with such expressions of confusion…their best trip was Ocean City, New Jersey for crying out loud!  In no way can I complain about the wonderfulness of the chance to be a world traveller.  Except for the fact that I didn’t see much of the country I’m now supposed to call “Home” and that sets me down square in the middle of odd-man-out among my neighbors.

The ingrained restlessness of TCKs manifests itself in a few ways.  Among the people I know intimately or that grew up in a similar situation as mine, I have seen the following situations rise up as a result of that wanderlust. (And we’ll be delving deeper into this in the months to come I’m sure).

  • Many of my friends have found careers that require extensive travel abroad.  Perhaps they didn’t seek that consciously but it happened nonetheless.
  • Many have married someone from another country which enabled them to either relocate permanently or do a fair amount of travel.
  • Quite a number of my MK/boarding school friends have returned to the scene of the crime, so to speak, and are working at that same school or one similar. 
  • Others have followed in the footsteps of their parents and become missionaries to other countries.
  • Some struggle with profound depression because their life track has not allowed them to explore the world.
  • A few people have abandoned marriages and families and just “taken off” for whirlwind trips to get the wanderlust out of their system.

In my own life I’ve experienced an intense sadness at not being able to travel.  So, instead of jet-setting all over the globe,  I moved to a new home at least once a year during the first 7 years I lived independent of my parents.  My reasons were usually financial, at least that’s what I said out loud.  The reality is that I was bored and needed a new view.  And to this day I constantly re-arrange furniture or try to change how my surroundings look.

The frequency of this restlessness has diminished for me but when it rears up it is often so intense I just want to get in the car and drive and drive and drive and drive for endless hours.  Not to escape anything…rather to see something different through the window.  It is impossible to explain that to my husband and children because they just don’t “get it.”  Their first thought naturally is that I’m trying to get away from them.  While sometimes that’s true (and what honest mother hasn’t felt that huh?!) the fact is that more often I just need a little trip.

Now my goal is to see as much of North America as possible.  I’d like to be able to at least show my children a bit more of their culture.

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” -Robert Louis Stevenson

September 19, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. OMG i thought i was the only one who felt this way! i can so totally relate with all u wrote, especially the “re-arranging funitures” and just feeling the need to go somewhere or travel. i always have my bags packed, cant seem to just settle down. i cant help the feeling.

    my dad was a diplomat. i was born in the states, then moved to Gabon after 4 years, then to Venezuela after 2 years, then back “home” to Nigeria. but i still traveled back and forth to the States for my medical check-ups.

    now 25 years later, (i’m 34 years old now) i still dont feel settled, still single, theres still that culture shock & i have tried for the past 10 years to get a job that’ll enable me to resume travelling or relocate back out there.

    i really appreciate ur articles. i feel i’m not alone in this. it feels good to know there are folks out there who get it! thanks again 🙂

    Comment by halima | January 18, 2014 | Reply

  2. Let mr think. Since leaving Malaysia the same time as you, I’ve ended up living in England (on and off) three times, with stints in the US and Greece. Then the wanderlust kicked in, and I ended up working for British Airways. Now I’m living upside down in Western Australia. You guys are never far from my thoughts.

    Comment by Ambo Dave | September 20, 2010 | Reply

  3. I TOTALLY get this! Good for you for writing, venting and sharing. If it’s any consolation, you are most definitely not alone. I’ve just recently started finding wonderful TCK support networks and wish I had known about these when I was repatriating from Tokyo to northern Indiana 25 years ago. Needless to say, it wasn’t a very good transition………
    Keep writing!

    Comment by Amya | September 20, 2010 | Reply

  4. The second I read your definition of TCK I identified. I was one of the few kids at my international school that was there from K-12. That simply meant a revolving door of friends every year. I count myself very lucky to have been exposed to so many different cultures. I find that even now as an adult I gravitate towards “the internationals” and there is nothing I like more than getting on a plane and taking off for a new adventure, even if it is to a city an hour away.

    I can’t imagine life without wonderlust!

    Comment by CMG | September 20, 2010 | Reply

  5. great to see you start this… i have often thought of writing about my own experience… more just to try and figure it out for myself, but it never lasts. i get distracted by something or another and just keep moving on. i have gone to one end of the extreme… racking up gold card memberships on several different airlines due to my frequent long haul travel around and around this planet… however, i know other TCKs who havent’ been on a plane in years… some like it, other not so much I guess. the travel that is typical of our childhood soemtimes brings about the desire to settle/’have roots’ and to just stay put, but others wish for continued travel/change for all sorts of different reasons.
    I go back and forth. somedays I hate the travel and wonder if it will ever stop. wonder if i will ever have a place I can call home for more than the short-term. wonder if I will ever see myself growing old in a particular place. wonder if I will ever be able to say that I will be in the same country… or on the same continent.. next year!
    Sometimes I just wish for a ‘normal’ life. not sure what that is exactly, and if I would want it if i had it.. but still.
    other times I am so thankful for the whole TCK experience and the doors that it has opened up for me, the skills I learned, and the amazing people that I have been able to meet all over the world… I have learned so much from them. i would never have had those opportunities if I hadn’t felt free and comfortable with bouncing around this planet.
    so, for now, I will keep bouncing – guess cuz it’s what I know!

    Comment by Miriam | September 20, 2010 | Reply

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