THIRD CULTURE KIDS: A third window to the outside world

Globalisation has not only impacted on the economy, but culture and social being of a nation’s population. Globalised children who have blended themselves to the culture of their country of origin and foreign lands are setting a new set of thinking on worldly views. These children have different perspective of life. The multiculturalism embedded in themselves has categorised them into a new breed of individuals in the global sphere. They are labelled as Third Culture Kids (TCKs).

I believe I have the authority to write on this subject matter by the fact that both my daughters – Nadia and Najwa – are in this category. Specifically, both the girls grew up and had a long overseas stint, in fact, more than they lived in Malaysia. 

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YABhg Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Ali, wife of the Prime Minister with the Malaysian TCKs in the mid-1990s


The Wikipedia’s definition of TCKs “…are persons raised in a culture other than their parents’ or the culture of the country named on their passport (where they are legally considered native) for a significant part of their early development years. They are exposed to a greater variety of cultural influences.”

Ruth Useem (1915-2003), an American sociologist, was the first who coined this terminology. She was then studying on the children who followed their parents to live abroad for career purposes, including diplomats. 

Why “third culture”? Useem further explained that it refers to the mixed identity that a child embeds in oneself. The situation arises from the influences both by their parents’ culture and the culture of the location where he/she is raised. 


My family started living overseas when the hubby and I went to study in the UK. Both of us got enrolled into University of Birmingham to further our study in Masters (1990-1992). Nadia was six years old whilst Najwa was four at the time. We returned to Malaysia on completion of our study, but only to leave again in 1993. 

In 1993, the whole family left for New York City when my hubby was posted as the Trade Commissioner of MATRADE. On the other hand, I continued with my Ph.D. study in NYC. We lived in NYC until the end of year 2000.

Nadia and Najwa were with us throughout our overseas stints. They attended the Moor Green School in Birmingham, UK and the United Nations International School (UNIS) in NYC. The multicultural elements the girls have been nurtured with expatriate or foreign students of different cultures have emboldened them. The diversity of cultures of their friends had exposed them to the environment and facts of life of different peoples of the world. 

Daughter Najwa Noharuddin with her UNIS friends in the mid-1990s

What have I as the parent to say about it? Being an observer and writer here, I would like to indulge on the subject of upbringing, specifically on  culture, education and personality. However, I must say that my experiences as a parent to TCKs may vary from other parents.


First, on culture, TCKs have adopted and adapted a blend of cultures – their country of origin and the visiting country. However, don’t be surprised that their many years of absence in their own country make them more unease with the established cultures of their own country. They practically live and breathe in the cultures of foreign lands. This act of them can always be interpreted as arrogance. Whilst the parents  undertake a monumental role in adapting and teaching them about their own country’s cultures, but the influence of their own group of foreign friends could be a challenge to this effort.  

Our Malaysian TCKs performing at one of the Malaysian Permanent Representative  of NY events

My take on this is there is a need for  the establishment of a strong eco-system of one’s own country is crucial to ensure that the TCks understand their own country. Culture and traditions are important. Without them, a nation has a body without a soul. One can be lucky or otherwise in this matter. If you have your own community or group of people in the respective foreign land, the task will be so much easier. 

In my case, for example, a strong Malaysian community of eco-system was already established in NYC. I have to thank the wives of the diplomats and officials living in NYC at the time who made my life so much easier. My two daughters and the other children had many activities associated with the Malaysian cultures. 

Anxiously waiting to perform at the Permanent Representative Office in  NYC 

The children attended Bahasa Melayu class taught by the wives of the Malaysian diplomatic community who were teachers back home. They were  Puan Aishah Ramli, Datin Hasnah Misran, Datin Nurini Mazlan, Datin Azian Najri, Datin Siti Hawa Zulkefli, Puan Faridah Nadzim and Puan Massruhaiza Ali. They organised a Bahasa Melayu class with about 30 children every week at the Malaysian Permanent Representative Office in NYC. My utmost appreciation and gratitude to this group of ladies. Thank you all!

Besides, during the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) annual session, the children would make special performances for the wife of the Prime Minister. Several times they performed the Malaysian cultural dances for YAB Tun Dr Siti Hasmah in NYC. Indirectly, all kinds of activities attended by the children have made them closer, and as such most of them are still in touch until today. 

In my case, my two girls attended the Quran reading class with Faridah Nadzim. In fact, my eldest girl, Nadia, completed her 30 juzukh of Quran reading whilst we were in NYC. Thank you, Kak Faridah!

Based on my experience, I would say that there has to be a consistent effort by the parents and community who are stationed in foreign lands to ensure that their children be linked to the legacies back home. Definitely, it needs a lot of patience for TCKs are normally rebellious when things are imposed on them. Tell me about it! 

Other events that can nurture patriotism and strengthening the nation’s legacies on TCKs are such events related to Malaysia Independence Day, Eid Mubarrak, Chinese New Year and others.   


Due to their nomadic life, TCKs tend to acquire and speak several languages. Since they learn international syllabus, there is an inclination for them to encounter problems in their own domestic education environment. They have flexibility in engaging with heterogenous and multicultural individuals; they might be stifled in communicating in a homogenous surroundings .

 Being a TCK, my daughter, Najwa Noharuddin, has this to say on TCKs. She believes the international exposures with the diversity of cultures have moulded the personality of TCKs. As such, they are able to communicate with many parties and “brave” to give their opinions on issues. Here, I would like to justify that the word “brave” is subjective because it can be interpreted as “outspoken” which is unacceptable to some cultures. It could be read as self-asserting personality by others.

Najwa also thinks that TCKs are likely to continue with their global lifestyle when they become adults. The likelihood is that they would succumb to inter-marriages, marrying individuals outside their culture; she named some of them who grew up with her in NYC who did so (including herself and her sister, Nadia). She says, even if the inter-marriage does not occur, but when TCKs are back living in their home countries, their life partners will also have had international exposures by living abroad.

Our own TCKs

Finally, I am truly glad that despite the many years living overseas, my daughers’ patriotism is indisputable. For them, Malaysia is and will always be their beloved country. To achieve this, it takes a gradual process whilst they were in NYC. Again, I can’t thank enough the Bahasa Melayu teachers in NYC who have nurtured patriotism into my children. Thank you also to the former Ambassadors, Tan Sri Razali Ismail and Tan Sri Hasmy Agam for their continuous support at the time.

Thank you for reading, guys.

Noorul Ainur

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