Cactus Garden at the Getty


July 1, 2020

Third Culture Kids During Quarantine: Adaptability and Purpose

Who are third culture kids, and what helps them adapt and find purpose?

Photo by: Esther Tan

With globalization, there has been a sharp increase in the number of people who live cross-culturally. As the internet and technological advances become more and more pervasive in the world today, more people are not only living in and among various cultures, but they are also becoming increasingly mobile—whether within their own countries or internationally. Therefore, many populations with people who have lived such experiences have emerged. A particularly special subgroup with a cross-cultural and mobile childhood is the Third Culture Kids.

Who are Third Culture Kids/Adults?

  • A traditional Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who spends a significant part of his or her first 18 years of life accompanying a parent(s) into a country or various countries that is/are different from at least one parent’s home country due to the parent’s choice of work or advanced training1, first introduced by Useem2.
  • TCKs are traditionally Missionary Kids, Military Kids, Business Kids, or Foreign Service Kids who were sometimes referred to as “global nomads.”
  • Third culture is an interstitial culture that has emerged from the interactions of several cultures, but is not merely a sum of its parts.
  • Growing up with mobile, cross-cultural experiences, a TCK “builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any”. Hence, they often struggle with a lack of sense of belonging, rootlessness, separation and grief1.
  • It is an important minority group that is quickly and increasingly becoming a norm. Some people have referred to TCKs, as the prototype citizen of the future1. We are surrounded with kids and adults in our schools, communities, and workplaces who have navigated through different cultures or mobility in their lives.
  • A Third Culture Adult (TCA) is a person who has moved across countries and cross-culturally, but after the age of 18 (e.g. parents of TCKs).

Interviewing an adult TCK about his quarantine experience

Courtesy of Rene Velarde

I had the pleasure of interviewing Rene Velarde, a TCK, on what has been challenging and easy in his quarantine experience. As I connected with Rene over the months, I observed how he struggled, especially as an extrovert, with losing his anchoring rituals of connecting with community. I also observed how his TCK instincts kicked in steadily and he went in survival mode. In fact, they worked so well that, in spite of the disappointment and struggles during this period, Rene’s focus on his purpose in life helped him to keep sight of his cultural values and long-term vision. He accomplished a huge milestone by fulfilling his deep desire and life goal of buying a home that he will share with his parents and wife. All this was accomplished within a short two months while doing full-time graduate school—during a pandemic!

Esther Tan (ET): Rene is a graduate student of the Master of Arts in Intercultural Studies who is pursuing his PhD in the coming year. He is a Mexican-American who has navigated back and forth through two different countries/cultures significantly during his childhood, and then later moved between the east and west coasts of America before finally deciding to choose to go against his pattern of moving and settle down by securing a home in the middle of this pandemic. Hi Rene, thank you for your generosity to share about your unique experience during quarantine. During this period of COVID-19, what has been easy and/or difficult for you as a TCK?

Rene Velarde (RV): Being a child of Mexican immigrants, I’m realizing a lifetime of TCK experiences make COVID-19 realities both easier and more difficult.

ET: Ah…Why is that so?

RV: It’s easier because I’m already used to ‘finding a new normal’ since I’ve moved 17 times throughout my life. I’ve learned how to start over many times before, and so ‘starting over’ during quarantine is initially easy. I adapt quickly and find the new ‘normal’ well. Additionally, I have the ‘change in order to survive bias’ that I think TCKs develop from moving so frequently. What I’m also realizing, though, is I’m not used to such extreme rigidity. Quarantine is a disruption to freedoms. Overall, more is lost than is gained. This makes the freedom/agile side of the TCK experience feel constrained. The loss of an agile lifestyle feels like a loss of ‘a fluid-normality.’ 

ET: Wow, 17 times! That’s a lot of experience with transitions and disruptions. It is indeed true that this period of staying-home is a huge disruption to freedom and a season of losses. What did you do, then, to help yourself get through this rigid COVID-19 period? What worked well for you?

RV: What’s getting me through this is believing 1) either the restrictions will go away (though I stopped hoping for this with news of the ongoing lockdowns), or 2) I can change my mental state of being. I wrestle with my thoughts and tell myself that as difficult as it may be, it is easier to change my state of being than change the state of the world. So, I try my best to adjust enough (within what I can control) to feel empowered. So now, I’m exercising at home instead of waiting for the gym to reopen. I changed my schoolwork routine—I ‘work’ from the bedroom and am ‘off-the-clock’ when I’m outside that room. Deciding what and how to change is a familiar feeling to the constant changes of a TCK experience. I am changing what I can to feel in control and protect myself from ‘horrible-izing’ the situation around me. These ‘micro-changes’ of mental focus help me intentionally steer (and redirect) where my mind goes.

The daily moments of intentional reflection help me the most. At some point, I can’t rearrange something, or the news outside states that the virus is getting worse. Anxiety, stress, and panic creep in. In these moments, I usually speak to myself over and over, “I will be okay,” “I’m not going to die from this,” “I will survive,” and I repeat silently, “Holy Spirit, give me peace.” This works to help my mental health.

In short, I’m a TCK that is trying to adjust and find new ways of being happy now that I’m alone more often and can do very little to do anything about it. Finding smaller, more ‘localized freedom’ is gold. Quarantine is amplifying what I’m afraid of; and when I can’t ‘run away,’ I have to face my fears and decide what to do as a response. This realization is empowering and liberating. Ultimately I choose how empowered I am in my reaction to whatever is in front of me—even if I can’t make what’s in front of me go away. I can choose to listen to the voices that paint a catastrophic narrative, or can I choose to silence them, reflect on biblical truth, and believe life is still possible, even here, in this reality.

ET: Thank you so much Rene, for sharing your honest struggles, which articulates a lot about what many of us are facing but may not have as much courage to share with such transparency and clarity. Thank you for putting our experiences into words, and for giving hope with your creative ways of how we could gain internal control again as we empower ourselves, despite isolation and unanticipated circumstances. Thank you very much for your time.


How many people can stay opportunistic and focused in times like this? Although Rene attributed it to his friends and the God he anchors in, I learned a lesson from a TCK here. I saw how they could quickly adapt and find a comfortable way to live though a challenge, while staying steadfast to their vision and purposes. Somehow, their adaptability and resilience in not allowing disruptions to distract them from things that they deeply value in life, comes through. I am deeply encouraged by his story.


1. Pollock, D.C, Van Reken, R and Pollock, M.V. (2017a). Third Culture Kids: Growing up among worlds. (Third ed.). Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

2. Useem, J., Useem, R., & Donoghue, J. (1963). Men in the middle of the third culture: The roles of American and non-western people in cross-cultural administration. Human Organization, 22(3), 169-179.

3. Davis, P., Suarez, E., Crawford, N., & Rehfuss, M. (2013). Reentry program impact on missionary kid depression, anxiety, and stress: A three-year study. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 41(2), 128-140. doi:10.1177/009164711304100203

4. Hervey, E. (2009). Cultural transitions during childhood and adjustment to college. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 28(1), 3-12.

5. Moore, A., & Barker, G. (2012). Confused or multicultural: Third culture individuals’ cultural identity. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 36(4), 553-562. doi:10.1016/j.ijintrel.2011.11.002


Continue Exploring

Mentor speaking to adolescent


9 Principles of Effective Youth Service Organization


Adolescents and Spirituality: How Transcendent Experiences can Create Resilient Teens



Helping Youth Rediscover Joy (Part 2): Vocation and Spirituality

    You Got It!