The Evolution of the TCK - Stage Three: The Hidden Immigrant

Category: Third Culture Kids

A few weeks ago I began a short series on the behavioral evolution of the Third Culture Kid. The first of the four stages is the Cultural Sponge. This is the initial phase of Third Culture Kid development that ushers in cultural learning and begins the etching of what is normal in the TCK’s growing up experience. In stage two, we talked about the Cultural Chameleon, the essence of this stage being cultural adaptation combined with developing personal patterns of transition as well self-awareness and self-preservation in the midst of his changing worlds.

Today I would like to explore with you the third stage of “The Evolution of the TCK”.

Stage Three: The Hidden Immigrant

At some point, our Third Culture Kid returns to his/her passport country. This event ushers in the third stage.

DSC_0873It has been my experience in the 25+ years of working with Third Culture Kids that the Hidden Immigrant stage is the most difficult and painful part of the evolutionary journey. The TCK returns to his passport country and sees people who look like him, speak the same language, dress like him but at the same time they are nothing like him. Interests are different, experiences rarely intersect and neither the Third Culture Kid nor the Mono-Cultural Kid find much to say to each other.

Unknowingly, they have embarked on a cross-cultural situation. But this is a cross-cultural experience like no other. Prior to this stage most cross-cultural encounters have been obvious. It may be skin color, language, clothing, etc. that set the TCK apart from the mono-culturals around him. But when the TCK returns to his passport culture most of the differences are beneath the surface and are rarely seen. But when they are, they are often looked at as strange quirks at best at worst socially slow or under developed. In either case, the child is known not as a TCK but rather a person who is socially out of step.

During this stage many TCKs begin to question their identity and to wonder where if anywhere they belong. It is not surprising to see TCKs embrace the TCK label at this stage when they may have disregarded it before returning to their passport country. Why? Because for many TCKs this is the first time they have spent a prolonged period of time in their passport country.  It is no longer a holiday place…they live there.  For the first time, reality hits that citizenship and cultural belonging are not the same.

Potential pitfalls during the Hidden Immigrant stage:

  1. Deep loneliness
  2. Being trapped in the past
  3. Overly critical of the passport country
  4. Habitual anger and bitterness
  5. Depression


It is true that most of these 5 issues may happen during the early part of the Hidden Immigrant stage and must be worked through, but it can become unhealthy and potentially dangerous if any of these become a permanent feature in the TCK’s life.

TCKs, ATCKs, parents, caregivers - I'd really love to hear from you. Do you remember yourself being in this Hidden Immigrant stage? What are some of your memories from that stage? Do the potential pitfalls above ring true to you? If so, which are/were some of the hardest to overcome? What advice would you give to other Third Culture Kids in this stage?

Stay tuned for Stage Four in this series: The Trans-Nationalist!

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Photos used with permission.
Red windows, courtesy of GypsyMe.

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