Identity with Ruth Useem – Djibouti Jones

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Have you ever wondered about the history of the term “Third Culture Kid?”  Learn more about the woman behind the term by heading to Djibouti Jones to read the third part of the series by Paul Asbury Seaman – Our Tribal Elders. I have included an excerpt from the piece Our Tribal Elders, Identity with Ruth Useem.


Anyone who has read Letters Never Sent, or one of the many other TCK memoirs and anthologies, understands the power of naming things. It is one of the most potent aspects of religion. Naming something puts a border around it; makes it less scary, easier to manage. And it tells us who we are. Ruth Hill Useem was the first one to name us. Moving clockwise around the medicine wheel, the second quadrant is the South, where we grow into and affirm our individuality, a place of clarity and a sense of purpose—where we begin to recognize our potential.

Dr. Useem was a sociologist at Michigan State University. From 1952 to 1985 she studied expatriate communities, overseas schools, and the discrete subcultures of organizations working abroad, including the military, religious missions, diplomatic services, private businesses, and nonprofit agencies. Her later work focused on the impact of living abroad on minor dependents and eventually took her to seventy-six countries.

The first cross-cultural research conducted by Useem, and her husband John, had been on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota.[i] They wanted to explore the psycho-social dynamics of people (such as health care workers, educators, and government officials) who move temporarily across cultural borders for organizational reasons. Ten years later (in 1952), now with three children in tow, the Useems went to India with similar questions about people who had gone to a Western country for their higher education.

The Useems made a second, year-long trip to India in 1958, this time to study American expatriates working there. What they discovered was that these families, businesses, embassies, international schools, military commissaries, and mission compounds all developed patterns of interaction with their host country that were distinct, patterns that incorporated elements of both the home culture and the host culture into what the Useems called a “Third Culture.” While compiling their observations over the next few years, Ruth coined the term “Third Culture Kids” to refer to the children who grow up in such an environment. Her findings have been confirmed and elaborated on by many others and do not need to be summarized again here.[ii]

Read the rest of the essay here Our Tribal Elders, Identity with Ruth Useem

What do you think about naming things? I talk in Between Worlds about the “edenic characteristic” of a name. Does the term “Third Culture Kid” frustrate you or give you a context?  

“And then someone invented a name, a name with a thousand meanings and memories. We became third culture kids. And we learned that we were not alone, that there were so many like us. We learned it was okay to have a name. It did not label us as an infection; it gave credibility to who we were and how we had lived. We were real. We could relax and begin to thrive. We had a place and we had a name — those Edenic characteristics applauded by God in the Garden so long ago. With a name we could grow into the people God intended us to be. And so we did” © Doorlight Publications July 2014; Between Worlds, Essays on Culture and Belonging Page 46