Third Culture Kids


What are Third Culture Kids (TCK)?

A Third Culture Kid is a term used to describe a person who grew up outside their own country as an expat. Places such as Hong Kong, Kuwait, Dubai/Abu Dhabi are melting pots for Third Culture Kids.
What makes Third Culture Kids special is their inability to feel at home anywhere they go. They do not understand the concept of ‘home’. This is because they were raised by parents from one country, who moved to a new country which isn’t the same as their original country (confusing I know). The new country is referred to as a host country, and the original country is referred to as the home country, got that? Because it’s about to get a lot more complicated…


Simply moving to a new country and raising kids there does not mean they will become Third Culture Kids. For example, if a pair of British parents moved to the U.S and raised their children there, it’s likely the children would grow up adopting an American culture & identity. Third Culture Kids only appear in places where the difference between host and home cultures are vastly different, the host culture usually being unadoptable leads to a new culture arising, a third culture. What happens in Third Culture Kids prone countries/cities is this third culture is built upon multiple cultures colliding and mixing together. The third culture cannot be found anywhere else in the world, and can adapt very rapidly.

This leads me to my own personal experience…

The good and the bad for young people in Dubai

Growing up in Dubai certainly feels like a unique experience, but it’s also becoming a common one. Over 88% of Dubai’s population is made up of expats. Over 50,000 are American, over 250,000 are British, 300,000 Afghani, 12,000 Australians, 40,000 Canadians, 700,000 Filipinos, 10,000 French, you get the point. There is at least one person from every country on the planet. It truly is an international city. Which is why it’s such a unique experience living and growing up there, you’re constantly surrounded by different nationalities and cultures. This can have a profound effect on children growing up in Dubai, which leads to them becoming Third Culture Kids.

Myself being English, with English parents, from an English town, in England (very English). Always felt torn between my unfamiliar home country and my very familiar host country. I had adopted a mixed culture in Dubai, with friends from many different countries. Words, phrases, and hand gestures which were not native to England had made their way into my daily language. Often upon returning to England, my English friends and family have to ask me what I mean when I use ‘Dubai slang’. I’ve only ever felt 100% comfortable when talking to other people from Dubai. Talking to anyone who isn’t from Dubai feels the same as if you were talking to someone from an entirely different planet. Anyone who has been on holiday to a foreign country knows the feeling, having to speak slightly louder and slower making sure you articulate every word that leaves your mouth, when all you want to do is order a damn coffee – dreading they ask you a question, knowing full and well you can’t handle that pressure. When you have that uncomfortable feeling in your own country you know you have a problem.

This is where growing up as a TCK has its downsides. It’s unlikely you’ll stay in a place like Dubai forever; an expat isn’t a resident, so you can only stay there in a host country as long as you are employed and/or are in education there. For a majority of Third Culture Kids they end up leaving their host country at 18, back to their home country. The issue is; their home country no longer feels like home.

It isn’t all doom and gloom, though. Growing up in Dubai certainly has its advantages. The blend of nationalities and cultures can really develop one’s understanding and tolerance towards foreign people. In Dubai, it’s who you are that matters, not what you are. This can be an enlightening experience, which in a lot of ways opens up a great deal of opportunity to young people who are looking to be successful in life. Dubai is a great encouragement to chase success, and in a lot of ways is the perfect location to ‘climb the ladder’ so-to-speak. Dubai is a city of networking. Knowing the right people can go a long way. In many circumstances, knowing people can be more rewarding than having a university/college degree. So if you grew up there, you know a lot of people… and I mean A LOT. This would greatly improve one’s networking skills and definitely give you a head-start in Dubai.

It’s also the ideal place for those wanting to go from rags-to-riches. I would highly advise entrepreneurs to travel to Dubai, equally, to try their luck there as business owners. In my case, being surrounded by successful people from all over the world, I caught onto the trend myself at a young age. I was always coming up with ways to make money as a kid, from selling sweets, to selling personalized accessories. At 17 I started my own sunglasses business. I owned a business before I even had my first job. However, it doesn’t have to be like that for everyone in Dubai. If being a business owner isn’t your thing, Dubai has now passed a law that allows students to work in Dubai on their education visa. Before this, you had to have a special visa to be allowed to work there. This development is great for students wanting to gain experience or to save money.

But what is Dubai really like?

High lifestyle, high stress, and high temperature.

The lifestyle:
Life in Dubai is what I would call a ‘hyper-social’ society. So if you’re an extroverted person, you’ll love it. Introverts, however, tend to hate the place. This relates back to what I said about Dubai being a networking city. Socialising = Networking. Networking = Success. Simple as that. Drinking at bars, going to restaurants, turning up at house parties, yacht parties, nightclubs, beach raves, concerts, quad biking in the desert, shopping in huge malls, etc etc… Is all part of the lifestyle in Dubai, and it’s not for everyone. It’s easy to fall into a trap of constantly going out and spending money. You end up in an endless cycle of going out, until it becomes a habit, then an addiction. Many people come to Dubai to make some money and save it for retirement, as it’s tax-free income here. In reality, they end up splashing it on their new lifestyle.


This can be quite an unhealthy environment for young people, specifically teenagers. This constant need for stimulation leads to a rise in underage drinking, smoking, and drug abuse. Teenagers become nocturnal in Dubai because of the emphasis on nightlife. They become dependent on being surrounded by friends. The idea of a quiet get-away-holiday sounds like a nightmare to them. This problem is made worse by how easy it is to get hold of things like alcohol and tobacco in Dubai. This I’ll explain below, as it deserves its own title.

Alcohol and Smoking:
To buy booze outside of a hotel, bar, or restaurant, you need a license. To attain a licence you need to be 21 and earn over 7,000dhs a month (roughly £1000 or $2,000), however, this figure tends to change a lot. The problem is, no one in school is 21, nor do they earn 7k a month. This has opened up a black market for booze. Many students buy their booze from what they call ‘The milkman’. The milkman is essentially a guy who will deliver alcohol to you, at anytime, anywhere, and there are A LOT of milkmen. From my own personal experience using a milkman, I’ve deduced that many milkmen work for official, licensed alcohol shops in Dubai. Primarily MMI, Barracuda, and Eastern-African. I came to this conclusion after discovering that my milkman, and many other milkmen, use the same packaging as some of these stores, and also charge the exact same prices as these stores. All the time, every time. These milkmen also sell official brands and tend to stock everything you can imagine. Corona, Absolut,


Heineken, Greygoose, Jack Daniels, the list goes on. A lot of these milkmen even have a call centre! When I call my guy, the pink panther theme song plays while I wait to be spoken to. After I explain what drinks I want, I get patched through to the delivery man who requests either my address or a meet-up location. It’s very professional, and they have a tendency to always turn up in a blacked out SUV.

Tobacco is even easier to get hold of. Officially, you have to be 18 to buy it. But no-one cares, nor does anyone really enforce this. This is mainly because smoking is a big part of Arab culture, many turning to smoking as an alternative to drinking (due to Muslims not being permitted to drink alcohol). Smoking is fine though because “It does not alter the mind” which is the reason booze is banned in their religion. If you ever visit Dubai, you’ll notice that there are Shisha bars everywhere. I guess the Quran doesn’t have a ‘Lung cancer is also bad, don’t do it’ section.


Because of this attitude to smoking, teenagers as young as 13 are buying tobacco from supermarkets. The cashier won’t bat-an-eye if they see a kid add cigarettes to the checkout. Which is obviously, not a good thing. Most teens in Dubai actually smoke what is called ‘dohka’ (pronounced doe-hha). It’s a type of Arabian tobacco, generally less harmful than cigarettes, and comes in multiple flavours and versions. Don’t get me wrong when I say it’s less harmful, at the end of the day, it’s still tobacco which is in no way healthy for you. The difference is that Dohka tends to have less poisonous chemicals in it which cigarette companies always add. Ever wondered how cigarettes can endlessly burn from one light? Surprise, it’s a harmful chemical that will kill you.

Dohka is usually smoked through what is called a ‘medwakh’ (med-wahh). Basically a normal pipe with just a smaller bowl at the end. Dohka tends to provide the user with a short ‘buzz’ feeling. This is why many teens flock to it. Teenagers for centuries have always been chasing highs, and in Dubai, this is their favourite.
If you are raising kids in Dubai, it’s extremely likely they’ll at least try these indulgences, so keep that in mind. Because nine times out of ten, their friends are doing it.

Was it worth it?

At the end of the day, I’m glad I grew up in Dubai. It was a truly special experience that I am grateful for, for the good and the bad. Being a TCK has its ups and downs, but it has provided me with a unique point of view of the world which not many share. My teenage years in Dubai are something I can look back on and smile at, making great stories for the future. I’ve made some amazing memories with friends that will stay with me forever. Where I go from here is a mystery now I’ve reached adulthood. Will I stay in Dubai or move on? I guess we’ll have to see where life takes me next.

By James W. Johnson

If you liked the article you can follow James via Instagram at 45degreesofficial  or  jamesjohnson1414

Been through TCK experiences? Comment below and share.