Particle Physics Finally Explains Third Culture Kids!

by Elizabeth Trotter on August 23, 2015


Some of you know I’m a science lover. Our friends back in the States know this too, and a couple times a year they send us a package with their old science magazines (along with other treats). I love Magazine Arrival Day.

Earlier this year I cracked open the September 2014 issue of Discover magazine and read about neutrinos – tiny, subatomic particles I don’t even pretend to understand. I’m a chemist, for goodness sake, not a physicist. My scientific understanding only goes down as small as protons and electrons, and not a quark smaller. Neutrinos are smaller than that, and also, extremely secretive.

As I read (largely uncomprehendingly) through the article, one particular section caught my attention, and I paused. Are we sure we’re talking about tiny subatomic particles here?? Because to me, this paragraph sounded more like the description of a fellow Third Culture Kid than anything else. Or, to enlarge the conversation a bit, it sounded like a Cross Cultural Kid (CCK) or Third Culture Adult (TCA) — terms I first read about in Lois Bushong’s insanely helpful Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere.

Check it out:

Neutrinos are notorious shape-shifters. Each one is born as one of three types, or flavors – electron, muon, and tau – but they can change flavors in a few thousandths of a second as they travel, as if they can’t make up their mind what to be. Neutrinos, like other subatomic particles, sometimes behave like waves. But as the neutrino travels, the flavor waves combine in different ways. Sometimes the combination forms what is mostly an electron neutrino and sometimes mostly a muon neutrino. Because neutrinos are quantum particles, and by definition weird, they are not one single flavor at a time, but rather always a mixture of flavors. On the very, very rare occasion that a neutrino interacts with another particle, if the reaction appears to produce an electron, then the neutrino was an electron flavor in its final moments; if it produces a muon, the neutrino was muon-flavored. It’s as if the shy neutrino’s identity crisis can only be resolved when it finally interacts with another particle.

So let’s break that down a bit and see if we can find any similarities:

  1. Neutrinos are shape-shifters. Or, as the TCK literature says, we are “cultural chameleons” who can shift between cultures and adapt to new ones more easily.
  2. Neutrinos can change flavors as they travel, as if they can’t make up their mind what to be. Again the chameleon quality is shining through. TCKs may have divided loyalties, and we might not want to choose one culture over another.
  3. Neutrinos are quantum particles and by definition, weird. TCKs often feel different from other people – “weird,” if you will. (And for me, that differentness has sometimes left me feeling lonely.)
  4. Neutrinos are not one single flavor at a time, but rather always a mixture of flavors. Likewise, TCKs aren’t one single culture or flavor; we’re a mixture.
  5. It’s as if the neutrino’s identity crisis can only be resolved when it interacts with another particle. Not only do we often struggle with identity crises – who am I?? – but TCKs can also be so good at adapting that we take on the culture of whatever people we most recently interacted with.


If you’re a TCK (or you love someone who is), did you find yourself or your loved one in any of these descriptions of the neutrino? Or am I just plain crazy to see this metaphor??

Do you have any other TCK metaphors? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!


for a more contemplative TCK metaphor, click here

article and photo credit

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About Elizabeth Trotter

Elizabeth loves life in Southeast Asia, something she never imagined was possible. Before moving to Asia with her husband and four children in 2012, Elizabeth worked in youth ministry for ten years. She loves math, science, all things Jane Austen, and eating hummus by the spoonful. Find her on the web at and on Facebook at trotters41.
  • Laura

    I love this article! I grew up in the US and moved abroad at 16. Went to college and then moved abroad for several years again. I definitely relate to this (I never considered myself a TCK since I moved later but recently I have started identifying as a late blooming TCK)! I am not sure what I am or what to choose and almost always end up taking on whatever culture I’m surrounded by (even though I never quite fit ha!)

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Oh with that description, I can see how you really related to the neutrino!

      I really like how the TCK experts have now coined new, more inclusive, terms like Cross Cultural Kid and Third Culture Adult, so that people who might not consider themselves TCKs can still find explanations for the way they are. I’m pretty passionate about that because I never thought I “qualified” as a TCK either, because it was military and not missions, and ended when I was in middle school. But so much in the TCK literature explains so much about my life that I just want everyone to find the same freedom I found when a counselor validated my experiences.

      So with that said, I just want to affirm that YES, you are a TCK, and it’s totally ok to admit that to yourself and to others 🙂 You are part of a tribe of people across the globe who often feel they belong both everywhere and nowhere at the same time. I hope you find freedom and release in saying and admitting these things.

      Blessings wherever you find yourself in the world today.

  • Kenelena Orozco

    Loved the article! I’m a TCK raising three more. One metaphor that my TCK nephews (living in Asia) taught me is this: Eggs and bananas. Eggs are white on the outside and yellow on the inside (Causanians born or raised in Asia). Bananas are yellow on the outside and white on the inside (Asians born or raised with American influence). Still trying to find a comparison for someone like me who is white on the outside and chocolate brown on the inside (North American raised among indigenous Central Americans).

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Glad you liked it! It’s kind of a quirky idea, so thanks for playing along with me 🙂

      I’ve heard about eggs, but never about bananas, so thanks for sharing that! I love how talking about BOTH eggs and bananas shows that all cultures can bleed into one another; it’s not just a one-way street.

      And I hope you do find an analogy for your white-outside-chocolate-brown-inside TCK childhood in Central America. Let me know if you do!

      Blessings on your TCK heart as you raise your own TCKs.

    • V O

      White chocolate covered coffee beans!

      • Kenelena Orozco

        I love It! Thanks for sharing!

  • Pingback: On Welcoming the Third Culture Kid | Communicating.Across.Boundaries()

  • rjcoatney

    I’ve never been sure what to consider myself. As a child of the airline industry, I moved around the U.S.from the west coast to the east coast. At age 13, I moved to Puerto Rico for a year and then back to the Pacific Northwest. Three years later, another move, only this time I end up in Kenya for my Senior year of high school! At first I was devastated, but I really came to love the country. After graduation I joined the rest of my family in Zaire as I prepared to go to Spain for my first year of college. I returned to Zaire afterwards for about six months, at which time I returned Stateside for my second year of college. Ten years, one husband and two children later, I ended up spending two years in Germany.
    Yes, I am very adaptable to my situation and I appreciate all of the opportunities my living abroad offered me. However, sometimes I feel like I am not where I am supposed to be. It’s really hard to explain, especially to folks who have never lived anywhere other than the place they were born. Thanks for your understanding.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      You are quite the experienced global traveler! Wow that was a lot of moves. And yes, if you’re looking for labels, you would be a TCK. 🙂 Sometimes people like labels, sometimes they don’t. What matters isn’t really the label, but the stories and emotions behind the label. And for all your varied experiences, I’m sure you have many stories to tell. It is my hope and wish for you that you would have safe people to tell your stories to, people who will listen first before speaking.

      Have you ever been to Marilyn Gardner’s site ? A huge chunk of her readership are adult TCKs (of all faiths). She’s very gifted at reaching out to global nomads like yourself and entering into conversation with them. I think you could find an online “home” there.

      Blessings as you continue your journey.

  • rjcoatney

    Thank you for your insight. Sometimes it takes an outside person to give us a new perspective. I don’t necessarily care about labels other than to find out how and where I fit, something I believe everyone wants to know and understand no matter where they live. My mother used to write carbon-copy letters to the extended family with personal notes at the end. Mom died three and a half years ago so Dad downsized to an apartment. Going through some of Mom’s files, my sister found several years worth of those letters, including letters she’d sent to her own mother and aunts. All of those letters have now been compiled and transcribed onto a CD and each of us “kids” will receive a copy after Dad passes, probably before Christmas.

    I have heard of the website but had not checked it out. I have now and am very glad I have. ? Thanks again and may God bless you and your ministry.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      What a precious gift to be able to read your mother’s words so many years later! I know what a gift that is because both my husband’s parents are dead, but many of the memories were recorded in a book of letters (that friends sent them after the funeral). So I’m especially thankful you have this written record from your mom.

      God bless you with healing tears when you read them.

  • Anna Wegner

    Great analogy. 🙂 I’m not a TCK, but have realized that I moved somewhat between cultures in the US, which was similar in small ways. I think it helped me be able to adapt more easily. Now I’m raising 3 TCKs of my own and learning from them and from others who have “been there, done that.”

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Anything in our past that helps us with our kids is a good thing, I say. 🙂 So glad you have that experience to draw from with your own kids.

      And there are definitely different cultures in the U.S.!

  • Ruthie

    All 5 of my children are TCK’s, but… in a strange way! The oldest 4 lived in Europe when they were young… then back to the US. Then, the youngest 3 lived in SE Asia. So, the middle 2 lived in 3 countries while growing up… and the oldest 2 and the youngest 1 only lived in 2 countries. Crazy, huh?! That’s what I get for have a 15 year spread between my children. Anyway, loved your article and I will be sharing it with all 5 of my kids! 🙂

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Wow that’s a lot of variety in experiences, Ruthie! I’m so glad you loved this and am hoping it will spark some really good conversations with your kids. 🙂


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