Particle Physics Finally Explains Third Culture Kids!


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

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Elizabeth Trotter

Elizabeth lived in Southeast Asia for 8 years and fell in love. Then covid happened and brought her back to the States, where she is currently figuring out how to do life in America again. Before moving to Asia, Elizabeth worked in youth ministry for ten years. She and her husband co-wrote "Serving Well: Help for the Wannabe, Newbie, or Weary Cross-cultural Christian Worker." Find her on the web at

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