What is a TCK?

Railroad Tracks

 “A third culture kid is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture. The third culture kid builds relationships to all the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the third culture kid’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of the same background, other TCKs.” – Van Reken/Pollock.

What is a TCK?

In the 1950s, Sociologist Ruth Hill Useem lived in India with her family. Observing how the children knitted together the culture of their parents, and the culture that they were living in to form a new culture for themselves led to her coining the term “Third Culture”. Third Culture Kids (TCKs) are those raised outside of their birth/passport culture for some or all of their childhood. Some will live in one place, and some will live a life marked by repeatedly moving to new countries requiring regular readjustment to the rules of life. What this means for a human being is that they live a life somewhat less ordinary with both good and bad consequences.

The positives of being a TCK are often cited as:

being able to adjust to change easily
being bi-lingual or multi-lingual
being chemeleon-like and able to fit into most new groups of people they encounter
being diplomatic
having a broad knowledge of the world
welcoming of others
very often have higher degrees including post-graduate work

The negatives are often seen as:

not feeling like they belong to anywhere or any one culture completely
lacking a sense of home
having the need to constantly move to a new place (sometimes seen as a positive)
identity issues
not being able to find work in the country you grew up in due to visa issues or lack of suitable jobs, or even discrimination to “foreigners”
difficulty in deciding where to “settle” or retire
depression and suicide can be a factor
difficulty when their history or position as a TCK can not be understood by others who have not had such a trasitory life

Who are TCKs?

TCKs, also known as Global Nomads, come from a number of family backgrounds.

Children of Missionaries- MKs or “Mish Kids”.
Children of Military personnel- Military Kids, Military Brats or Army Brats
Children of business people involved in international business or the non-profit sector
And, increasingly, you find children of “digital nomads” or those seeking a different life outside of their home country

Barack Obama is one of the most famous ATCKs (Adult Third Culture Kids). His upbringing was one factor in the “show us your birth certificate” scandal and also has an effect on how he implements policy and goes about his business as President of the United States. Other well-known TCKs and ATCKs include:

Richard Dawkins-evolutionary biologist
Kobe Bryant- athlete
Isabel Allende- writer
Pearl S. Buck- writer
Barbara Kingsolver– writer
JRR Tolkien- writer
The Phoenix Family (including River and Joaquin)- actors
Keanu Reeves- actor
Reese Witherspoon- Actor
Geln Close- actor
Viggo Mortensen- actor
Manu Chao- singer
Christiane Amanpour- journalist
Milla Jovovich- model and actor
Freddie Mercury- musician
Kim Jung Il-politician

TCK resources and blogs

There are a number of TCKs writing blogs and also many more resources on the internet and in books than there were even just 10 years ago. Here is a small selection of links.

Musings of a Third Culture Kid
DrieCulturen (Dutch and English)
Home Keeps Moving
The Well Thought-Out Life
Lost in Translation, Advanced Level

There are also some wonderful networks such as TCKid.com and Xenos and this Wiki on “How to Understand a TCK“.

Are you a TCK or aTCK? We’d love to hear about you or what you think would be important to add to this brief overview so people can better understand the TCK experience. Add your comment or get in touch through email at feminaintrepida (at) gmail.com or Facebook or Twitter. We’d love to do some TCK profiles!


photo credit: Yaisog Bonegnasher on Flickr

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