Third Culture Kids – a nonsense label?


I recently came across an article on the Wall Street Journal blog that caught my eye. It was called, Please Don’t Call My Child a Third Culture Kid and in it the author lays out her objections to the ‘label’ often attributed to her young daughter. The article suggests that the acronym TCK is, at heart, elitist, setting itself against the term ‘migrant’ for fear of being associated with a variety of social tensions. The crux of her objection is that the migratory conditions that existed when the word was first coined (the 1950s by the Useems) have changed, and so the term needs to change also, being as it is, associated with White Americans Abroad. She also writes,

…it seems to me, the “Third Culture Kid” continues to be lauded—Barack Obama, who spent some of his childhood in Jakarta, Indonesia, is sometimes hailed as the U.S.’s most successful TCK—while immigrant children are often portrayed as potential terrorists or burdens on the system. That’s why the term makes me so uneasy.

To add to the conversation, one reader commented,

TCK?  Geez, another acronym to add to the PC list.  Is there no end to this nonsense?

So. The term Third Culture Kid, is it

a) trying to referring to what is, essentially, elite migration?

No. In my thesis I tackle four established modes of migration (diaspora, second generation migration, transnationalism and cosmopolitanism), as examined and explored through research, and while the Third Culture Kid experience does share some of these other migratory experiences, I concluded that it is different enough to merit exploration in its own right. For those who would be keen to read the full breakdown, see here. The main distinctions I identify are,

Third Culture Kids are frequently members of a unique migrant community, both abroad and upon return, because the basis for their ‘diaspora’ is NOT ethnicity. All other migratory communities unite along some shared experience of country, language or race. TCKs are united by a shared experience of living in between worlds, in community with other ‘not from here’s.

Third Culture Kids are not straightforward transnationals in that they don’t maintain connections with a ‘from’ country while living in the ‘here’ country. They instead confound traditional understandings of ‘from’ and ‘to’.

Third Culture Kids also confound traditional understandings of rootless cosmopolitanism, as they are frequently very much rooted in their third culture, the expatriate or organisational community in which they were raised or schooled. Yet this rootedness is not based in territory, as is traditionally understood by the term. 

Third Culture Kids have a lot in common with second generation migrants, and yet upon return to their passport country, in many ways they are the migrants. They have gone from their home culture – the frequent mobility of their childhoods – to a new culture, the culture of their nationality but also the culture of settledness. In their passport culture, rather than being considered foreign whilst feeling at home, Third Culture Kids are more likely to be considered natives whilst feeling foreign. They are ‘hidden immigrants’ and so their experiences of identity become hard to express outwardly, and therefore typically receive minimal validation.

b) claiming a ‘benefits only’ form of migration identity?

Actually, as a therapist working with Third Culture Adults, I’m kind of with her on this one. Less because I believe that all immigrant children are somehow tainted (though it’s hard to find a discourse that strays from this) but more because I see in my clients the damage the burden of feeling oneself to be ‘lucky’ to be a TCK can have. Every time we polarize TCKs as inherently ‘privileged’ (or inherently ‘damaged’ for that matter) we add to this problem. Also, the entire premise of the TCK existence is, after all, based on their parents being employed and deployed abroad, which involves organisation financial support. As such, they are less likely to be seen as a ‘drain’ on the passport system. Furthermore, their presence in the passport country is not supervised or registered statistically, so when ‘drainage’ (lovely term!) does occur, they are seen as individual ‘problems’, rather than as being part of a collective pattern.

c) politically correct nonsense?

No. It is not politically correct to want to use the proper names for things. This has traditionally be seen more as scientific than as ‘nonsense’. When we conflate terms, or insist, ‘same difference!’ we miss the nuances and subtleties that aid exploration and investigation. As frequently mobile populations increase in size and influence, it makes simple good sense to know what we are talking about, and to interrogate our terms rather than throw them out.

More significantly, in an age of increasingly fluid identities, we need not disparage a ‘label’ simply because it does not seem to meet our needs. The chances are it will meet the needs of another, and they’d prefer to come upon it unsoiled by another’s disdain. Type ‘Third Culture Kid’ into Facebook and you will be met by over 50 group listings associated with this label. Type the same into Amazon and you reach 267 results. Type the same into Google and you are met with 1,560,000 results.

Photo by Geralt, (3)
Photo by Geralt,

Third Culture Kids are a thing. A real thing that matters to real people. So if the term doesn’t suit you, fine. Don’t use it. The post-modern era we live in allows you to shed it 😉

But it suits a few other people. So tread gently.


If you are interested in finding out more about the Third Culture Kid experience, and exploring its impact on your own story, book a free Skype consultation here. I’d love to hear from you.



  1. Gill Cheffy says:

    Rachel, thank you for posting this. I agree with you that TCK is a valid term for a specific group of children and young people who are not simply migrants. However, I did not fully understand the following comment:

    Third Culture Kids are not straightforward transnationals in that they don’t maintain connections with a ‘from’ country while living in the ‘here’ country. They instead confound traditional understandings of ‘from’ and ‘to’.
    Can you explain more fully what you mean,please? Without further explanation I would disagree with that comment.

    • Dr. Rachel Cason says:

      Hi Gill! Thank you for reading! I’m referring to the tendency in migration literature to understand transnationals as from one place, living in another and maintaining connections between the two through shared holiday celebrations, relationships, transfer of money and goods, language, religion etc. But with TCKs it’s not a straightforward ‘from’ ‘to’ relationships. While TCKs do operate transnationally, where they are ‘from’ in the first place is harder to identify, and they are often juggling more than one passport or host country. When you consider the third culture they are ‘from’ also, the transnational label has to be extended to include cultural ‘homes’ that are beyond territory. Basically, I mean that there are many ways be be transnational, and TCKs add another dimension to connecting cultures that isn’t covered in the current literature, eg: They are not ‘straightforward’ transnationals… and they does complicate our understandings of where a person is ‘from’, and where they are ‘settling’ to… Does that help explain where that statement came from?

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