Life Story - Adults TCKs

What is a Third Culture Kid?

The chances are, if you have landed on this blog, you already know something about Third Culture Kids. Maybe you are one, and are looking for resources to better understand or support your experiences. Maybe you are a parent of a TCK? Maybe you have just started realising there is a whole community our there who share your experiences… and you are excited to find you have a name! Or maybe TCK feels more of a label than a community, and you are feeling ambivalent about it all. Whoever you are, welcome!

Third Culture Kids was a term first used by the Useems in the 1960s (read more about their work here) to describe the shared experiences of the children of expatriate workers observed during their research. It’s a term that is increasing in use and here, I make my own summary of the received definition of Third Culture Kids:

“Third Culture Kids are the children of people working outside their passport countries, and who are employed by international organisations as development experts, diplomats, missionaries, journalists, international NGO and humanitarian aid workers, or UN representatives. The “third culture” they possess is the temporary, nomadic multicultural space they inhabited as children, within an expatriate community and, in some cases, international school.

This culture is distinct from their parents’ homeland culture (the first culture) and from that of the country in which they spend their formative years but of which they are not native members (the second culture). The “third culture” inhabited by Third Culture Kids does not unite the first and second cultures, but rather comprises a space for their unstable integration (Knorr, 2005).” (Cason, 2015: 3)

The piece of this definition that, for me, is crucial is that the third culture is NOT a mixing or blending of cultures one (passport) and two (host). Instead it is best understood as the organisational culture, or the culture of shared experiences, that these children grow up in. The third culture is the culture where movement is standard, fluidity prized, and the global is feels more immediate than the local.

There are many ‘you know you are a TCK when’ articles and infographics out there (try a quick google, you’ll see what I mean) but it’s important not to reduce the TCK experience to a set of personality traits or characteristics. The TCK experience is, at heart, of high mobility in childhood and of stark cultural transitions… and this can and does impact development and outlook well into adulthood, but it is not a determiner of personality.

It is an experience of the childhood, that often echoes into the adult’s present life. And like many others, this experience cannot be listed as either purely good, or purely bad… it is simply an experience, and many, many variables factor in how the experience is felt by the individual.

I personally feel issues such as number of moves, age at the first move, and degrees of difference between passport/host cultures, even if ‘abroad’ was involved at all, should be flexible points. The two points on which I believe the TCK identity to hang, and which are crucial to differenciating this experience from many other experiences of migration are, firstly, that TCKs experience their first move in childhood (pre-18) and that secondly, that the TCK’s life is in some way impacted by a ‘third culture’, that of their parents’ community, employer, school or residence (compounds/army base, etc.) I write more about the tensions around the Third Culture Kid ‘label’ here, do let me know what you think by adding your comments and feedback.

I think we do have a tendency to overcomplicate things… to try and rigidly police those who ‘belong’ and those who do not ‘belong’ to our group of shared TCK-ers. But at base, we are talking here of a shared experience, not a shared secret handshake, and I think a little grace goes a long way with a diaspora of fellow wanderers.

*Cason, Rachel May (2015) ‘Third culture kids’: migration narratives on belonging, identity and place. Doctoral thesis, Keele University.

*Knorr, J. (ed.) (2005) Childhood and Migration: from Experience to Agency, New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers


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