You know you are a Third Culture Kid if…

by | Oct 26, 2020 | Blog | 2 comments

How do you know you ‘count’ as a Third Culture Kid? You know, a REAL one?

This was raised as an issue for my doctoral research on TCKs – how would I define them? There are the classical definitions of course – children of parents working for international organisations, such as missions, military or in diplomacy. But what about those with parents who worked as independent missionaries, journalists, international entrepreneurs?

And what about the length of time abroad? Age of first move? What about if time was spent in one of the parent’s passport country, but not the others’? Was that still “abroad”?

What about if the TCK grew up in international schools? Home-schooled? Local schooled? Boarding school? Boarding school in the passport country while parents were still working abroad?

And how about the experiences of TCKs themselves? Assumptions abound around compound/expat accommodation, multi-lingualism, status, access to material security. Assumptions reverberate around books and the internet on how grateful TCKs should be about their experiences in other countries, about how they must miss those people and places.

What about those TCKs who never left a country but crossed cultures domestically, via reservations or communal living? Do they ‘count’?

And what about as a TCK gets older? Are they no longer a Third Culture Kid? Are they now a Third Culture Adult? And do they have to keep behaving in a particular way to keep their ‘membership’? Keep travelling? Stop travelling? Work abroad? Work in their passport country? Work in an international field? Work with different languages? Find their purpose on a global scale?

For my research I lent into this definition:

A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture.

(Definition by David C. Pollock in The TCK Profile seminar material, Interaction, Inc. 1989, 1 in Pollock, D. C. and van Reken, R. E. (2009) Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, Revised Ed., London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, p. 13)

This definition keeps the ‘Kid’ element central. Not because we are forever young (!) but rather because it keeps the focus on WHEN our shared experiences occurred, in childhood. It also refrains from putting ages or length of time down in specific terms, which is great because WE get to interpret the significance of our experiences to us. It’s our story, after all.

And so here is the thing. We are TCKs not because of who we are NOW, but because we shared similar experiences around mobility, transition and cross-cultural living THEN.

Which means, we don’t have to interpret those experiences similarly to continue to ‘count’ as TCKs in our adult lives.

You are a Third Culture Kid if…

… you hate travelling AND if you love it.

… you speak multiple languages AND if you are monolingual.

… you feel you have shared experiences with your immediate family AND if you feel the ‘odd one out’ amidst them.

… you felt at home abroad AND if you felt like a perpetual alien.

… you feel alien in your passport country AND if you feel at home there.

… you feel kinship with other TCKs AND if you feel kinship with people with more settled stories.

… you wouldn’t trade your experiences abroad for the world AND if you totally would.

… you feel drawn to make a global impact AND if local connections is what you long for.

We can be different Third Culture Kids. We can have different experiences from one another and still claim TCK identity, if that is helpful to us.

But here is the thing. When our claimed identities begin to make demands on our behaviours or our preferences, then we have an identity we can feel anxiety and shame about. We can fail at being the identity ‘properly’. And don’t we have enough experiences of this?

Not English enough.

Not Chinese enough.

Not white enough.

Not Black enough.

Not woman enough.

Not man enough.

Let’s not add ‘not TCK enough’ to that list.

Being a TCK is simply kicked off by spending enough time abroad for that to feel significant to us.

How we express the implications of this throughout our lives is many and varied.

No ifs. No buts. You belong.



  1. Dan

    Bravo, Dr. Rachel!

    Enough of the TCK pissing contests. “I think/dream in the language of XX foreign country.” “I prefer the food of XX foreign country.” “I prefer the company of the people of XX foreign country.” “I only feel at home in XX foreign country.” “Oh, how I miss the jungle, where I lived as a virtual villager.” “Obviously, I am much more of a real TCK than are others claiming to be of the same category.” [The latter by implication.]

    This little essay of yours is one of my favorites, Dr. Rachel. Thanks.


    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      And I think this comment might be one of my favourites so far too!! Thank you so much for reading!


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