Third Culture Kids (TCKs)


There is an entire community of people in the world that are uniquely connected by their upbringing, but weren’t raised in the same place. What they share is the experience of growing up outside of the cultural mainstream and for whom “home” is not defined by a physical location on a map. Instead it is defined by the experience of being raised in different cultures. When an American child grows up in China, they aren’t Chinese, but they aren’t typically American either, so what are they?

Some refer to this community as Third Culture Kids (TCKs), while others are now calling for the term Third Culture Adults (TCAs) for those who are grown. “Third culture” doesn’t refer to people raised in the third world, but instead to the experience of being raised in (1) a genuinely cross-cultural world, (2) in a highly mobile world, or (3) with distinct physical differences from the people around them. As a result, it is the third culture experience, of not fully belonging to one or another, that defines them more than anything else.

Research has shown that when TCKs go to college, they do not migrate towards people from their nationality or host country, but instead to other TCKs. So a Kenyan raised in Mexico may feel more affinity to an American raised in France than to a Kenyan or a Mexican. The “third” culture experience is what dominates regardless of whether or not someone was raise with two different cultures or ten – it is not a quantitative term, but a qualitative one of being of multiple places versus just one.

This is a great privilege in many ways, but can pose challenges if it is not recognized in our children or friends. TCKs tend to be highly educated, hold prestigious positions, speak more than one language and have multiple perspectives, but they also can be left with a feeling of isolation or lack of sense of belonging if not supported by people around them.

Profiles of TCKs include 1) people raised in a country different from the passport of their parents, 2) people raised in bi-racial or bi-cultural families or 3) people whose upbringing is highly mobile. Children of diplomats, executives of multi-national companies, aid workers, anthropologists and the military are all classic examples of TCKs.

According to David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken, authors of the book Third Culture Kids (TCK), “The TCK builds relationships to all of their cultures, while not having full ownership in any.” So how do you know when you have met a TCK? The next time you are at a cocktail party and meet someone who pauses after you ask them where they are from, chances are they are TCKs. Defining “home” in traditional terms is much harder for a TCK than someone raised in one cultural context and so it is often a question that stumps them.

Following is a brief documentary “So Where’s Home?” which explores TCK identity through the eyes of students at several international schools in Asia. Adrian Bautista, a TCK and graduate of Georgetown University, made this video. Bautista illustrates how TCKs don’t necessarily define themselves by their shared nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, or even values, instead their group and often individual identity is based on the experience of belonging everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

I wonder when you will meet one next.