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8. Third Culture Kids (TCK)

Welcome to the eight and last appointment of Multilingualism matters!

In this article we are going to learn something about Third Culture Kids, a new concept which is gaining more and more interest among specialists.

The huge mobilization of people around our globalizing world is generating discussions about different topics. One of these is the degree of cultural complexity that many families face. Many people live experience which are not easy to define and to understand. Therefore, some authors decided to give language to those experiences, and to find new ways to describe the changes that the global community is facing, in terms of how we care children and how adults live their life.

In 1984, a sociologist at the Michigan State University gave a plenary talk at the International Conference for Missionary Kids in Manila, and predicted that people who lived a childhood in, and among various cultures would one day be the norm rather than the exception. Thirty years has passed and I leave it to you to decide whether he was right or not.

Certainly, many of us have seen or met children and adults, who spent part of their lives in a different country, far away from the country where they were born or that they can call home. And maybe we are living the same experience. For some adults and children, it is hard to give an answer to the question “Where is home?” or “Where are you from?” Here is an example by Pollock & Van Reken (2009: 9):

[…] “Where are you from?” At first, Erika automatically answered, “Singapore.” The universal reply was, “Really? You don’t look like it,” with the expectation of some explanation of how she was from Singapore.

As the authors explained, Erika was born in the USA and spent a significant part of her childhood in Singapore. She felt Singapore was home, but when she returned there some years later, she realized she couldn’t call home neither Singapore, nor the USA. She feels she doesn’t belong anywhere. Erika’s experience can be described as a typical experience of a Third Culture Kid.

The term Third Culture Kid were first proposed to identify those children (and adults), who are spending or have spent at least part of their childhood in countries and cultures other than their own. The reasons for this experience are various. For example, some of them have parents with careers in international business, or because of military or religious missions. Some others moved because of wars or difficult situations. In spite of different experiences, they all have something in common. It is not easy to classify them into a specific group, because they embody the “as well as” attitude and not the “either or”[1] one. They feel at home in several cultures at the same time and, they will have as adults many intercultural skills.

One of the first definitions of TCK was proposed by David Pollock in 1989:

A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.

A common misconception about third culture kids is that they have been raised in what is often called the “Third World.” This might be true for some TCKs, but the term represents actually something else. Two social scientists, Ruth Hill Useem and John Useem, coined the phrase “third culture” in the 1950s when they studied Americans who lived and worked in India as foreign service officers, missionaries, technical aid workers, business people, educators, and media representatives. To best describe this expatriate world, the Useems defined the home culture from which the adults came as the “first culture”; and they called the host culture where the family lived (in that case, India) the “second culture”. When they realized that those people neither belong to the American culture nor to the Indian culture, and that they shared instead lifestyle as a “culture between cultures”, they named it the “third culture”. Therefore, those kids who were born there, or who spent part of their childhood within this culture were called “third culture kids”.

The world has changed dramatically since the days when the Useems first defined the TCK term. Communities all over the world are becoming more culturally mixed, and the experience of TKCs has become even more complex.

What do these people have in common? At least two things. First of all, they are being raised in a cross-cultural world. This means that, instead of simply watching, reading about or studying other cultures, they actually live in different cultural worlds as they travel back and forth. Some kids, who have gone through multiple moves or whose parents are in an intercultural marriage, have interacted closely with four or even more cultures.

Secondly, those kids are being raised in a highly mobile world. Either the TCKs themselves, or those around them, are constantly coming or going.

But there is something more. TCKs tell about a sort of magical connection, when they meet and share their stories. Growing up in and among many cultures creates an emotional experience that transcends the details. The sense of belonging is represented by finding other people with this kind of experience.

Although the length of time needed for someone to become a true TCK can’t be precisely defined, the time when it happens can. It must occur during the developmental years, from birth to eighteen years of age. Therefore, this cross-cultural experience occurs during the years when the child’s sense of identity, relationships with others, and view of the world are being formed in the most basic ways.

Due to the complexity to catch all the characteristics of an experience like this, Ruth Van Reken developed the new definition of Cross-Cultural Kids:

A Cross-Cultural Kid (CCK) is a person who is living or has lived in - or meaningfully interacted with - two or more cultural environments for a significant period of time during childhood (up to age 18). Moreover, an adult CCK (ACCK) is a person who has grown up as a CCK.

This particular group of CCKs includes both TCKs, children who move into another culture with parents due to a parent’s choice, and children from bi/multicultural families.

Why is it important to talk about them? According to Pollock & Van Reken (2009) there are at least three reasons. The first one is that the number of people who spend a significant part of their childhood in different countries is increasing. In ancient time, early explores and traders used to travel alone and travel took days or even months, therefore most of the time children remained at home. Nowadays it is easier and therefore normal for children to join their parents in a different country.

The second reason is that their voice is growing louder. Due to the advanced new technology they can share theirs stories on the web and they can be identified as a groups. These kids are now adults and some of them have become politicians, authors, sport figures and so on.

The third reason is that also their importance has increased, since they are becoming the norm rather than the exception throughout the world.

To conclude, talking about the way we perceive our personal experience of expatriates could help recognize our commonalities, as well as where and how our experiences differ. We might discover that, in spite of different backgrounds, nationalities, social and economic groups, we really have something in common, which could help us and others facing life’s difficulties.

Find out more:

§ David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken (2009). Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

§ The official home of TCK: www.tckworld.com

§ TCK share stories, make friends: www.tckid.com


[1] In German “sowohl als auch”: This definition was proposed and explained by Beatrice Achaleke in her new book “Erfolgsfaktor kulturelle Vielfalt” (2013).

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