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The Three Cultures of a Third Culture Kid

From the series The TCK Experience—Foundational Key Concepts

Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a term describing people who spend a significant part of childhood living outside their passport countries. I’m Australian and spent two years of high school living in the USA. I didn’t know anything about TCKs until years later, however, when I began working with TCKs in Beijing, China. Thirteen years later, I am still working with and advocating for TCKs—work that I am passionate about. I am also passionate about equipping and encouraging parents of TCKs, and other expatriates, by sharing what I have learned over the years. These passions led to writing a book, for which I interviewed 270 TCKs and conducted a survey of 750 TCKs, and now I travel to speak to international communities around the world. I will be contributing several articles to China Source about the TCK experience, starting with this series of three posts covering foundational key concepts.

The acronym TCK is fairly well known in expat circles. What is less well known, however, is what these three cultures are. Most people assume it’s 1 + 2 = 3. That is, my first country (home) plus my second country (where I live) equals a mixed up third culture. While there’s a little something to that, the reality is quite different.  

The three cultures are not a count—not a number of countries that influence a person. If this were so, most TCKs I know would be well past three or even four. Rather, the three cultures are three types of cultural influence. This is crucial for understanding how an international childhood shapes a person, even into adulthood.

The First Culture: Legal

A legal culture is any country that grants me legal recognition. That is, the government accepts me as one of theirs—with a passport, or permanent residency (a green card, rather than a long term visa). Thirty-five percent of TCKs I surveyed had more than one legal culture.*

But having a passport isn’t the same as having experiential connections. The experience of growing up in places where I do not have legal recognition has an emotional impact. The country I legally belong to doesn’t completely feel like home, but I am not accepted by the country that does feel like home.

Singapore has always been very foreign to me, but when people asked where I was from, I replied: “Singapore.” It was a reflex. In high school, when people asked where I was from, I still said Singapore, but I knew it simply meant the country printed on my passport. —Stephanie, Singapore passport; grew up primarily in China.*

The Second Culture: Geographic

This is any culture that influences me because I live in it. For some TCKs, there is no overlap in first and second cultures. That is, they have never lived in the places they have legal recognition, and have no legal recognition in the places where they do live. Many TCKs have multiple second cultures. Forty percent of TCKs I surveyed had four or more, ten percent had six or more.

I also include “heritage cultures” in this category. This is where I absorb elements of culture from a parent who immigrated, even though I have never had legal recognition or lived in this culture myself.

My parents were born and raised in Korea and moved to the States after high school. . . We celebrated both American Thanksgiving and traditional Korean New Year. We visited relatives both in Korea and in the States. And all this happened as we grew up in China.—Eugene, USA passport; grew up primarily in China

The Third Culture: Relational

The third culture is the “childhood home” of TCKs. It is located not in geography, but in relationships. While the first and second cultures are primarily about place, the third culture is about experience: the experience of growing up between first and second cultures that do not perfectly align. A more typical childhood experience is growing up in a country where I have legal recognition—the first and second culture are one and the same.  

As a TCK, I often feel that I cannot truly relate to those around me. I function in two worlds at once. I have gained a broad knowledge of the world while missing the more specific aspects of cultural understanding that come with spending a lifetime in one place. —Heidi, USA passport; grew up in China

Two TCKs with no overlap in their first and second cultures do not share a place and yet still share a childhood experience. TCKs do not grow up in any one culture, but in between them, under the influence of multiple cultures.

What This Means

The Third Culture is our home. It is where we “belong” and relate to people as others do in their hometowns. —Lisa, UK passport; grew up in China, France, Malaysia, and Peru

Childhood for TCKs is rooted in communities that move on, in a mixture of cultures and places that is difficult to replicate. The constant transition of international life (whether I leave, or others leave me) has an impact, and there are unique experiences that go with expatriate living. These are the backdrop of an international childhood. These shared experiences of childhood are what the third culture is all about.

* All statistics and quotes come from Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century by Tanya Crossman, Summertime Publishing, 2016.






Image credit: yousef alfuhigi on Unsplash.
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Tanya Crossman

Tanya Crossman

Tanya Crossman is the author of Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century. She is passionate about building bridges of understanding between Third Culture Kids (TCKs) and those who care for them. She has mentored hundreds of teenage and young adult TCKs over the past 13 …View Full Bio

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