Third Culture Kid (TCK)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Grade 2 Class Photo Belgium 1995
(I'm on the far right in the green dress)
As people having grown up as a missionary kids, my brothers, sisters and I have the title of being a "Third Culture Kids", or TCKs as we more commonly call it.  Missionary kids aren't the only ones with this title, military kids, international business kids, or really any kid living outside their passport country are also TCKs.  This term has become more known as more people move around internationally and bring their children with them.  However, it is still not known as well by those who aren't actually TCKs or know any personally.  So, since I often refer to myself as one, I thought I would explain the name to those of you who aren't familiar with the term yet.  I also wanted to share some things with you as a TCK so that if you know one, you might better understand him/her (or if you are one yourself, know you aren't alone).

Camping Trip Belgium 1996
The term, "Third Culture Kid", was coined by Dr. Ruth Hill Useem back in 1960 and is used to describe someone who has spent a considerable part of his or her developmental years outside of their parents' culture.  I am a TCK because my parents are American, but I grew in Belgium and South Africa.  Actually, my dad is also a TCK because my grandfather worked for Phillips Oil Company and raised his family in Libya, and later Norway.  

I have always thought that being a TCK was fun and exciting, but it doesn't come without its troubles.  The biggest trouble (and one I am sure most TCKs struggle with) is knowing where I belong.  For example, I am an American citizen (always have been), but I didn't grow up in the US. I often don't feel "American", and even after living in the US for almost eight years now, I find that there are still cultural references that I don't get (especially pop culture from the 90s and early 2000s).  Also, even though I grew up in Belgium and South Africa, I can't claim to be Belgian or South African, nor did I ever feel like I was.  Think about how you felt trying to figure out who you were in your middle-school years.  Now imagine how a TCK feels during those years when multiple cultures and countries are added in the mix (pretty difficult). To be honest, I still hate being asked where I am from, because I still don't know.
Church in Mamelodi, South Africa 2000
Another struggle I have is that I don't feel like I completely fit in with my extended family (especially my cousins).  Don't get me wrong, I love them all dearly and enjoy spending time with them, but the truth is that I don't know them (and they don't know me) like they know each other.  They have more history together, more holidays and summers to create memories together than I did.  I don't begrudge them for it, or wish my life had been different, but the truth is that I missed a lot of years.  On a brighter note, because my direct family is the only family I had for all those years, my siblings and I are all really close, which I am very glad about.

The last thing that I would like to share with you about TCKs is that we sometimes come across as weird, cold, and sometimes braggy, but try not to judge us too quickly for it.  There are several reasons for this.  1. We might be a little weird or awkward because we are trying to juggle multiple cultures (and languages) and sometimes they get mixed up.  Pop culture can be a nightmare for us.  I didn't grow up watching the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, or Friends so I still am clueless when people refer back to shows from their childhoods and teen years.  I also didn't listen to the same music.  Try being understanding.  2. Some TCKs might give off a cold vibe because when we move around a lot, we have to say goodbye a lot, making it sometimes difficult to get close to someone in the first place.  Just give us some time. 3. TCKs experience some very different things than what you have experienced growing up.  In the same way that everyone else likes to share stories, we do too.  Ours just happen to be very different and can be mistaken for us bragging about our "extraordinary" lives.  That's not the case though. We are just wanting to share some of our experiences with you.  For example, while my friends talk about their childhood memories of going to Disney World, I talk about memories of visiting castles in Europe and almost getting crushed in a car by an angry elephant (true story).  With all this, just be patient with us and love us for our differences.
Family Photo South Africa 2003

There are some challenges to being a TCK and it makes it easier when people understand us (or are open to trying to understand us).  However, I don't personally (nor do I know any other TCKs who do) regret their lives overseas and wouldn't want to change it.  All we ask is that you not feeling sorry for us because we don't have a place to belong, laugh at us because we don't get your pop culture reference, get offended because we don't always warm up and fit right in, or mistake us for being braggy.  Instead, just accept us and be our friend; because we want to be yours. :)


  1. Very well put, Bethany!!! I am a TCK then I raised some. :-)
    Angie Lechner

  2. You are such a talented writer. I truly enjoy reading your blog. Maybe it's because I grew up in several places as well, but I never found you to be stuck up. You are one of the most genuine down to earth people I have had the pleasure of knowing. -Gloria Pettitt

  3. Great post... I love my TCK friends that I am blessed to know! Hope you are well. P.S. I hate being asked where I am from try to just say North MS and people are like where and I am like 5 different counties do you want the timeline. So I can't imagine that in a global perspective.

  4. I was one, too! I love this and it says it like I've always wanted to!!

  5. Yep. Have two TCK. I am a TCA. I brace myself for the where are you from question. Then the same follow-up questions over and over. Then after 10 minutes your novelty has worn off and people get uncomfortable. Thanks to Netflix and Skype and advances in technology we have been able to keep up with a lot of the pop-culture. But, it is very hard for people to understand how we travel. Just a lot of rambling thoughts there. Thanks for sharing your story.