What is a TCK?


Is your least favourite question ‘Where are you from?’

You are not alone.

When life is a blend of cultures, languages, nations, and people, home is not so much a place as it is a story. 

You are from everywhere, nowhere and all the places in between.

It’s not always easy to fit all the pieces together, let alone explain it to someone else. Who would understand all your crazy adventures, right? 

Still, you would tell them all night long if someone cared to listen.  

View from Las Setas. Photo by The Spanish Berry
guiris on bikes

We all have a story to tell. And it’s a good one.

Because its unique and yours, even when there are parts of it you didn’t enjoy.

The global lifestyle can leave you feeling like you don’t belong anywhere, especially if you grew up moving between cultures.

The good news is you are not alone. You are part of the TCK tribe.

What is a TCK?

Let’s start with a defnition.

A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture(s). Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background. 

David C. Pollock, Ruth E. Van Reken. Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds.

TCKs grow up with influences from their parents’ culture and the one(s) they live in, thus creating a third unique cross-cultural space: the third culture.

It is important to notice that this cross cultural experience takes place during the ‘developmental years’. A child’s experince will be very different from that of their parent(s), even if they are experiecing a move overseas together.

As an adult, you can experience the challenges of an international move but your sense of self has already been established. Whereas a kid is navigating those same challenges while still discovering who they are in relation to the world, so their identity will become closely linked to this life experience.

The global lifestyle becomes part of who they are. They learn to feel at home in-between worlds, because however hard they try, they somehow never quite seem to belong to any.

Does this sound like you?

If you’re not sure if home is:

  • Your birthplace
  • Your passport country
  • Your parent’s nationality
  • Or the city where you currently live

If you adapt like a chameleon to whatever culture you find yourself in and swap seamlessly between them, you may be a TCK.

You are not alone

Over the years, I have met many people for whom home is a story. People who belong everywhere and nowhere. 

People like me. People with even crazier stories than mine. 

Discovering the TCK label helped put words to my experience and showed me my story wasn’t as unusual as I once thought.

Third culture kids identify strongly with other TCKs. Meeting people who have grown up with similar multicultural backgrounds feels like coming home. You no longer have to explain your experience and you can relax with people who simply ‘get it’.

TCK stories come in all shapes and sizes.

Some describe it as an amazing adventure, others had the most terrible time of their lives. There are positives and negatives to growing up among worlds, though some experiences are undeniably more traumatic than others. As ever, the truth is often in-between.

It took me a while to make peace with being the odd one out or at least feeling like I was, but as Ruth Van Reken mentions in this video, you can ‘take what is different to make a difference’.

Expanding the definition: CCKs

When the term TCK first emerged it largely related to three categories: military families, missionary families and the diplomatic corps. It also included those who moved abroad for business reasons. In any case, it was linked with parents’ career choices.

Reality today is far more complex. There are a myriad of reasons people move abroad and global citizens are on the rise. Globalisation has meant different cultures are more connected than ever. Plus, diversity withing the same country has largely increased.

So in addition to TCKs we can now talk about CCKs.

A Cross-Cultural Kid (CCK) is a person who has lived in—or meaningfully interacted with—two or more cultural environments for a significant period of time during developmental years.


Ruth E. Van Reken, co-author, Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, 2002

This may include bi/multi-cultural children and/ or bi/multi racial children, children of inmigrants, children of refugees, children of minorities, international adoptees, etc.

I find this definition far more inclusive and much more representative of the reality around me today.

I am hardly an expert on the subject, so I urge you to explore the original research by Ruth E. Van Reken and take a look at her article which includes a far more comprehensive and clearer description of CCKs.

‘Where are you from?’ they ask | No one word answer will do | So instead I tell a story | Maybe yours is similar, too | I am a local, I am a foreigner | I am familiar, I am a stranger | I belong everywhere, I belong nowhere | I am home, home is also far away | I am an outsider, I am one of the gang | I stand out and I also fit right in | My passport is from one country but I live in another | I have friends all over the world, someone is always too far away | I have tales of distant places, I’m always learning local traditions | I speak several languages and I am bound to mix them together | I am the one who always travelled abroad for the holidays yet those who welcomed me always thought I was coming “home” | Many cities have adopted me and I have adopted several cultures | Whenever I’m somewhere I’m missing somewhere else | I am a TCK. All of this is “where I’m from”.

TCK by The Spanish Berry