What is a Third Culture Kid?

An updated version of this post has been published on tanyacrossman.com


“Third Culture Kid” (often abbreviated to TCK) is a term that was first coined by Dr. Ruth Hill Useem while studying children of American families living in India in the 1950s. These children were not Indian, though they lived in India. They were American – though they weren’t experiencing that country. This childhood experience was neither that of an Indian child nor that of an American child. It was somewhere in between – in a Third Culture.

“Third Culture” doesn’t mean a combination of two cultures to form a third. Many TCKs are connected to more than two or three cultures. The three cultures of a TCK are instead three types of cultures. (TCK Consultant Libby Stephens helped clarify my understanding of this – her blog post on this topic is definitely worth a read.)

The first type of culture is the Legal Culture. These are cultures to which a person is legally connected – a passport, or permanent residency. This is a place I have a legal right to be in – I don’t need a visa, or a permit. I have a piece of paper that says I belong.

The second category of cultures are Geographic Cultures. These are cultures a person is connected to geographically – by living there. It is the places where I have physically lived (and emotionally engaged) whether or not I had citizenship. (A person’s legal culture might also be a geographic culture, but not necessarily.)

The Third Culture is a Relational Culture – woven together from overlapping experiences of life lived in between. It embraces people who share a childhood not geographically but experientially. It may be different in nature to legal and geographic cultures, but it is just as much a source of identity.

The Third Culture is not about where you are from, or where you have lived. It is about what you have experienced. There is comfort and understanding in having a shared culture, especially when you feel out-of-step with both your Legal and Geographic cultures.

Growing up in your legal culture means a comprehensive connection – you are legally attached to the place to which you are emotionally attached. Third Culture Kids don’t generally have this comprehensive connection. Instead, it is in the Third Culture they find the comfort and connection of shared experience. For them, the Third Culture is a place of belonging.

The Third Culture is the childhood home of those who did not experience comprehensive connection to a single place as children.

The Third Culture is neither a legal nor a geographic entity – but it is real.

TCKs are people who grew up in this “place” – the Third Culture.

Click here to read more about the Three Culture of a Third Culture Kid in a post I wrote for China Source.

23 thoughts on “What is a Third Culture Kid?

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  2. Hi,
    I came across your post and decided to look at the definitions of the three cultures for a Third Culture Kid as defined by Libby Stephens myself.
    I enjoyed reading your post very much, and think that you might likewise enjoy reading about my experience. I wrote a bit on the definitions of the cultures through the lens of my personal experience as a TCK, and wanted to share.
    I would love it if you could take a look at it and see how my experience adds to your understanding of the term TCK. Thank you!


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