Defining Third Culture Kids (TCKs)

Who coined the term “TCK”?

The term TCK was first constructed by sociologist Ruth Hill Useem when she was living and working in India in the 1960’s. She observed how a group of young men who were studying at a British-based school far away from their homes did not seem to fit in once they went back home.  These young men came from their homes which represented one culture, studied and lived in second culture and upon returning home, had amalgamated these two cultural influences into a unique, third culture. 

The term was then picked up by two missionaries, David Pollack and another Ruth – Ruth Van Reken, herself a TCK, and the child of a TCK. David and Ruth published their seminal book on TCKs in the late 1990s, based on their observations and experiences living a globally nomadic life and raising their own brood of TCKs. For TCKs who read this book and other writings of Pollack and Van Reken, this book was transformational; finally, there was a name and an explanation for them and their “betwixt and between-ness”.  Most TCKs will tell you that reading this book made them feel seen and named for the first time in their lives. (If you are a TCK and have never read this book, I highly recommend you do. The most recent edition is the third, published in 2017, and is greatly expanded from the older editions still circulating globally nomadic communities. You can find it on my resources page.)


Defining TCKs is difficult because we are known for transcending categories. Another reason it is difficult is that TCKs have always been a diverse group of individuals, from diverse sponsoring organizations and cultural backgrounds.

This is Pollack’s original definition, from a writing in 1988, “An individual who, having spent a significant part of the developmental years in a culture other than the parents’ culture, develops a sense of relationship to all of the cultures while not having full ownership in any. Elements from each culture are incorporated into the life experience, but the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar experience.” (Pollock, 1988).  Two other TCK researchers, de Waal and Born’s (2021) defined third culture as not being a national culture but “an interaction between the community of…expats and the local community” (p. 68).

Some people use the term “global nomad” and others use “transcultural”. To my mind, a global nomad is an adult, who chose an internationally mobile life, not their children who had no say in the matter.  I know plenty of adult TCKs who had a globally nomadic childhood due to their parents’ career choices but as adults, these TCKs choose to stay put in one place and not traverse the world. “Transcultural” to me speaks of how a TCK may view themselves or the world – it’s a word that implies a way of seeing yourself (identity) in relation to the world.  Having a “transcultural” view of the world is not something that is unique to TCKs; a lot people from cross-cultural backgrounds (migrants, refugees, bi-cultural, bi-racial) may have this ability to live within and live across national and cultural boundaries. Ruth Van Reken coined the term “Cross cultural kids” (CCK) to describe this large umbrella of people who experience more than one culture in their lifetime.  (To find out more about CCKs, click here.)

This is the definition of TCK that I use. A TCK is someone who, due to their parents’ choice of career and sponsoring organization, spent significant time during their developmental years in a culture(s) other than their parental home culture and subsequently repatriated to a parental home culture for a sustained period of time. On this website, I use the word “TCK” to describe both the child (the “K” in TCK) as well as the phenomenon. I use the term “adult TCK” to talk about adults with a TCK background.  The “kid” aspect is important (the “K”) because childhood experiences shape so much of who we are and how we view the world today. Your childhood does not determine your destiny but it certainly influences adulthood greatly.

Here’s why I think this definition is useful.

  1. The definition shows three cultures – a culture other than (first culture) the parental home culture (second culture) and then repatriation (third culture).
  2. This definition assumes that there is a family structure – i.e. parent(s) and at least one child. As an globally nomadic person will tell you, living abroad as a single person (or even a couple) versus a family are two vastly different experiences.  There is so much more to figure out and worry about with children (“What about their education? What about medical care? What if they learn a language I don’t know?”)
  3. It shows the significance of the parental decisions on the TCK’s life. Within the TCK community, the parental choice to move abroad is typically an unacknowledged factor in shaping the TCK’s subsequent identity. I describe why this is important here.
  4. “Significant time” is undefined because it depends on what “significant” is for the individual. If a toddler went overseas with her parents and then repatriated after two years, that might not be so significant. However, a teenager going abroad with his parents for two years might feel very significant. The significance depends not just on length of time in the host country, but also at what age one lived there.
  5. The definition emphasizes the experience of repatriation. Repatriation assumes that the TCK or the family will stay put in the passport culture for a significant length of time – long enough to need a job or source of income, enroll the kids in school, to put down tiny roots in a community.  For many TCKs, repatriation is an intense psychological experience and process. TCKs grow up knowing that some day they will be expected to repatriate; however, the rockiness of repatriation process is inevitably a surprise.

This definition emphasizes how the past influences the present adult and is useful in that way. Pollock’s definition is useful because it emphasizes the perspective of the TCK on the world. The definition of de Waal and Born is useful because it also emphasizes the two-way street of the TCK interacting with the world and being influenced by this interaction.

Backgrounds of TCKs

Traditionally, TCKs have come from four backgrounds:

  1. Diplomatic – i.e. their parent(s) worked for an embassy or on behalf of the passport government in the host culture
  2. Missionary – i.e. their parent(s) worked for a religious organization, often Western Protestant Christian in the host culture
  3. Business  – i.e. their parent(s) worked for a multi-national or international company, usually as a business executive
  4. Military – i.e. their parent(s) was a member of the military and was stationed in various host cultures

Anecdotally, TCKs with a missionary background are the largest group of people. This is because there are far more mission organizations and thus employment opportunities, particularly in the Global North, than there are overseas employment opportunities at multi-national companies or diplomatic posts. Military TKs tend to be connected to countries that have sufficient geo-political and historical influence to warrant the expense and logistics of maintaining large forces on bases overseas. For example, the United States maintains large military bases in Germany and Japan, but not in Suriname.

Recently, two more globally nomadic backgrounds have started to emerge. One is educational – for example, teachers or administrators at an international school, which is attended by the children of expats living in a host culture. In 2017, an article in The Atlantic, put the number of international schools globally at over 8000, serving 4.5 million students.  Although a figure for the number of personnel who educate and support these 4.5 million students was not given, one can extrapolate that the number is in the hundreds of thousands. The other kind of expat is an even newer phenomenon – so called “digital nomads”. These are usually young professionals working in the digital space and moving around the world as they desire. Digital nomads do not fit the traditional definition of a global nomad, which historically has assumed a sending or sponsoring organization. Rather, digital nomads tend to be self-employed and thus can make their own decisions about where to go, as well as when and why. This is such a recent phenomenon, due to the increasing reliable access to the internet globally, that children born to digital nomadic parents are still young. It will be interesting to see in the next decade or two, what elements of TCKness the children of digital nomads share with TCKs from traditional backgrounds.