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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Sawyer

Getting Schooled

Updated: Feb 24, 2021

A couple of weeks ago, our weekly education-related email was about “Third Culture Kids,” also known as “TCKs.”   TCKs are internationally mobile children, most often as a result of their parents’ corporate, missionary, military or diplomatic careers, and their experience may lead to a typical TCK personality profile and world view. Among the famous TCKs are Barack Obama, Kobe Bryant, Yo-Yo Ma, Viggo Mortensen and Audrey Hepburn, just to name a few.

Since then, I’ve been in correspondence with Ruth Van Reken, one of the premier experts and researchers of TCKs, and co-author with David Pollock of Third Culture Kids: Growing up Among Worlds. Van Reken’s work has greatly expanded the world’s understanding of TCKs—who they are and what they experience—and has led to the current definition of the term, originally coined by Ruth Useem in the 1950s.

In our last email,’s definition of a TCK was that of a person who has lived abroad during their formative years, “blending their home culture with the culture of the country around them, forming a ‘Third Culture.”

I was honored to receive in an email from Ruth in which she asked that we reconsider this definition which, she felt, did not accurately convey the TCK experience.   The Third Culture, she wrote, “is not a blending of two other cultures, but a distinct way of life shared by those who live cross-culturally (and generally internationally) mobile lifestyles; if it is just a ‘blending,’ then I as a TCK who grew up in Nigeria and am from the U.S. have nothing in common with my Israeli friend who grew up in Argentina. But, as every TCK knows, we relate to others of the shared experience of living in this ‘third culture,’ a world not like where we have come from nor where we are living exactly.”

Ruth’s point is an important one and worth a blog! Indeed, it’s not that TCKs take two cultures, mix them together, and exhibit a version that is the product of those two specific cultures; rather, the TCK is one whose third culture is slightly more amorphous, and I would describe it more as a perspective, born of living through and between multiple cultures. As described by, “a third culture kid is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture. The third culture kid builds relationships to all the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the third culture kid’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of the same background.”

As a TCK myself, drawn to other TCKs, I know that there’s a natural connection between us, a shared feeling of being both insiders and outsiders wherever we are, always straddling belonging and non-belonging, looking in on something from the outside, at the same time that we are part of it. Once one understands this feeling in oneself, it can feel like a significant strength, but first one has to identify it and move past the unsettled feeling that can be quite derailing for those who don’t understand its origin.  The good news is that TCKs are considered highly desirable employees in many instances, since their ability to think “big picture,” get along with all kinds of people and adapt easily to different situations are seen as significant assets.

For those interested, there’s lots to read on TCKs. Here’s a start:

With best wishes,



1 Comment

Oct 19, 2021

Thanks for posting thiis


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