What do Barack Obama, the late Kobe Bryant, and Viggo Mortenson (a.k.a. Aragorn, from The Lord of the Rings series) all have in common? All three of them are what we call third culture kids, or TCKs for short. What is a TCK, you ask? If you’re asking yourself this question, you are not alone. Many TCKs themselves are not familiar with this term. Basically, a TCK is someone who grew up in a country other than the one indicated on his or her passport. I myself fit this category, since I am a citizen of the United States but have spent eighteen of my twenty years of life in Vienna, Austria. Ever since I learned of the concept of a TCK a few years ago, I’ve become very passionate about helping others understand what it means. In this modern world of ever-growing globalization, understanding this concept can become a valuable tool in the workplace and social settings. With the various fast types of communication and transportation our twenty-first century world has to offer, and the impact these elements have had on culture and the family, it is inevitable that you will encounter a TCK at some point in your life, if you haven’t already.
According to Merriam-Webster, a third culture kid is “a child who grows up in a culture different from the one in which his or her parents grew up” (“What Is,” n.d.). Wikipedia contends that a third culture kid is someone who has spent a significant amount of his or her childhood development years in a country that is different from the country of his or her nationality or parents’ nationality (“Third Culture Kid,” 2020). Basically, if someone asks you, “Where are you from?” and you hesitate or don’t know what to answer, you’re probably a TCK. There are quite a few TCKs on Bob Jones University campus. Most of them you will know as missionary kids or “MKs” for short. A rough estimation made by the Pacific Prime Insurance Company states that there are over 200 million TCKs worldwide (Lindeman, 2018). Some of them have lived in several countries over the course of their lives, instead of just one, like I have. I met one girl on campus who has three passports and has lived on three continents, and whose parents are both of mixed nationalities. Talk about not knowing where you’re from! As you can see, TCKs can come from extremely diverse backgrounds, resulting in the impossibility of providing real stereotypes or objective statistics that really fit everyone. A friend of mine wrote, “From all my research and reading, I’ve discovered that because TCKs are such a broad and diverse group, one size does not fit all. For example, while all TCKs will struggle re-patriating to their passport country, not all will respond the same. Some may be very aggressive toward their passport country while others may, on the opposite extreme, be very anti-the host country they just left. So that is partially why, I believe, there is not a whole lot of objective statistics on TCKs.”
However, there is an analogy that may make TCKs easier to understand, although it may not be totally accurate. As the name “third culture kid” may imply, TCKs are thought of as having three cultures. The Legal Culture is the culture to which the TCK is legally connected through a passport or permanent residency. To make things a little interesting, let’s use Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings as an illustration. Aragorn’s legal culture is that of Gondor, the kingdom to which he is the legal heir. Aragorn’s Geographical Culture, which is the culture or cultures the TCK is living in or has lived in, would be the wild lands of Middle Earth, where he roams with the rest of the Dúnedain. Finally, his Relational Culture, the culture that results from the experience of the TCK, is what makes him the Aragorn we know and love from the books and movies. He’s not the king of Gondor (at least not until the end), but he’s also not one of those crazy wild men who don’t even show up in the movies. He is “one of them rangers,” a little bit of both, yet neither. Another friend of mine posted in her blog, “I feel like people are kind of like hydrangeas. We tend to bloom a certain way based on the type of soil we’re planted in. Let’s say in America, people ‘bloom’ pink. And in Cameroon—blue. I am an American. However, the greater part of my life has been spent overseas. So, I don’t ‘bloom’ pink. But, I’m not Cameroonian either. So, no blue ‘blossoms’ either. I’m purple” (Loescher, n.d.).
It’s great to be a TCK. According to Aetna International, “Various studies, reports and anecdotal blogs say that TCKs can be: Highly adaptive, able to cross cultures with ease, more open minded, more empathetic, bilingual (and) better at communication” (The benefits of being a third culture kid – a reality check, n.d.). One author grants TCKs “a mindset which is exceptionally tolerant and understanding” and shows “excellent conflict management skills” (Yolanda, n.d.). The TCK life comes with certain skills. However, like everything in life, every pro has its con. I interviewed several MKs and asked them what things are hard for them as TCKs. The leading item was misconceptions people have about them. There are three great misconceptions people have that my interviewees mentioned.
First, that all TCKs identify with their legal culture and consider it their home. Some people I’ve talked with believe that your place of birth should be the country that has your allegiance. But that doesn’t always make sense. Would you feel very attached to a country that you never or barely lived in? Personally, pledging allegiance to the American flag makes me uncomfortable. I never lived here; I don’t know this country. Also, in the Austrian culture, patriotism is not promoted because the last patriots who expressed allegiance to their country were the National Socialists, and we all know what happened to them.
Second, that all TCKs see their legal culture as superior to their geographical culture. One MK I interviewed lists as a misconception “that life on the mission field must be really hard because we don’t live in America.” Again, TCKs don’t always view their legal culture the same way those living in the legal culture do. Growing up in a different country, they don’t have life in the USA constantly nagging at the back of their minds.
Third, that all TCKs prefer one country over another. I was personally surprised to hear this one, but I agree. Each country has its pros and cons, we don’t necessarily need to prefer one over the other. The USA has guns, Chick-fil-A, and many good churches, but it also has terrible-tasting food and is the main exporter of many sinful wares like pornography and R-rated movies. Austria has amazing food quality and is very wealthy, but it also has frustrating socialistic healthcare and much spiritual indifference.
Misconceptions held by others are only one of the struggles for TCKs. Many struggle to make and maintain friendships with the people they meet throughout their lives. One MK said she struggled with “saying goodbye to best friends not knowing when you will see them again.” Another commonly listed struggle was “fitting in.”
The greatest and most important struggle, however, is grasping an identity. One MK friend mentioned a fascinating struggle with “a little rejection from those in my culture, who view me from a different culture. And this has happened in both my cultures, causing me to embrace the third culture.” TCKs have to rely on themselves to choose a culture, and they can choose any one of the three cultures discussed above. Often they cannot even rely on their family members to help them with their identity. Consider for instance, what it would be like if your parents and one or more siblings had all been born in your legal culture and spent the most time there, but you spent your childhood almost exclusively in your geographical culture.
One word that I greatly struggle with is the word home. While I was still in Austria, Americans would often ask me when I was going back “home” to study, and now that I’m in America, Austrians often ask me when I’m coming back “home” to visit. So, I don’t know where my home on earth is, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way. On the other hand, I know not all TCKs feel the same way I do. Third culture kids really are a tricky thing to figure out. But it can mean the world to them if you don’t make assumptions about them. It will greatly help them in their quest of finding out who they are and who God has called them to be.
The benefits of being a third culture kid – a reality check. (n.d.). Retrieved from
Lindeman, J. (2018, February 6). Retrieved from Pacific prime:
Loescher, L. (n.d.). So what’s a third culture kid anyways? Retrieved from This road we travel:
Third culture kid. (2020). Retrieved from Wikipedia:
What is a third culture kid? (n.d.). Retrieved from Merriam-Webster: https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/third-culture-kid
Yolanda, S. (n.d.). The triumphs and tribulations of being a third culture kid. Retrieved from