What is an expat and TCK?

Because Todd had prior experience living overseas, the term “expat” was not new to me when we first discussed moving to India. I realized though that though that I adopted the term very rapidly, I’ve never really talked about what it means to BE an expat.

What is an expat?

To borrow from Wikipedia :

An expatriate (in abbreviated form, expat) is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country and culture other than that of the person’s upbringing or legal residence. The word comes from the Latinex(out of) and patria(country, fatherland).

Easy enough, right?

But wait … then there’s the discussion on Third Culture Kids.

What is an Expat and TCk

My mom ordered the Third Culture Kids book by David Pollock for me to read about this subject, but I thought it might be interesting to discuss a bit here prior to my delving in future posts.

Third Culture Kids or Trans-Culture Kids (abbreviated TCKs and sometimes also called Global Nomad “refers to someone who [as a child] has spent a significant period of time in one or more culture(s) other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture”. 

Origins and Research

Sociologist Ruth Hill Useem coined the term “Third Culture Kids” after spending a year on two separate occasions in India with her three children, (Flopsi, Penny, and Dipsi) … [note: yes, those are apparently really their names and not their blogger pseudonyms!] 

… in the early ’50s. Initially the term “third culture” was used to refer to the process of learning how to relate to another culture; in time, the meaning of the term changed and children who accompany their parents into a different culture were referred to as “Third Culture Kids”. Useem used the term “Third Culture Kids” because TCKs integrate aspects of their birth culture (the first culture) and the new culture (the second culture), creating a unique “third culture”.


TCKs often come from highly successful, intact, educated families.When a group decides to send or bring somebody to a foreign country, they are making a significant investment. They want to send people who will represent the group the best and provide the most value for the investment.  “Almost all” TCK families are deployed to foreign countries as a result of the father’s profession, and very few families live in another country primarily due to the mother’s occupation.

Intercultural experiences

TCKs are often multilingual and highly accepting of other cultures. Moving from country to country often becomes an easy thing for these individuals.  Many TCKs take years to readjust to their passport countries. They often suffer a reverse culture shock upon their return, and are constantly homesick for their adopted country.

Many TCKs face an identity crisis: they don’t know where they come from. It would be typical for a TCK to say that he or she is a citizen of a country but with nothing beyond their passport to define that identification for them.

They usually find it difficult to answer the question, “Where are you from?” Compared to their peers who have lived their entire lives in a single culture, TCKs have a globalized culture. Others can have difficulty relating to them. It is hard for TCKs to present themselves as a single cultured person, which makes it hard for others who have not had similar experiences to accept them for who they are.

They know bits and pieces of at least two cultures, yet most of them have not fully experienced any one culture making them feel incomplete or left out by other children who have not lived overseas. They often build social networks among themselves and prefer to socialize with other TCKs.

Recently, blogs and social networks including Facebook and TCKID, have become a helpful way for TCKs to interact. In addition, chatting programs including Skype are often used so TCKs can keep in touch with each other. The unique experiences of TCKs among different cultures and various relationships at the formative stage of their development makes their view of the world different from others.

Notable TCKs

  • US President Barack Obama was born in Hawaii from an American mother and a Kenyan father and grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii.
  • Current NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, the Philadelphia-born son of professional basketball player Joe Bryant, lived in Italy from ages 6 to 13 while his father played in that country.
  • Former NBA star and current team executive Steve Kerr, son of American academic Malcolm Kerr, was born in Beirut and spent most of his childhood in various countries in the Arab world, only moving to the U.S. permanently in high school.
  • Zack Kim, Notable guitarist was born in Seoul, South Korea and grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

If you made it to the end of this post, I’d love to hear your comments about TCKs.  Are you one?  Do you know one?    Is the thought of raising a TCK exciting or paralyzing?




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  1. Sabine Noordhoek Hegt says

    Liked reading this. I’m a tck, so were my Grandfather and Father. Now I’m raising 2 tck’s myself. So I’m always interested in this topic.

  2. says

    Great read, I had no idea what TCK’s were before this, so thank you for the eye opener, having lived in one country my whole life, im very envious of your kids, what an awesome oppurtunity you’ve given them!

    • says

      It’s a fascinating sub-culture of those who move around, Nina! Our three “littles” are TCKs and it’s most fascinating to watch them interact with others (especially the oldest, who is now 19 and an “adult”)