What is a Third Culture Kid?

TCK meme no place home


You are looking at one right now. I’m a typical Third Culture Kid. My writing niche is third culture kid experience. That’s mostly fiction with some personal essays and articles. So, dear reader if you are wondering, “What on earth is a third-culture kid?”, this will answer your basic questions and tell you where I am coming from as a writer.

Sometime back I wrote this entry; afterwards, I continued to think about TCK fiction and literature.

Third Culture Kid refers to individuals who spent most of their growing up years outside the culture of their parents. A person’s sense of identity and perspectives of life is formed during their growing up years. Those who grew up abroad tend to have a different perspective of life than those who left their homeland as an adult. I feel that I don’t really have a homeland. Consider my parents who left India as adults in their 20s and arrived in the USA in their late 30s. Even after living in America for over 20 years, they still have a thick Indian accent. They sound as if they recently arrived. A friend told me that when she first met them, she couldn’t understand their accent, but eventually got used to it. She told me that I don’t have an accent at all. After hearing me talk, many people assume that I grew up in the United States. Some say I may have a hint of an Indian accent but it’s barely-there.

where i am from

The term was coined in the 1950s by sociologist Ruth Hill Useem who observed the children of diplomats. The  most recent TCK description by David C. Pollock emphasizes what makes a TCK different from a monocultural person:

A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.

I tend to relate best to people who have traveled, experienced different cultures, and tend to have a broader perspective of the world. I have a difficult time relating to people with myopic perspectives of the world.

Being a TCK makes dating an interesting adventure. I have a hard time relating to Indians who have never left India or experienced the Western world. Likewise, I also cannot relate to a culturally-unaware American. My best dates are other global nomads regardless of their nationality. The idea of not fully identifying with a single culture is the common trait.

A student of mine asked me, “How do you introduce yourself to people? What do you consider yourself?”

The answer to, “where are you from?” could mean anything from nationality, place of birth, heritage, citizenship, and not all of them are the same. I often describe myself as Indian-American or sometimes simply American. Why am I any less American because my ancestry or national origin is not of any European country? I am of Indian origin but not an Indian national.

The second part “What do you consider yourself,” with “yourself” referring to cultural identity presents an interesting challenge of its own. That 14-year-old student was actually asking how I culturally identify myself. The culture that I identify myself is the global, big city culture. I feel the most comfortable in international, big cities like Singapore, Buenos Aires, Dubai, London and others. There is a certain mentality, cultural attitudes, and perspectives common to global, big cities around the world. Each city has its own distinctive but there is something that I can relate to in all. In Singapore, I can eat food from different cultures, meet people of different countries, and people like to discuss politics, world cultures, arts from around the world, religions, and diverse lifestyles. That’s city life. Living in the city is not simply totting Prada purses. Of course, there is anything wrong with that either.

A lack of international connectedness would frustrate me. Dare I say it?  Sex and the City is a portrayal of a myopic, white wealthy woman’s city life. That is not what a big city life is all about. Living in a place like Singapore challenged me to view the world beyond the borders of national cultural identity. When I question the important topics of life and write about them, I try to seek what do all cultures have in common yet what is the cultural distinctive? What do humans of all nationalities and cultures value? These are the essential questions I try to answer in my fiction writing.

There is a plethora of Third Culture Kid non-fiction, articles, and topics. The mainstream culture does not quite recognize it unless of course you live in cities with a large expat population. There may be plenty of immigrant fiction but not much of the TCK experience is portrayed artistically in fiction. I feel that TCKs around the world need fiction that represents them. Unlike immigrant fiction, which discusses finding a land and place, Third Culture Kid fiction will be discussing finding a land or identity that transcends national borders and life as a global nomadess.


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