What Being a TCK is Really All About

by Editor on March 22, 2016

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We were sitting in a coffee shop having yet another one of those random conversations in which we could go from our favorite ramen noodle flavors to deep thoughts about our lives as TCKs.

My friend was explaining how blissful and easy her life had been before moving from Canada to Cambodia a year earlier. How her main ambitions had seemed so within her reach. How she had taken everything completely for granted. And then, how her family had suddenly moved to Asia.

I just sat and listened. As a TCK who had lived in Asia my whole life, it broke my heart to think about how she must have felt coming to Cambodia. And in that moment, my heart broke for all the third-culture-people out there, for all the confusion and heartbreak and loss they would feel in their lives. My heart broke for the tears they would shed and the pain that would come with every confusing moment, every tearful goodbye.

I didn’t really know what to say.

Then I realized something. “You’re never going to be normal, you know,” I said.

My friend gave one of her characteristic short laughs. “Yeah. I’m never going to be normal.”

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Third Culture Kids are never going to be normal.

Our life in Cambodia is far from normal. It is sweaty, smelly, and colorful. We’re always a hot mess. (And not in a cute way. At all.) Here, the classic four seasons are reduced to three: hot, very hot, and hot-and-raining. To have an amoeba is totally normal. And having Dengue fever more than once is not uncommon. Items on our bucket lists include tasting grilled dog meat and swimming across a polluted river.

Life is always an adventure. And life is hard sometimes.

There are hellos and goodbyes, which confront us almost on a monthly basis. “Home” is impossible to define. And figuring out who we are is even harder.

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“God doesn’t make mistakes, and He’s planned all along for us to live overseas.” We hear that a lot. Many people tell us that “our experiences will enrich us” or “we will gain so much from our cultural encounters.” We’ve even been told on numerous occasions that “it’ll be easier to get a job because we’ve lived overseas.”

While all of these things are true, and while we do appreciate that encouragement, we also want to say this: We don’t need you to feel sorry for us. We don’t need you to treat us a certain way. Or at least, that’s not the main point.

Sometimes the TCK journey is more about acceptance. There are so many people out there trying to understand us so that they can treat us the “right way” or make us feel better. But the TCK journey is so much more about a personal decision to accept ourselves the way we are. Being a TCK is about knowing we’re different and accepting that as a truly valuable thing.

It’s sort of like doing a puzzle. There comes a time when we struggle with defining “home” and doubt who we really are. We feel like there is only one “piece” that can fill the “home” space in the puzzle and that life is all about finding which piece fits in that gap. We also want to take out certain pieces of our life-picture as an attempt to let go of pain. We want to let go of people. We want to let go of places. We want to be able to replace pieces every time a change happens. But that doesn’t work.

Instead of trying in vain to remove important pieces from our life-puzzle, we need to understand that each piece is important. Essentially, TCK life is more about letting ourselves add pieces to our lives, accepting them equally, and choosing to allow them to live simultaneously with each other. It’s hard and messy and confusing, and we cry a lot. We know that. And it’s totally okay.

We don’t need to be so concerned about the puzzle pieces of our identity not fitting together perfectly. God has called us to find freedom in our true identities in Him. As TCKs, God has called us to experience these struggles for a specific purpose and has chosen to make them a part of who we are.

When we realize our special calling from God as His children (Ephesians 1:5) and find our identity in being his disciples, “the truth will set us free” (John 8:31-32). Our identity in God means that “home” is heaven (Philippians 3:20). We know that there is ultimately a purpose in each hard goodbye (Romans 8:28). We have hope (Ephesians 1:12) and peace (Ephesians 2:14), even when we feel like the future is too unknown or the past is too hard to handle.

Ultimately, the main point of the TCK journey is accepting our not-normal-ness. However hard it may be, it’s not about making the puzzle pieces fit. It’s about adopting a new perspective on our identity.

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Sarah has lived her entire 18-year-old life in Southeast Asia. Originally Swiss, she speaks English with an American accent, German in a Swiss accent, and multiple other languages including Swiss-German, French, and Khmer. She loves Jane Austen, coffee, airplanes, and sentimental conversations about TCK life. 


Janelle is an 18-year-old TCK, MK, and PK who grew up in Canada before moving with her family to Asia just over two years ago. She is a lover of photography, passion fruit smoothies, OREOs, mountains, oceans, maxi skirts, and all things “Anne of Green Gables.”

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  • Ellie

    this is so good ladies, thank you!

    • Janelle K

      Thank you so much for reading Ellie!

  • Nicole

    This is beautiful and hard to read as a mom who is in the early stages of possibly moving my two little ones (4 and 6) to South Asia. Hearing how hard it is makes me want to shrink back and give my kids the easier route, the less painful one. But hearing how you find identity in Him is wonderful. Thank you for the hard truth.

    • Janelle K

      Hi Nicole! Thank you so much for reading and commenting! I wanted to encourage you that while this post does focus on some of the harder aspects of TCK life, many more posts could be written about the absolute joys and fulfillments of living overseas. Yes, it was hard when I moved to Cambodia… and still, I wouldn’t trade living here for anything! I absolutely love it – it has shaped me in more ways than imaginable and has truly been life-changing. 🙂 May you be blessed richly as you pursue God’s direction.

  • “As a TCK who had lived in Asia my whole life, it broke my heart to think about how she must have felt coming to Cambodia. And in that moment, my heart broke for all the third-culture-people out there, for all the confusion and heartbreak and loss they would feel in their lives. My heart broke for the tears they would shed and the pain that would come with every confusing moment, every tearful goodbye.”
    Thank you for this. I love your compassion and understanding!

    I’ve had something of a revelation lately: it can be really HARD for those TCKs who weren’t born into the life they’re living. And… I think that it can be really different for those who were born here. I almost feel like we need some new language to cover the difference. (I’ve read that when the term “TCK” was invented, apparently that was a real step forward and revelation for many people, because there wasn’t even really a definition or idea like TCK before.) As I read everything I could get my hands on about TCKs, I couldn’t really see any of it in my own children who were born and raised in this culture. Then, we moved to a new city, and I started interacting with transplanted TCKs; now I see what I had read about! It breaks my heart, too. Although, it’s also a lovely thing to watch sometimes.

    Anyway, I’ve been wanting to know more about these other TCKs: the ones who were born and raised. Maybe literature about immigrants would fit with their experience more?

    • Sarah Sommer

      Thanks for your encouraging comment, Phyllis!

      I agree with you: every TCK experience is different. I believe my experience is a lot different to Janelle’s, and our experiences are probably a lot different to your children’s. As you say, trying to put into words each TCK journey almost needs some new language!

      But it’s also true that TCKs generally share some common experiences too. Sure, not everything we read in TCK literature will be prevalent for all TCKs. But I think the struggle with an entire new culture, and obviously having your life completely changed (in hard and beautiful ways), is something that is common in each TCK journey.

      I don’t think I’ve ever read anything about TCKs who were born and raised in a different culture… That would make for an interesting book. 🙂 But that’s what I love about blogs like these – we get to read about our different journeys but also relate to each other in our similar experiences.

      • Yes. And our children will probably come to that point of experiencing a new culture someday. So far, they haven’t. And surely they’re not the only TCKs in this situation?!?

        • Elizabeth Trotter

          No, your children aren’t the only ones in this situation 🙂 But they will have to experience a new culture as young adults when they return to their passport cultures.

          And you absolutely right — when the term TCK was coined, it was revolutionary! No one had had this vocabulary before. And I can personally testify to the fact that if you don’t have a vocabulary for these things, the transition between cultures is much harder. So I think it’s great that you’re looking for more vocabulary for your and your children’s experiences. No TCK experience is better or worse; they’re all just different, with different challenges and “easier” aspects.

          You asked about literature, and interesting that you use the term immigrant, because “hidden immigrant” is a term used in the TCK literature. 🙂 Which books have you read so far? I’m assuming you’ve read Ruth Van Reken’s and David Pollock’s classic “Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds.” Another one that I found really helpful was Lois Bushong’s “Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere,” which is geared toward counselors, though I found it helpful as a reader doing my own internal work. I’d recommend anything by Van Reken, including her books, articles, website, and videos. Marilyn Gardner also has a tab on her website (Communicating Across Boundaries) called TCK Resources that might be helpful. I’m going to ask both Marilyn Gardner and Kay Bruner, our resident TCK and counseling experts, if they can answer your question too.

          Some of the TCK literature talks a lot about moving a lot as many missionary and expat families do move a lot. It sounds as though you haven’t moved a lot, so your experiences may be somewhat different in the specifics, but who your children are growing up to be is influenced by multiple cultures. This means that their adulthood will be shaped by not truly belonging to any one culture — kind of the hallmark of the TCK experience — even if their childhoods don’t seem to fit into the TCK mold.

          Ok, so I’m off to ask Kay and Marilyn what their thoughts are!

          • Marilyn Gardner

            Phyllis, your thinking is right along the lines of what others are thinking. A few years ago, Ruth Van Reken began talking about adding a term to the cross cultural lexicon. The term CCK or cross cultural kid. She felt this gave another word that represented an even broader group, yet a group where some of the identified TCK characteristics were recognized. If you look at the original definition of TCK you get this: Third culture kid (TCK) is a term used to refer to children who were raised in a culture outside of their parents’ culture for a significant part of their development years. Key of course is that word “development.” Even before the TCK reaches their passport country, they are aware that they are part of two worlds. Usually parents don’t completely live like nationals, rather they retain s good bit of their culture in their home and kids are subconsciously aware of this difference. An author, Jhumpa Lahiri, says she was raised in an “alternate universe.” Outside their front doors was America. Inside was India. There is something Edenic about naming things, and I think this holds true in the TCK world as well. People spend days thinking of what to name a kitten;weeks and months on what to name a baby. I was part of the TCK world where there was no literature. There was just an expectation that you go to your passport country and fit. The name gave validity to my experiences. Suddenly, I didn’t have to wonder why I thought and made decisions so differently from those around me. There was research and narrative to validate and comfort. My TCK experiences may have only included two countries while I have friends who lived in 8 countries in their developmental years, but the characteristics were still similar. I had found my tribe. Recently, I facilitated a panel discussion with two TCKs and their moms. One of the TCKs was in college and just discovered the term TCK a year and a half ago. She said she broke down and wept. Finally there was room for her to find a place. There was a vocabulary that could help her express feelings, differences, and similarities. She had a name! As our global community expands to include more and more refugees and immigrant families, the term CCK will be used more and more I think. For your own kids, the TCK experience may feel like background information right now, but my guess is that when they go to a place where their legal status says they should “belong”, a place where they are asked what it’s like to be “home” when they have never lived there, then the TCK name and all that goes with it to comfort and encourage may become lifelines. Would love to continue this conversation. Wish it was over tea!

          • I have two “bunches” of thoughts about this–a personal bunch and a professional bunch. Let me start with the personal one.

            I was overseas from age 9 months to 10 years. Because of the lack of language for the TCK experience, and because “you was so young/kids are resilient/you’ve lived in America most of your life/etc” I had no idea that TCK stuff applied to me. Oddly enough, though, I was friends with lots of TCK’s at the conservative Christian college I attended, and one of them handed me a copy of Ruth Van Reken’s Letters Never Sent. And even though I had never been to boarding school, even though I came back to the US at age 10, I will never forget that moment of reading “I feel awful. Something inside of me is squeezing me so bad I can hardly breathe.” Someone was finally talking about the grief I had experienced, in the middle of this wonderful life that was all about God’s calling, exotic places, and the fabulous “war stories” my dad told.

            I don’t think you need identical experiences in order to have significant, healing understanding between people. And sometimes I think our need to divide everything out into its least common denominator, creating that divide of us-vs-them, mitigates against the understanding and healing that’s available to us if we could look past differences and find the common ground.

            Professionally speaking, I would say this: even though the experiences will vary widely, the grief is what binds TCK’s at the deepest level. The loss in me sees and recognizes and (best case scenario) helps heal the loss in you. Vulnerability is the great relationship-maker, as all us Brene Brown readers know. TCK’s can have that in spades, when it’s safe to access it, feel it, and grow through it. That’s our huge gift to the world: we know what pain is, and we have empathy for others in their pain.

            If you’re born into a particular place and live there all your life and don’t have “the typical TCK experience” but then are expected to go live in your passport country at some point? I’m guessing that the shared experience of grief with other TCK’s will resonate. You may not experience that loss until later, but I’m guessing it will come. And there are people who will understand that, even though their experiences may have been quite different in the specifics.

            One other thing I would say, from a professional standpoint, is that as parents, it’s critically important that children be allowed to identify their own truth, and tell their own stories. One of the concerns that I sometimes have with the huge buzz around TCK stuff is that we can end up defining their experiences for them. (And sometimes I think there can be a preoccupation with TCK stuff that helps the parents avoid their own loss, grief, and pain. But that’s a topic for another day!)

            TCK research is enormously helpful, and I am grateful for it, don’t get me wrong. But all the helpful language in the world will never eliminate the necessity of processing through our own particular experiences and emotions, learning the shape and texture of our own losses and griefs, and learning to identify our own way and to walk in it.

            Sometimes I see parents throw TCK language at their kids and walk away, as if having good information is all you need. And this is just not true. We can’t save our kids from the natural grief that comes with this life. TCK language and research can help us understand what’s happening, but it won’t get us out of it. We have to be willing to be with our kids in the experience–whatever their particular experience happens to be–if we want to be part of the healing. That may end up really messing with our 7-year plan for ministry awesomeness.

            Dr. John Gottman, the world’s foremost relationship expert says this:
            “If I had to summarize 43 years of research into one sentence…it would be, ‘When you’re hurting, baby, the world stops and I listen.'”

            Whatever our varying experiences may be, whatever language we happen to apply to those experiences, THAT is a behavior that will work for every relationship, everywhere, every single time.

  • Anna Wegner

    “But the TCK journey is so much more about a personal decision to accept ourselves the way we are. Being a TCK is about knowing we’re different and accepting that as a truly valuable thing.”

    I loved this! Raising 3 TCKs of my own. Their life is so rich in many ways, and times intensely hard. Thanks for putting your thoughts into words for us. 🙂

    • Sarah Sommer

      Thanks for your encouragement, Anna. 🙂

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