1,2,3: The Three Cultures of a Third Culture Kid

For those of you who recall my second entry, I questioned the term “Third Culture Kid” and why it was coined as “third” culture. There are certain things we just know as TCKs and we all understand them without having to explain them. But what if we wanted to explain the term third culture kid? What if we wanted to explain what it meant to be a third culture kid, or why we’re called third culture kids? Well, it might be hard to have one exact answer for that, but I have an explanation here that might help. I came across this explanation of the three cultures of a third culture kid as I was reading other blogs on TCKs, and I was absolutely fascinated by the clear and concise manner in which it was presented. The author of the blog has kindly allowed me to repost her work on my blog; all credit goes to Libby Stephens (Certain sections have been abbreviated, for the entire text, please visit Libby’s blog at http://libbystephens.com/blog/third-culture-kids/31-the-3-qthird-culture-kidq-cultures).

Culture 1: The Legal Culture.
It is the passport culture, the citizenship country. It is that country that a person belongs to legally. Is it possible to have more than one ‘first culture’? Most definitely! In fact, the numbers of TCKs having more than one ‘first culture’ seems to be on the rise.

Culture 2: The Geographical Culture. 
This culture is a compilation of all the cultures and countries a TCK has lived in (not visited), whether it is 2, 4, 6 or more countries. It is this ‘second culture’ that is the main contributor of cultural behaviors adopted by the TCK such as appropriate greetings – you know, kissing on cheeks, bowing at the waist or shaking hands. The second culture also influences both verbal and nonverbal language and a myriad of other things…TCKs take the “elements” of the cultures lived in and make them an integral part of their life.

Culture 3: The Relational Culture. 
Of all three cultures in the definition, this is the one that is the most misunderstood, but it is also the one that most TCKs often hold as the most precious. This is the culture that explains why the Brazilian who has lived in Tanzania and Switzerland can connect with the Canadian who has lived in Singapore and New Zealand. The ‘third culture’ is not a how many countries issue, nor is it a which countries issue. The third culture is a unique and separate culture shared only by others who have also lived internationally and multi-culturally yet not necessarily in the same countries... It is not ‘culture one’ mixed with ‘culture two’ to make ‘culture three’. It is a unique and separate culture with their own way of communication, social interaction, values, etc. This culture has no legal standing, passport or rights. It has no geographic locus. There is no place to stick a pin on the map…

Again, this is not the definition of the Third Culture Kid, simply an explanation of the three TCK cultures.

The part marked in bold was highlighted by me, because I was struck by how clear that explanation was, considering it is a notion that is so difficult to put in words. We all understand this, we all feel this, as TCKs, but how many of us have been unable to explain it when asked? To someone who hasn’t lived as a TCK, this explanation shows them why there is a link between all TCKs, why there sometimes seems to be a hidden code that only we have access to. It doesn’t mean they will fully understand it – I still hold to what I said in my earlier entries that I believe it to be impossible (or nearly) for a non-TCK to really understand what it is to be a TCK – but at least this puts in words why us TCKs feel such a connection to each other.

It brought clarity to me on certain questions that had been in my mind for a while, probably ever since I heard the term TCK and realized I was one. I knew that one of the three cultures was that of my passport, but I was never able to explain the other two. With this breakdown of the 3 cultures, it was as if I suddenly found that word I’d been looking for, that was always on the tip of my tongue, but getting stuck there. It struck such a chord with me and it is for this reason that I was compelled to share it on my blog. Unless I am the only “ignorant” TCK out there, I am assuming (and hoping!) that others will find answers and clarity in this explanation as well. Please feel free to share your thoughts, comments, suggestions on this explanation or anything else really! It’s always great to hear what others think, and to share thoughts and experiences – with TCKs or non-TCKs. Looking forward to hopefully hearing from all of you out there…

Third culture kid, and still figuring it out, signing off.


6 thoughts on “1,2,3: The Three Cultures of a Third Culture Kid

  1. Ma chere Dounia,
    First of all , FELICITATIONS on your wedding! It’s a wonderful adventure, marriage. And second, THANK you for a terrific blog! I shall be referring students to it in the future, especially your very first posts: the part about not making any friends so that it won’t be so bad when you leave next time struck a chord. All in all, I think being a TCK is a fantastic thing, and I’m hoping my boys will be TCK’s themselves, although currently they are most definitely MonoCulture: French mom and dad, living in France, and going to a French school. ACK! however Nick started ASP last week so we’re on the right track!
    Thanks again for a great blog. Bises to you and your husband!


    1. Thank you so much for your comment and your encouragement! 🙂 I’m thrilled that you are enjoying the blog and that you’ll tell your students about it – that’s very exciting for me! I’m especially happy that you could relate to some things I wrote, because that’s really what I’m hoping for with my blog. Good luck to Nick – I’m sure he’ll have a wonderful time at ASP and most definitely be a TCK too! 🙂 Merci encore – tous tes commentaires me font tellement plaisir (pour le mariage et pour le blog!) et c’etait une tres belle surprise!! 😀


  2. Now I’ve read this, I feel silly for not having done so earlier. I was never entirely sure what TCK meant – only a vague idea of having lived in various parts of the worlds – so this is a fabulous explanation for me. Thanks.


    1. I’m so happy this post could be interesting and instructive! I learned something new when I first read it on Libby’s blog, which is why I chose to share it. I had never seen it explained quite like that so it was a very instructive and insightful moment for me! It means a lot to me that you take the time to stop by, read my posts and leave comments. Connecting and communicating with others is my favorite part of blogging (along with the writing part, of course! 🙂 ).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s