The 3 "Third Culture Kid" Cultures

Category: Third Culture Kids

Many times after I speak, I hear parents referring to their children as 4th, 5th or 6th culture kids because of all the countries they have lived in. When I hear this, my heart sinks as I realize they might not understand the three cultures of the Third Culture Kid and how paramount each culture is to the identity and development of their children. I'd like to share with you what I share with them in a little vlog:

Please note that this is not the definition of the Third Culture Kid, but rather an explanation of the three cultures of the Third Culture Kid. Let's take a look at those three cultures again:

Culture 1: The Legal Culture.
This is the culture that “owns you” so to speak. 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.  About 20% of the respondents of our Think Tank 2011 survey had more than one passport. Why is this number on the rise? There are several reasons, but chief among them is because…they can! Three decades ago it was much more difficult to legally hold a citizenship in two countries. But today many countries are allowing dual, triple or even more citizenships. Being a dual citizen is not only beneficial politically, financially or to bypass long immigration lines. It is also quite the status symbol in the TCK population. (I sure wish I had more than one.)

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. As Pollock and Van Reken explain in their book “Third Culture Kids”, it is in the second culture where TCKs take the “elements” of the cultures lived in and make them an integral part of their life. So does it matter how many countries a person lives in? Maybe not for the definition, but it often does matter to the TCK.

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. Pollock and Van Reken describe members of this culture as having a “sense of belonging in relationship to others of similar experience”. 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. But it does have a population -a rapidly growing community that is scattered across the globe. They are hiding in plain sight as they attend primary schools and universities worldwide or work at HSBC and 7 Eleven on the corner.

So does this explain the Third Culture Kid? Not by a long shot! Again, this is not the definition of the Third Culture Kid, simply an explanation of the three TCK cultures. I didn’t discuss how long it takes a person to become a TCK or even some of the characteristics that make the population so unique. Ah, so many thoughts! I guess I’ll have to save some of these thoughts for another time.


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