Being expat

European TCKs vs Global TCKs

In most of the books and articles about TCKs I miss the comparative approach between globally living TCKs and continental living TCKs.

Most of the studies focus on children who spend a significant part of their developmental years outside their parents’ culture, i.e. overseas, mainly on different continents. But what about those who, like me, did “only” live in different countries on one continent?

During gatherings among TCKs and ATCKs in the last years here in Europe, I noticed that those who did lead a global life, having experienced life on different continents and those who did “only” live in different countries but on the same continent didn’t really have that much in common. Often those who didn’t live globally were intimidated by the exuberant and exotic life of the other group. – Many expat families raising TCKs here in Europe have a completely different lifestyle than the ones described in the mainly US literature about this topic.


Let’s start with the definition Pollock and Van Reken gave about this group and which forms the base for many studies about the topic:

“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 builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background” (Pollock & Van Reken, 2009, p.13).

Pollock & Van Reken point out four main aspects which characterize Third Culture Kids:

a) their upgrowing outside of the parents’ culture

b) the fact that they build relationships to all of the cultures

c) the fact that this kind of children would “not have full ownership” in any of the cultures, “although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience” and, last but not least,

d) that “the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background”.

Relationship with all the cultures

I think this is the main aspect of the definition of Third Culture Kids: that we build relationships to all the cultures we grow up in.

This also is fundamental for every Third Culture Adult (cfr. someone who did start the global or international life after age 18, i.e. left his or her passport country in adult life): wherever they end up living, they’ll pick up something from their host-countries and take it with them on their international journey. They will adopt certain values and habits that will form their “third” culture.

Full ownership…

This is the part that intrigues me in the definition. How can you measure ownership in a culture? Does this mean that you know all (?!) about values, habits, language(s) with all the dialects, regional variants, the history etc. and that you can identify with everything (?) or most of the aspects related with that country, ethnicities if you grow up in your passport country? Honestly, I don’t think that anyone can say that he has “full ownership” of his culture. This is simply impossible. Even people who grew up in one country, in the same city their parents, grandparents etc. grew up in would not consider themselves having “full ownership” in their culture (i.e. of the region they grew up in).

The sense of belonging for a TCK

I strongly agree that TCKs and ATCKs (as much as global nomads, expats etc.) discover the sense of belonging when they encounter others of a similar background. It is a huge relief, when we realize that there are others that don’t want to know where we come from, which language we like the most or what kind of cuisine we consider “the best” or where “the weather/job/healthcare system is the best”. When we don’t have to explain every step of our journey and still feel comfortable in a conversation about our life and ourselves.

All these aspects mentioned in the definition do apply to all sorts of TCKs, no matter if their international journey is global or continental.


Why do some TCKs feel different?

Many expats here in Europe don’t consider themselves or their children who grow up abroad as Third Culture Kids. Even those who know the term and the concept behind it don’t feel that they “belong” to this group. Mostly due to the literature about this topic which is mainly from an American and strongly global point of view.

This made me realize that with this term people associate exclusively globally living families. I’ve heard comments like “I think I’m a TCK but I didn’t live in Africa or Asia… I only lived in Europe”. I did hesitate myself, when I first read about TCKs, saw infographics about this or tried to do tests called “You know you’re a TCK when…”.

Here are some typical questions of this kind of tests, which I consider really inaccurate (I only chose some of the assumptions, but there is a vaste number online about this topic):

“You know you’re a TCK when…” European TCKs Global (US) TCKs
You speak two (or more) languages but can’t spell in any of them No, usually we are proficient in several languages Yes?*
You flew before you could walk Yes, but more since the last few generations. Yes?
You have a passport, but no drivers’ license No (this is for young adults going to college: In Europe the age of these young adults coincides with the age they usually leave for college: and they don’t necessarily go to study abroad) Applies for young adults  repatriating to the US (abroad, the average age to get a d.l. is 18, in US 16)
You watch National Geographic specials and recognize someone No… Sometimes (depends on where you’ve lived)
You run into someone you know at every airport Not so often Yes?
Your life story uses the phrase “Then we went to…” five times (or six, or seven times…) Yes (maybe less times?) Yes?
You speak with authority on the quality of airline travel Yes (but the same about train travel, and viability by bike or car) Yes
National Geographic makes you homesick No Yes
You read the international section before the comics Yes Yes
You live at school, work in the tropics, go home for vacation No, no, yes Yes, yes/no, yes
You don’t know where home is Yes Yes
You sort your friends by continent No, by country Yes
You feel that multiple passports would be appropriate Yes (a European one would be handy!) Yes
You watch a movie set in a foreign country, and you know what the nationals are really saying into the camera Yes Yes
You automatically take off your shoes as soon as you get home Most times, yes. It depends on the country Yes
You have the urge to move to a new country every couple of years Yes Yes
Half of your phone calls are unintelligible to those around you Yes Yes
You have best friends in 5 different countries Yes Yes
You own personal appliances with 3 types of plugs Yes Yes
You know how to pack Yes Yes
You cruise the Internet looking for fonts that can support foreign alphabets Not necessarily Yes
You have frequent flyer accounts on multiple airlines Not necessarily Yes?
You consider a city 500 miles away very close Not always Yes
* I add a "?" when I'm not sure every globally living TCK would agree (or disagree).

Some assumptions are very country specific: “You know there is no such thing as an international language”: in most countries English is the international language. It depends very much on which countries you live in and in which context. If sent by an international company, the chances are big that you’ll stay in an international environment and English will be the main language. “Rain on a tile patio – or a corrugated metal roof – is one of the most wonderful sounds in the world”,  “You haggle with the checkout clerk for a lower price”, ” Your wardrobe can only handle two seasons: wet and dry” and “Your high school memories include those days that school was cancelled due to tear gas, riots” really only apply to very specific countries.

Many assumptions are very American: “You go to Taco Bell and have to put five packets of hot sauce on your taco”, “You go to Pizza Hut or Wendy’s and you wonder why there’s no chili sauce”, “You won’t eat Uncle Ben’s rice because it doesn’t stick together”: these are examples of food preferences from an American point of view, an European would not consider. “You know the geography of the rest of the world, but you don’t know the geography of your own country” depends from the school you’re attending abroad. If it is an International school, chances are high that you’ll know more about your own country. “You don’t know whether to write the date as day/month/year, month/day/year, or some variation thereof” is something very American. In Europe, this is much more unified. “You believe vehemently that football is played with a round, spotted ball” this doesn’t seem strange to a European and we would never put this on this kind of list. There were also some assumptions which I don’t consider TCK specific, like “You wince when people mispronounce foreign words”, this is something every multilingual does (but you don’t necessarily need to be a TCK for this!), “You have a time zone map next to your telephone” and “Your dorm room/apartment/living room looks like a museum with all the “exotic” things you have around”. This last one can happen also to people who travel a lot.

What are the main differences between traditional TCKs and European TCKs?

First, European TCKs did not leave the continent. Their conception of the world is still “huge”, they travel a lot too, but they’re not really considering an airport their home. Why? Because European TCKs or expats often take other means of transportation: the train, the car, the boat. Of course, the plane is a great solution for fast travels (business or emergencies) from one city to another. But when travelling to a countryside, the car is often more convenient.

Also, many European TCKs are simply European citizens who change country because of relocation by a European company or because of a new job in another EU country. Their motivation to lead an international life is different from the one of traditional TCKs.

European TCKs are very aware of the differences between the European cultures, even though they mainly share the same history, Europeans have a very diverse background. Moving from Portugal to Sweden can have a similar culture-shock effect like moving from Rio de Janeiro to Montréal.

I’m writing a study about European TCKs or expats who never lived outside of Europe and am collecting data about personal experiences, therefore this is also an invitation to send me your European TCK or expat stories. I will soon publish another post about more specific characteristics of European TCKs and you’re kindly invited to let me know your thoughts about this in the comments.

English: Rectified map: Languages of Europe Fr...

English: Rectified map: Languages of Europe Français : Carte rectifiée des langues d’Europe (Anglais) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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24 replies »

  1. This is perfect! I felt the same way and strongly agree with you! I love living in Europe- and one of the reasons is that it is stil big enough to provide exciting experiences but still small enough to make a shared identity possible- and studies actually show that there is a slight but steady rise in the occurance of European identity.

    • Olga, I guess the studies you’re referring are from a “North European” point of view? In the last years the Southern part of Europe is experiencing major economic and politic difficulties within the EU and their situation is very critical. These factors have a major impact on their sense of belonging to Europe and of sharing the same objectives with the powerful countries of the EU.
      This is a very delicate argument and I’m not going to discuss it any further here, but it has changed the view of many people.
      The European identity can be shared but there are still many differences and the wars and battles our continent has experienced are still in the back of peoples minds, which makes it more difficult to really consider Europe a “big country”.
      Don’t get me wrong: I grew up with a very strong feeling for Europe. As you know, I went to an European School and was very aware of the advantage of open frontiers and a more global (even if here I would say a “more European”) economy and lifestyle. Nevertheless, I’m very aware of the down sides of this “Europa”.

      • The study I mention was based on an analysis of main newspapers- I think also Southern European but it was made a few years back- before the crisis- and it was a qualitative study of main European newspapers, I think also Southern European. Identity was one of the categories analyzed but it was the smallest one- by far the smallest. I know because I took part in it 😀 Jokes aside, I am also aware of the many porblems Europe faces- there is the ecomomical crisis and the fact that specifically members of the EU are seen as better or worse- there are good Europeans such as Germans or French and bad ones, such as (now) Bulgarians and Romanians- even though it used to be Polish people. I also feel strongly European, but I agree that there are huge problems and I don’t think my vision of Europe is a idealized one- although I am getting dangerously close, I must admit.

  2. Ute, this is important information, and you are the qualified voice to write about it. I agree, so much of the TCK literature is written from a US-centric POV that excludes the vast experience of European nomads. And what of the considerable experience of Asian nomads, who filter throughout northern, central and southeast Asia, speaking (from what I have observed) even more languages/dialects that Europeans? It is not unusual for a relatively uneducated Indonesian refugee or foreign domestic worker, for instance, to speak five or six dialects related to Bahasa and then a couple of forms of Chinese and of course English as well. This still somewhat limited perspective on TCKs, as you’ve noted, is fascinating and rapidly changing, I think. It is also proof that the narrative is controlled by the dominant culture, economy and language.

    Terribly interesting, Ute. Eager to read more of your findings.

    • Thank you, Melissa. Of course, not only European TCKs differ from those described in those studies, I also think about those who did live in many African countries or, like you say, the Asian nomads etc. Every kind of TCK experience merits to be told and shared, because they are the “new normal”. You mention a very important aspect of this kind of lifestyle: the variety of languages we learn by moving. This is something that is not studied by the US-centric literature about this topic, because it is not an issue for them. They can find Englih-speaking schools for your children all over the world. But what about the families who really struggle to convince their children that their minority languages are worth to be learned and spoken regularly.
      You mention refugees. Even if their situation is slightly different as, unfortunately, they usually can’t repatriate and must stay abroad for very long periods and don’t have financial support internationally living families have when working for big companies. But they go through exactly the same phases every international living family goes through (cfr. transition phases).
      TCKs are changing, they are much more diverse than described in the main studies, controlled by – like you say – the dominant culture, economy and language. I think it’s very important to add more variety and perspectives in this research.
      TCKs are not only children of globally moving parents who work for international companies, missionary children etc..

      • Agreed. Most of the TCK literature gives scant attention to children of Africa’s huge diaspora. We may look “African” and speak one or two African languages, but we think in American or Russian or Mandarin Chinese… and we don’t know where “home” is. Our parents were/are highly educated but they were born and raised in poor countries with very different cultures and experiences.

      • Yes, Ben, exactly. This is another point. The TCKs who are already second or third generation, having parents (and grandparents) coming from different cultures: the whole picture is much more complex and colourful! It’s so exciting to examine this huge diversity! I would love to know more about your experiences!

  3. It does seem like a lot of the TCK literature is focused on MKs from North America, especially those of us who grew up in Central or South America, Africa, the Pacific, or Asia. Our experiences are naturally somewhat different from those of Europeans who have lived in various places on the continent. I suspect that a North European who spent time in Portugal, Italy or Greece might have as varied an experience as many MKs.

    I’ve always been fascinated by the regions of Europe that are by nature multilingual. When I visited there in 1983, I met an Alsatian, a Frenchman who grew up speaking German. I also met a guy from southern France who grew up speaking Langue d’Oc, the French equivalent of Catalán. Both of those guys spoke fluent English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and other languages, and worked as translators.

    Then there are the Swiss, most of whom seem to speak at least two of their three (?) official languages; Cataluña; País Vasco; Belgium; all the areas where there is a healthy regional dialect plus an official “high” dialect, and many other multilingual or multidialectal areas. People from those areas may have different attitudes toward culture and language from the outset than the typical North American expat.

    • Thank you for leaving this comment. Yes, I think European TCKs are different in many ways. First of all, many are multilingual, like you say (btw. Switzerland has 4 official languages: French, Italian, German and Romansh 😉 ) and there are so many regional variants spoken in the regions of every country, not to mention the dialects.

  4. Ute – I think your looking at regionalized versions of TCKs (e.g., European-focused, Asian-focused, etc.) is an interesting concept and would like to see more done on this, just not for the reasons espoused in the comments (e.g., as if non-American voices/views have been ignored). However, I do still believe the core concepts of TCKs enumerated by Pollock and Van Reken hold true whether the TCKs are truly global in experience or regional. What differs are the particular details of each person’s experience, yet that is true for everyone – we each have a unique set of experiences but what binds TCKs together is the shared experience of growing up in different cultures (even if similar and neighboring) during formative years of identity development (Barbara Schaetti). In the case of Europe where there is far greater regional centralization of political, economic and social structures and interaction, you can definitely see a TCK growing up in Europe having a more regional perspective which is likely missing in other world regions which don’t have the same type or level of structures in place. For example, a TCK who grew up primarily in Asian countries would certainly have an Asian perspective (as well as a Eastern vs. Western one), but not to the same extent perhaps because of the lack of the aforementioned structures. I would offer that you have taken the questions in ‘You know you’re a TCK if…’ far too literally. They are simply one person’s or group of persons’ perceptions, and are not definitive for all TCKs; it also doesn’t mean they are simply an American perspective either. Plenty of TCKs speak/write multiple languages and know how to spell correctly in each – that was a light-hearted attempt at humor. I appreciated your emphasis being not simply on the differences you perceive, but also on the similarities which all/most TCKs share. To me, studying regional subsets of TCKs is an interesting way to split the TCK pie, just as TCKs are themselves a subset of the greater CCK pie. Keep writing!
    Linda A. Janssen

    • Thank you, Linda for taking time to read the post and leave a comment. I don’t think that non-American voices have been ignored, I just feel that the most dominant voice is the US one or the English talking one (and language is a very important aspect in all this!) and it’s such a different one from what you would hear and read if the perspectives would be European, Asian, African…
      Fact is, that there are many TCKs who do not pertain to the traditional group as described in the main studies about the topic, because their parents aren’t necessarily highly educated or are sent by the group (military, church, a business, government etc.) and they do not figure in the statistics. They fulfill all the other requirements enumerated by Pollock and Van Reken.
      I’m not aiming to describe particular details of each person’s experience. I want to give a voice to these groups that, in my opinion, are not taken into account when talking and writing about TCKs.
      Growing up in different cultures during formative years of identity development is surely something TCKs have in common, but not all can (or want ?) for example go to international schools or English speaking schools. The tendency here in Europe is, as you surely know, to send them to local schools if possible, in order to foster adaptation and to let them learn the local language. Sometimes these families don’t have the choice and need to send the children to local schools.
      Of course, families who will move frequently and who work for international companies have other expectations and are more prone to sending their children to international schools because it makes things much easier for subsequent international moves (you’ll find schools with English as dominant language all over the world).
      A TCK grown up only in Europe surely will have another perspective than one grown up in Asian countries, but this is what makes this kind of study interesting. But in some points their experiences will be very similar. I would like to point out that a regional perspective does not mean that it is less interesting or less worth to be studied, on the contrary.
      I don’t think that I did take the questions “You know you’re a TCK if…” too literally: it’s the way they are perceived by readers. I decided to mention some questions that you consider one persons’ or group of persons’ ones with the intent to point out how excluding they sound to people who are not part of that specific group. The empirical linguist in me who is used to form appropriate questions to get the responses to my inquiry always cringes when reading this kind of questions. Fact is, that if someone hears about TCKs and searches the net (this is the first thing we do, right?) he will end up making these tests and feel – once again! – excluded. I would like to see a list with assumptions that are valid for every TCK.
      What you say about TCKs speaking and writing multiple languages is true, so, why should someone put this on such a list: of course, because it’s an attempt at humor… It surely depends with what kind of intent someone reads or checks this kind of lists. If it’s just for amusement, fine, but if it’s to find some answers to all so many questions TCKs have, then it’s not so funny.
      TCKs are a subset of the greater CCK pie and I would love to find studies who describe other regional TCKs. I’m not sure I would consider them a subgroup of global TCKs though.
      I would love to continue this conversation and really hope we’ll meet sometime.

  5. This is a great post and fantastic research to do. I may be a global TCK, but I’ve had conversations about TCK research being very US-centric, when there are many non-US and non-global TCKs. I think we need more research like yours and I look forward to reading more about it.
    I also don’t agree with many of those ‘you know you’re a TCK when’… Some are spot on, but others are far too specific, like you mentioned. I have my own TCK complexities because I never actually lived in my parent’s country of origin (Lebanon), became an American citizen at a young age and was technically an American expat, without being originally American or considering the US as home. My parents are now settled in France, as is my sister and that is where we have our strongest roots, despite having lived in several countries all over the world.
    There are so many facets to TCKs and so many different experiences, yet much of them are not considered in research. I think your research will be much appreciated by many and I’m very much looking forward to reading about it.

    • Dounia, you’re so right. This was the reason for me to start this research: the experiences of many TCKs are so different. The core concepts of being a TCK may apply to a majority of the cases studied so far, but if the group you’re studying is homogeneous, this is just normal. As soon as you get a less homogeneous group (with parents and grandparents coming from different cultures, backgrounds, not working for the typical companies etc. that are usually described in the studies) the whole “group” needs to be re-defined. I’m working on it and I’ll publish a few more posts about this considering European, African etc. TCKs as “subgroups” or “sub-category” to the more global TCKs doesn’t convince me (at all ;-)). I would like if you could tell me more about your experience with this, your thoughts. I think your story would be very important to be shared. – I’ll send you a mail soon 😉

      • I would love to talk about this further, so please do send me a mail anytime! 🙂
        I’m not convinced either that these regional TCKs are ‘subgroups’ of global TCKs – for me, they’re all at the same level of the spectrum, if that makes sense. This is such fascinating research so I am impatiently looking forward to reading more and to hearing from you!! 🙂

  6. Dear TCKs! I am soon starting my PhD in Linguistics, my MA consisted of TCK’s and I want to continue that in my PhD thesis. It should be in the field of linguistics (intercultural linguistics). As I am not a TCK, but want to make sure my thesis will contrubute something to the world of TCK, I wanted to ask you for the most important aspects as a TCK when it comes to Linguistics. Is there anything that has not been discussed before or too less, let me know. I would be happy to write my thesis based on ideas from the ones that are concerned. Thank you! You can comment here or send me a private message (=email).

    • Dear Juditta, this is brilliant! I will share this on my fb pages too. Could you please leave me your emailaddress for the private messages? Thank you very much and I’ll surely contact you.

  7. I definitely agree that the term TCK is very Americanized, due to the fact that most of its research has been done in the States. I’d love more research in Europe, Asia, South America, Africa, and many more countries within these continents! This would allow a more unified TCK international experience. From my personal experience as a “Global TCK”, I don’t necessarily relate to all the statements you suggest as a “yes”, and I would say that not all “European TCK’s” would not relate or relate to the ones you do. No matter Global or European TCK, we all have varied experiences, even if we may share commonalities.

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