The Third Culture Kid Dictionary

third culture kid dictionary

Words are important. We use them everyday, all day. They describe what we want, what we think, how we feel and a myriad of other things. Language, words are an amazing communication tool.

Take the term TCK or third culture kid. Many don’t know the definition of this term. While there are a couple of different definitions, this is my favorite: “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.” American Sociologist – David C. Pollock

There are some words that describe better than others the TCK journey. Some of them don’t exist in the English language, so for the English speaker we rely on words from other places, languages. In this post I’ve compiled twenty words that I believe best describe the TCK experience. Some are funny, some are sad, but all work well when we struggle to articulate our particular journey.

Third Culture Kid Dictionary:

Adopted country – Those countries that take us in and raise us as one of their own, yet we know we don’t ultimately belong to them.

Adult Third Culture People – Our parents, or other people who have chosen to make another country their home for a long period of time. Unlike the TCK whose developmental years are formed through living in a country other than their passport country, this person is a fully developed adult when they make this decision. Thus the difference in perspective.

Belonging – That sense of being a part of something that we long for and wish for but that seems to elude us, always remaining just outside of our grasp.

Code – switching – The process that goes on internally while we are interacting with people from other countries and cultures to determine how to best communicate with them.

Cultural Confusion – What happens when we are faced with pop culture or culture cues that we are supposed to understand from our passport culture, but realize we are clueless as to their meaning.

Fernweh – originates from German. Distance Pain. The sense or feeling of wanting to be somewhere else. A reverse homesickness, a longing for a place that isn’t where you are right now.

Goodbye – That word which we don’t like to say, that action which we don’t like to do.

Hiareth – Welsh word with no English equivalent that is best translated as “a homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed.” Often spoken of as a wistfulness or longing for something of the past that no longer exists.

“Home” – that ambiguous place where either our cat lives or our suitcase is unpacked. Not necessarily a geographic location but a place defined by memories, events, people and places that span the globe.

Identity – A government document issued by our countries of citizenship that indicates all the countries we have visited or lived – otherwise known as a passport.

Invisible Immigrant – understanding the migrant experience to another country yet being seen outwardly as one who is originally from that country; that sense of having much in common with the immigrant experience and yet looking so much like those around us that we are assumed to be one of the crowd. Our immigrant sensibilities are invisible.

Language of Elsewhere – A language without grammar or syntax, past tense or present perfect or superlatives. The language of ‘other’ best spoken with  tea, coffee, talk, meals, reaching out, asking questions, sometimes shopping, most of all – time.

Nostalgia – a longing for the past that we have created, the one that helps us escape our current reality; a suffering “caused by an unappeased yearning to return.”

Saudade – Portuguese word – a “vague and constant desire for something or someone that does not or cannot exist. Not a discontent but a vague and indolent longing.”

Killing the Saudade – the act of getting together with those who understand your ‘saudade’ and reminiscing or participating in some activity reminiscent of your past (eg eating a meal at a restaurant that serves food from your adopted country). This can kill those feelings – for a while.

Sun-drenched Elsewheres – The opposite of a sedentary life; those places that we are haunted by and dream of going to.

Third culture kid envy – The sense of ill will that rises in us like bile when others are traveling to or writing books about those places that we consider as our own.

Third culture kid bigotry (or prejudice) – The unfortunate “I am better than you” that can arise as a result of feeling ‘other’ and manifest itself in various ways, occurs primarily in our passport culture.

Third culture kid grief – That grief that is a result of too many goodbyes, too much change, and unspoken sorrow.

Tribe – Our people, our group of other third culture kids from varying countries and nationalities that share a common language and experience.

What would you add to these words? What other words are a crucial part of the TCK lexicon? 

Picture credit: Word art Marilyn R. Gardner and picture from

20 thoughts on “The Third Culture Kid Dictionary

  1. Can I use some of these words as a resource for teachers at my school? I am a TCK working with TCKś in Thailand and am producing a Cheat Sheet for our teachers ( I teach at an international school) so that they are more aware of our wonderful weirdness. One side will be vocab and your list had some great ones, I will reference this blog as a citation.


    1. Hi Jack- this is wonderful! I’m so happy to have you use this. Would you want my two books for the school library? I’m happy to donate them. All the best and thank you for reaching out.


      1. Marilyn, Your generosity abounds! I will speak with our librarian about getting them here but I´m sure she would love them. Thank you for helping me place honor where it belongs.


  2. Marilyn, Thank you for this post. I’m working with a ministry that comes alongside missionaries and ministry leaders worldwide. I’m wondering if you would allow me to share this post on a guest blog that I’m building as a resource for missionaries, pastors, and para-church leaders? If granted, I’d post up the link to your site as well and give credit as it’s due to you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Many TCK’s are the children of missionaries. What happens when these children, as adults, choose a different worldview than the conservative religious/political one in which you were raised? Then you’re a double exile; you can’t even find solace among those you grew up with. That situation is not addressed here at all.


    1. Hi – thanks for reading. You are absolutely right and this is not a comprehensive piece by any means. It’s just a look at a few of the many terms that help us describe our experience. I like your phrase “double exile” – good and hard description.


  4. Lots I′d love to comment on−−this is a great discussion! I′d suggest that we need words for notions that seem to exist for us TCKs and for no−one else. Things like “childhood airport familiarity,” whatever it is that makes “home” “home” for us, since it′s not birth or passport country, something more clear than “invisible immigrant” (it′s a good term though, I admit), etc.
    “Fernweh” and “adoptive country” are fantastic, especially “fernweh.” But as TCK′s, isn′t there a final destination we′re each trying to get to−−if not our birth country, passport country OR any of the places we′ve already lived?? I know I don′t want to go back anywhere I′ve lived, as much as I miss them all, because I know it′s setting myself up for disaster to “go back”−−the countries will have all changed too much and everyone I will have known will have left. What word could we have to describe that place??
    “lasthome” or something like that?


  5. The “adopted country” – I did not realize that it was not my permanent home until my sister left for college. My parents called the USA, “Home.” To us, it was an extremely long vacation until we could get back, “Home.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I so relate with this. At the end of the year-long vacation we all went home and couldn’t have been happier! And then one year we didn’t go back….we stayed for another year and it was so, so hard.


    1. I personally love Global Nomad, as trying to explain what a TCK is to someone who has never heard of the concept can be difficult and time consuming.

      Yet, I do use the term TCK, and as Marilyn pointed out, it can take someone until they are in their 20s or 30s to even recognize some of the issues they may have struggled with for a while. Just knowing the term TCK was a comfort to me when I finally figured it out. I had used the term Global Nomad for years to describe myself, but it didn’t encompass all the issues that the term Third Culture Kid seems to. It’s imperfect, but eventually, I think it is a good descriptor to settle upon when our unique issues start to hit hard.


  6. I teach mostly TCKs and they hate the label. It’s an interesting topic for them to consider when it comes to analysing their identity and place in the world. Most students seem to identify with one ‘home’ nation even if they have never lived there. Do you mind if I share this post with some of my students to kick start a discussion?


    1. That would be great – and I hear you about labels. My own third culture kids hate the label as well. My daughter who does some writing uses the terms transnational kid and transnational family. I also think that this stuff doesn’t come up until your late 20s or early 30s. At least it didn’t for me. I definitely saw myself as other but didn’t analyze it at all. I just headed back overseas as soon as I could. It was moving to my passport country with 5 TCKs that was the hardest journey for me – it was only then that I looked at the stuff on TCKs and it made sense. Please feel free to share!


    2. As a TCK I identified with the US as my “home” nation since that’s what my passport said and where my parents grew up. The problem was, when I returned to the US, both as a child and then after High School, I didn’t fit in. My “home” country wasn’t as familiar as it seemed and I definitely had cultural confusion. 14 years later the pull to move back overseas is still strong even though I know I won’t completely fit in there either. But I am so thankful for the opportunity to grow up overseas and am proud to be a MK and TCK!


  7. I love this idea. I’ve been thinking this over all morning!

    I would add “butterflies” – the nervous excitement fluttering in a TCK’s stomach as the anticipation builds and the days draw down towards the next destination.

    Also, “perspective” – the unique way TCKs view the world in which endless choices and possibilities interact to create multiple solutions to problems or ways of understanding the various new situations we encounter.

    I’m sure I’ll think of others!


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