TCKs, ATCKs and TCAs – what’s the difference?

18 Aug

There are so many TCK related acronyms. Sometimes it seems like they could all be lumped together. There are important differences, however, that are important for those who work with TCKs to understand.

TCK – Third Culture Kid
This is a person growing up overseas – this is the acronym we use most here.

ATCK – Adult Third Culture Kid
This is an adult who, as a child, spent a significant amount of time living overseas. They are grown up TCKs.

TCA – Third Culture Adult
This is a person living overseas long term, who moved away from their home country as an adult, but don’t immigrate.

So why do we bother making these differentiations? Aren’t they similar experiences? It’s all about people who live overseas long term, right?

Yes and no. There are certainly overlaps in the experiences of TCKs, ATCKs, and TCAs, but there are significant differences as well.

TCKs are well aware of their between-worlds status. Sometimes it feels like they fit in everywhere and nowhere. We’ve written a LOT about TCKs here – if you’re not familiar with the term, check out this post.

TCAs also live between worlds – they aren’t a part of the host culture, but they no longer fit in properly in their home culture. The big difference here is that TCAs grew up in their home culture – they understand that culture, they have a deeper affinity to it than a TCK would. They have childhood experiences and a sharing in the pop culture of that time. They do not have the issues that come with a childhood between worlds.

Speaking of childhood experiences and issues, that’s where we need the term ATCK. An ATCK is grown up. They don’t consider themselves to be TCKs – that was a long time ago, and now they’ve settled into life. ATCKs who settle in their home country especially may distance themselves from the TCK label. Regardless of their adult life, however, their TCK childhood is part of who they are. ATCKs who settle overseas (and there are a lot of them) may not seem any different to their TCA peers, but they have a different heritage, and draw from a different set of experiences.

These three terms are like a set of overlapping circles (venn diagram style) – there are places of shared experience, and areas in which their experiences are different. TCKs, ATCKs, and TCAs all have international experiences that shape them and influence their sense of identity. Those shaping experiences and influences mean they will often feel at home with people in their own category – that’s natural, as they have something important in common. It’s like coming across someone from the same hometown, or who went to the same university, or plays the same unusual sport – there are things common to you that most others won’t understand.

I have seen a lot of chatter on the internet about whether these labels are positive or negative – whether they are helpful or harmful. While I understand the desire to avoid stigma, I think that these labels are helpful, as long as they are used to breed understanding and not to clump a bunch of people together and say they are the same – that’s just stereotyping. Within all three categories there is of course huge variety – people with wildly different experiences, and who have responded to them in very different ways.

A sense of belonging is something that many TCKs/ATCKs/TCAs struggle with – feeling like they belong in two or more places, but belonging nowhere at the same time. These terms identify the place where an international person belongs, regardless of geography. In the end, isn’t it nice to belong somewhere?


Posted by on August 18, 2011 in Expat Life, TCKs


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3 responses to “TCKs, ATCKs and TCAs – what’s the difference?

  1. DrieCulturen (@DrieCulturen)

    August 23, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    Hello Tanya, thanks for this post. Personally I think the TCK and the ATCK are most important because during your youth/adolescence it’s all about identity etc. Spending your childhood abroad/ or in another country has a major impact. A TCA (third culture adult) makes the decision to go abroad but usually the TCK and (A)TCK did not, they had no choice as they tagged along with the family.

    What about the label “global nomad”?

    Anyway: what’s in a name? The important thing is that children growing up in other cultures (and their parents) know about the meaning of a TCK, what the characteristics are and what the challenges might be. By the way I’m was a TCK and am a ATCK now.

  2. Tanya

    August 25, 2011 at 10:24 am

    I like the term “global nomad” as it was originally intended, but these days it’s been hijacked by those who like to travel a lot and no longer means people who live for extended periods of time overseas. I think having similar but separate terms helps us understand that the kind of international experience you have changes the way it affects you.

    I agree, the difference between TCK/ATCK and TCA is the big one. The experience of spending a large portion of one’s childhood overseas marks a child’s development – it affects the person they become. Even those ATCKs who like to distance themselves from their TCK-ness, who think it was in the past and of no importance now, have been influenced greatly by their international experiences. Understanding that is important for TCKs and their families. Each kid will respond a little differently, but all will be affected.

    TCKs and TCAs have a lot of overlap, and TCAs can identify with some of the things that TCKs go through, but their international experience was the choice of an adult, not the foundational experience of a child – their overlap is in their current experience, not in who they are. I think it can be easy for TCAs (especially long-termers like me) to assume that the emotional struggles/impact is similar whereas in most cases it is VERY different


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