Tag Archives: MKs

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

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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Why we should throw kids in the deep end

This is Danny Coyle’s second guest post (click here to see his post from last week on trust). Danny is an ATCK who pastored TCKs and is now raising 2 TCKs of his own.

When I was growing up, my Dad would take me and my brothers on his mission trips.  I never really enjoyed it when he asked because it meant spending time away from my youth group and my friends.  There were times he forced me to go, however, and now I’m so glad he did.

In our youth group, we were constantly involved with ministries to beggars, the lost, the demonized, and the sick.  Our youth pastor was not afraid to put us in uncomfortable situations.

In my family and my youth group, I got plenty of practice living out my faith.  By the time I went to college, God had proven himself so many ways by using me.  Not someone else.  It was my hands, my mouth.  This made the reality of God undeniable.  How could I discredit the people that asked Jesus into their hearts because I said they needed him, or the demons that I helped cast out?  I had seen the truth in action, and there was no way I could walk away from it.

When I pastored youth, we stayed in our youth group room.  I was too conservative.  I didn’t have time to plan outreaches, and I was too insecure to throw the kids into the deep end – like my parents and youth pastor did for me.  I can’t speak from the place of “This worked for me.”  I’m speaking from the place of “If there was one thing I wish I could have done differently…..”

I wish that I had done more to put kids in situations which required them to totally depend on God.  Places where they had to prove him.  I thought my teachings would be enough – but they weren’t.  Teaching alone never can be.

Youth are supposed to be sent out.  They are supposed to be sent out way before they go to college.  We need to be sending them into their schools, into the streets, to be the ministers that God has already made them to be.  Why? Because that’s where they prove Him for themselves.

Of course, there are many people who have turned away from God after he used them in incredible ways.  This is not a magic formula to keep kids walking with Jesus.  But I think it is the best thing we’ve got.

Throw your youth into the deep end and I’m sure you’ll find the pool filled with grace.

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Posted by on July 21, 2011 in Guest Posts, Leading Youth


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Lively listening: one of my most memorable youth small group experiences

In my second year of youth work in Beijing I began a small group for the older homeschooled girls living in a certain area of the city. These were good, solid girls with personal faith and leadership skills they were already putting to good use. All 5 were oldest children (with the exception of the younger sister of a pair who were both in the group – although the younger sibling was a total type A anyway!) They are wonderful young women and I love each of them dearly, despite the fact that I don’t talk to them often as they are living in different parts of the USA, busy with college.

I tried to make the group something different to a “normal” bible study. Most MKs have a LOT of Christian knowledge. They’ve been hearing it, just about breathing it, for most of their childhoods. I figured that if we did a regular bible study, these girls would stay in their comfort zone – with easy-access answers, safe in the Christian bubble.

Instead, I tried to poke and prod them a little – try to find questions they didn’t have stock answers for.  I tried to challenge them to think laterally/critically about their faith – to examine the things they accepted; to think about why. Sometimes I was successful in asking questions they didn’t have a ready answer to; sometimes I’m not sure they followed the weird angle I was coming from.

The most memorable small group for me – certainly the most lively discussion by far – was the one in which I didn’t reference the Bible. Not even once. And yet, I think it was the most “productive” afternoon I spent with that group of girls.

I’m not entirely sure where we started. I think we were talking about how to love other people well. We listed a bunch of ways to love people, and honed in on listening to them – we all agreed that when we feel listened to we believe the other person really cares about us. Therefore, listening well to the people around us was a way we could minister to them, showing God’s care and love.

So I asked them a question: how do you know someone’s listening to you?

It took a while to get some answers (they seemed to think it was obvious!) but eventually they began to describe concrete ways they measured whether a person was listening to them.

The 1st said: “their face is animated”
The 2nd said: “they ask lots of follow up questions”
The 3rd said “the keep eye contact with me”
The 4th said “they share similar experiences they’ve had”
The 5th said “I can see it in their body language”

I thought to myself “Wow! Five different responses! I couldn’t have planned this better!

The only thing was, they hadn’t seen it yet.

I asked the first girl “are you careful to keep your face animated when you’re listening to them?”
“Of course!” she replied, animatedly.

I asked the second girl “are you careful to ask lots of follow up questions when you’re listening?”
“Of course!” she replied, enthusiastically.

I asked the third girl “are you careful to maintain eye contact when you’re listening to someone?”
“Yes…” she replied with a hint of “what are you getting at” to her voice.

I couldn’t believe I was still getting blank stares. I changed tack.

I asked the first girl “are you careful to ask lots of follow up questions?”
“No,” she answered. She didn’t say “well why would I?” but she might as well have.

I asked the second girl “do you keep your face animated when you’re listening?”
“No,” came the reply.

I looked at them. Then it clicked. They turned to each other and started talking at the same time.

“You mean you don’t…!”
“Why wouldn’t you…?”
“Don’t you think…?”
“But it’s normal to…!”

And they were off and racing! I don’t think I contributed much more from that point on. We must have had a full 20-30 minutes of conversation discovering that the way you show something and the way I perceive it are different – and that when you learn how someone else works, you can express listening (and love) to them in a way that they understand. I might be showing someone love without them realising it – and the people might be showing me love in their own way, it’s just not obvious to me.

That discussion was so gratifying to me as a leader – I don’t remember them ever being that animated ever before or after. I had that wonderful sensation of having unlocked something for them – nothing earth-shattering or revolutionary, but bringing them to that point of catching a new concept for the first time. They would have worked it out sooner or later, but it was wonderful to watch them unpack it excitedly together.

I think that’s one of the most wonderful parts of small groups – giving teens the chance to work out their faith together: to understand new concepts and work out the practical applications. Creating a safe space for those discoveries and the experimentation that follows is a great goal for any small group.

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Posted by on May 4, 2011 in Leading Youth


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Longevity: the most important factor in effective TCK work

The vision for Youth in Asia is “resourcing and support youth work in Asia”. My personal slice of the vision is to see “career” youth workers planted on the field across Asia to serve TCKs, and to keep them there long term.

I’m coming to the end of my 6th school year working with TCKs in Beijing. I’ve connected with TCKs from around China through youth camps and conferences in Beijing, and with TCKs in Cambodia (and most recently, Thailand and Vietnam) through short term work in south east Asia. TCK work is not a hobby or side project for me; it is what I do – my career, if you will.

I’m becoming somewhat of an expert on the lives and needs of TCKs living in Asia, and it is my goal to serve them and minister to their needs. When I plan events or trips to visit youth groups, I do it with this goal in mind. I have come to the conclusion, however, that the best way I can do that is work toward placing and keeping TCK workers on the field across Asia.

Longevity is an effective factor in any ministry (or any job, for that matter). We all know that. The longer you do something, the more you learn about it, and so on. I would argue that in TCK work longevity is vitally important.

When it comes to TCKs, I would take a young and inexperienced youth worker who will stay 5 years over an experienced youth worker who will stay 2 years. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ll take the 2 year guy as well! I’m just saying that I think that longevity will provide for a deeper impact on kids than almost anything else.

Why? Trust

Most TCKs take a long time to open up to new people. In most cases, I’d say it takes 18 months of consistency to get a platform to speak to long-term TCKs. If you stay 2 years, you only get 6 months where you can really speak into their lives. If during those 6 months they know you’re about to leave, chances are you lose a lot of that impact, too.

Not all TCKs are the same, obviously, but there is definitely a huge barrier to trust when they are accustomed to seeing people come and go constantly – why bother investing deeply in a relationship when the person isn’t going to stay? Why put yourself in a vulnerable position and come to rely on someone who will leave you?

I believe it’s possible to learn a lot from someone you know a short time, and to really benefit from a mentoring relationship that lasts only a month or two, but that’s from a mature perspective. For a TCK who is in the midst of a million losses, that’s a difficult conclusion to come to emotionally.

There are two exceptions I would make to this: ATCKs and teachers. A youth worker who grew up overseas themselves will be accepted in much more quickly – they have a platform to speak from because they “get it”. A teacher who teaches TCKs in school and then works with a youth group outside school will get more space to speak into kids’ lives than someone else because they have far more face time with the kids.

My story

I had been a youth worker in Australia for years before moving to China. In fact, I started mentoring teenagers when I was still a teenager myself. When I moved to China I had no intention of continuing in youth work; I was transitioning to “real life” – finishing university so I could start climbing the corporate ladder.

When I visited the youth group ReGen for the first time in 2005, I felt like I was home. By the second week, I was hooked. Within months it was clear that THIS was the reason I was in China. I loved (still love) those kids! But I could feel this…resistance. There was a barrier between me and them that didn’t match up to my previous youth work experiences. I started to listen to their stories, trying to understand their lives and what made them different to kids at home.

I began to see how transient life can be for them – how many people leave. I realised that unless they believed I was around for the long haul, there was little reason for them to trust me or let me in. I took two weeks to pray and think so that I could come up with a date – so I could say I will be here until x.

I chose a date a little over three years in the future, based on when a certain group of kids would finish high school. Then I started telling them. I was clear that I had no certain plans, but that I would be around at least until the summer of 2009 because that’s when you graduate. I thought it was important to be clear that I was staying for THEM, not for a job.

I was amazed at how quickly that made a difference. I wasn’t instantly bosom buddies with everyone, but I didn’t sense that same resistance all the time.

As I’ve discussed this idea with TCKs I know, I’ve heard a range of timelines – how long before they’ll trust a youth leader. Those timelines have ranged up to 3 years. That seems so long, but then I think back – how many kids did I engage with weekly for 2-3 years before they first opened up about real and significant hurts they were carrying? It took that long for them to trust that I was staying, that I was going to keep being there for them. How many kids did I think I knew, only to discover there was so so so much more going on beneath the surface where so few adults were ever allowed?

Therefore, regardless of how harsh it may make me sound, I will keep saying this: I believe longevity is the most vital factor in TCK work. It might not be comfortable for youth leaders to hear, but I believe it is the heart cry of many, many TCKs all over the world.

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Posted by on April 25, 2011 in TCKs, YiA Vision


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