Reflections on Being a Third Culture Kid (TCK)

Today’s guest post is by Lisa Zenno, a Melibee intern and a superb example of a “Third Culture Kid.”  She does a beautiful job of explaining why it is challenging, to say the least, to answer what we often think is a simple question:  “Where are you from?” 

Where are you from?  — Even after 18 years of education, I have yet to answer that question.  It’s a trick question.  Am I from Japan? Brazil? Mexico? New York? Or Seattle? Where am I from?  Where is home to me?  As a Third Culture Kid (TCK), that is the one question I fear.  I can never give a concrete answer, and it feels awkward not to be able to pin point one place.

Watch the movie clip below.  If for one second of the clip, you have an “ah-ha” moment, or, “I know exactly how that feels,” then you must be a TCK as well.  If not, let me introduce you to my world.

What is a TCK?  The term “third culture kid” was coined by sociologist Ruth Hill Useem in the 1950s.  A TCK refers to someone who, as a child, has spent a significant period of time in one or more culture(s) other than his or her parents.

Lisa's 20th birthday. This experience led to her senior thesis: “The meaning of the Coming of Age Ceremony for Japanese people living abroad”

Believe it or not, I wasn’t aware that I was a TCK until my second year of college.  I was born in Japan, but never lived there.  I have a Japanese passport, yet, I cannot sing the Japanese anthem.  I speak English and Spanish more fluently than Japanese.  My name is spelled “Risa” officially but phonetically I go by “Lisa” (BIG difference.  I’d be happy to explain it further at a later time).  I’ve lived in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paolo, Seattle, Bronx, NY, Mexico City, and Pullman, WA.  I have friends from all over.  I never had to ‘define’ myself as anything.  I was me, until my senior year of high school.

The first time I felt obligated to define myself was when I started applying to colleges.  I spent my high school years in Mexico City, and knew I wanted to go to college in the United States.  My friends and I alike spent numerous counselor visits asking which box do we fill in for “race” and/or “ethnicity”?  Do we have to choose?  Can we select allI never wanted to answer it as I had no clue what to put.

I eventually chose to study at Washington State University (Go Cougs!) in Pullman, WA.  Pullman is in Eastern Washington, a 5 minute drive from Idaho.  I chose WSU for their communications program, nothing more, nothing less.  Pullman is a college town with about 24,000 in population, and about 21,000 are students of WSU.  Having moved from Mexico City, I was experiencing culture shock for the first semester.

For the first time in my life, I felt like the minority and/or foreigner.  I was forced to realize a dichotomy of us vs. them and “the others.”  My first friends on campus were from the Chicano-Latino center, as I had a Latin American background, and my Spanish was still very strong.   I remember feeling out of place, not belonging anywhere, as I refused to limit/define myself as one cultural identity.

It seemed as though everyone around me (local domestic students) would be able to relate to one another by simply answering the question “where are you from?” except for me.  The only support group I had at the time was high school friends connected through instant messaging.  All my friends from Mexico City who went off to colleges in the US were going through the same thing and that in essence, saved me.  I knew I was not alone.

There were times when not being able to answer the simplest question of Where are you from? made me insecure.  I felt lost, isolated, and different.  For the first time, I was the foreigner.  Fortunately, similarity saved me and communication helped me grow.

Lisa (center) and her friends in Mexico.

As an Intercultural Communications graduate, I’ve learned to use the question “where are you from?” as an ice breaker.  I may not be able to come up with a quick answer, but it definitely gets the conversation going.  I don’t think learning the term TCK has helped me define myself any better, but it certainly helps to know that there are others just like me and that there is much to learn from this idea of kids and adults alike, living in different cultures.  No TCKs are exactly the same, yet we all share the same type of experiences.  I think it’s crucial to share those experiences as there’s always room to learn from one another.

Looking back at not only my life experiences, but also all the intercultural communication classes I’ve taken both in my undergrad and graduate years; I’ve realized that different is not so bad after all.  In fact, being different allowed me to explore the why’s of cultural identities for my senior thesis in college, and led me to my enthusiasm for International Education.   In retrospect, I’m glad I have yet to answer the question Where are you from?  as it allows me to continue exploring this fascinating theme.

There are many lists on the internet that starts with, “You know you are X when…” has a list of “You know you are TCK when…” so I’ll wrap here with a glimpse of my logic:

“Where are you from?” has more than one reasonable answer.
You flew before you could walk. [I flew at age 8 months]
You have a passport but no driver’s license. [Had a passport at 8 months, got my driver’s license at age 19]
You go into culture shock upon returning to your “home” country.- Your life story uses the phrase “Then we moved to…” three (or four, or five…) times.
You wince when people mispronounce foreign words.
You don’t know whether to write the date as day/month/year, month/day/year, or some variation thereof.
You miss the subtitles when you see the latest movie. [I tend to use the subtitle option on dvds a lot]
You have frequent flyer accounts on multiple airlines. [yes, yes I do]
You know how to pack. [my friends have said I should give a seminar on packing]
You have the urge to move to a new country every couple of years. [most definitely]
You sort your friends by continent/countries. [I kid you not: on both FB and Gmail accounts]
You have a time zone map next to your telephone. [both on my desktop and phone]
You realize what a small world it is, after all. [I feel like we are only 4 degrees apart sometimes]


About the Author: Risa Zenno is a TCK who goes by Lisa.  She works at the Art Institute of Seattle as an enrollment processor.  In her spare time, she loves volunteering time for international education. She is a mentor through the non-profit organization, Infinite Family and tries to help out many ‘challenges’ on such as creating powerpoints and helping with translations.  She considers herself a life-long learner and hopes to continue expanding her interest within international education. 


  1. Jaakko Haarala says:

    Nice one Lisa! I am writing my theses about TCKs as well. Perhaps you could add me on facebook and we could exchange some ideas one day. Im also a TCK btw… Cheerio, Jaakko

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