In my previous article, I talked about Third Culture Kids (TCKs) and their crazy, cross-cultural, and highly mobile lives. I also wrote about why understanding TCKs and being a friend to them is significant.
But how can one be a good friend to a TCK… someone who struggles with maintaining deep friendships? How can one be a friend to someone so different?
Here are nine ways to be a friend to a TCK you may know, whether a military kid, expat kid, missionary kid, or a person who has grown up overseas for any other reason.
1. Listen to them and try to understand.
This might be one of the most important things you could do as a friend. TCKs often feel misunderstood. They might be called dumb because they don’t know certain things about a culture. Although they look like a particular nationality, and although their passport says they are that nationality, they might not feel like they belong there. The best thing you can do for them is to listen and not assume.
My TCK friend Clarissa shares: “Some people probably think that I’m lying and faking my accent for attention and friends. One person even tested me with a strange question about South Korea, a country I’d lived in. Because of some people not believing me, I sometimes think that it’s better not to share my story at all. In the end, it just seems that a non-TCK is allowed to share their childhood because it’s more believable.”
2. Don’t ask them to “say something” in a language.
One of the things that can frustrate TCKs the most is when someone asks them to say “hello” or something else in the language(s) spoken where they grew up. They get asked that question a lot. Sometimes, people want to be amused by hearing something different or strange. Other times, people are genuinely interested and care. The TCK, however, can’t always know the difference.
Instead of asking them to say “hello,” explain why you want them to say something, and then come up with something for them to say. Maybe ask how your name is pronounced. Or how to say, “I like chocolate ice-cream.” Be creative— because the question to “say something” can get tiring.
3. Don’t assume they know the languages of the countries they have lived in.
Some TCKs move around every couple of years or live in a closed-off area such as a military base, so they never get the opportunity to learn the local language fluently. That is ok. It can be challenging for TCKs who wish they could have learned those languages but haven’t and then are made to think they should have learned them. Please approach them with understanding.
4. Understand that they don’t know everything about their passport culture.
TCKs don’t completely grow up in their passport culture or birth country— and often not at all. They have learned life in other cultural settings, with different values, other experiences, and other pop culture references. If a TCK doesn’t know who Bill Gates or Taylor Swift is, please don’t judge. They also might not understand why people do certain things the way they do— and they might act “dumb” in public. They aren’t dumb. They just don’t know the culture like the back of their hand. That’s okay.
5. Don’t compare your upbringing to theirs.
Although TCKs have had the opportunity to move to different countries from a young age, their childhood is probably way less glamorous than you think. TCKs experience profound loss at a young age. They have complicated struggles. They often don’t know exactly where or if they belong. Their childhood may seem nice to you, but the truth is, every path has its challenges.
6. When they share their diverse experiences, don’t assume they are showing off.
TCKs get to know each other by exchanging stories — they have a plethora of them! So whenever a TCK shares their memories about monkeys and monsoons and metropolises, understand that they are just trying to make a friend.
Again, Clarissa has invaluable wisdom to add: “Sometimes, TCKs share their experiences because they’re grieving or feeling homesick. Living in a country is like having a friendship with a person. And leaving that country is like having a friend passing away. So sharing helps TCKs to release their emotions healthily. They miss their time overseas just as a person would miss a former friend. When people think that TCKs boast or pretend about their experiences, it may discourage them from not only being open about themselves but also from releasing grief. And when grief is not processed, it may hurt them more when it returns to them in the future.”
7. Continue to be welcoming toward them.
When TCKs repatriate (move back to their “home” country), they are usually welcomed with huzzah and celebration. But to the TCK, the warm welcomes can seem to wear off. TCKs will take a while to process their latest move. They’ve lost so much, and it’s tough.
Be that friend that keeps on welcoming. While TCKs may arrive physically, it takes time for their emotions and their thoughts to arrive as well. So continue to ask and pray and help and listen.
8. Ask them hard questions.
Don’t be pushy, but challenge their presumptions. Ask them what they miss the most. Ask them what home is to them or their favorite tradition or food that they’ve left behind. Ask them who they are, really. Ask them what grieves them and what they didn’t enjoy about growing up as a TCK. Ask them how they feel or think about God and his role in their story, and don’t be satisfied with a superficial answer. Some TCKs can have very wrong ideas concerning God because they’ve blamed God for hard things that have happened in their lives.
TCK Sarah adds, “When someone asks me a detailed question, one that has the interest of getting to know me better, instead of simply asking because they think my life is ‘strange,’ I feel seen and loved.”
Kristianne notes, “I tend to open up a lot more when I feel the other person is actually interested in hearing the truth. And I really appreciate it when someone has done their research and asks something intelligent about the country I live in”
9. Remember they are ordinary people with interests and hobbies.
They might have grown up in a jungle; they might know six languages; they might feel like an alien. But they are normal humans just like you. They probably enjoy many of the same things you do — like playing video games, reading books, or trying new recipes. Recognize them for the human beings they are, and spend time with them the same way you would anyone else.
TCKs, what do you wish people knew about you? How could people be better friends to you?
If you’re not a TCK, this might be overwhelming. After all, Third Culture Kids are already complicated, and so understanding and befriending them has got to be so as well, right? Honestly, as a TCK, we really just want friends that are open to learning about us and are authentic, that listen and care. Being a friend is complex no matter the circumstance, but God has called us to show Christ’s love through our relationships.
Editor’s Note: This is part two of a three part series from Breanne on TCKs. Check out part one, “Where Are We From Anyway? The Common Struggle of Third Culture Kids,” and come back on Thursday for for 5 ways the gospel sets TCKs free.