“Hi, nice to meet you!”
“Pleased to meet you too.”
“Where are you from?”
That question is easy to answer for most people. However, it isn’t for me because I’m a Third Culture Kid (TCK).
What is a Third Culture Kid?
Here’s the definition according to Van Reken and Pollock, two leaders in the field of studying children in cross-cultural settings: “A third culture kid (TCK) is a person who spends a significant part of his or her first eighteen years of life accompanying parent(s) into a country or countries that are different from at least one parent’s passport country(ies) due to a parent’s choice of work or advanced training.”
TCKs can be kids of diplomats, expatriates, military workers, missionaries or business people, and more. We are “third culture” kids because we form our own third culture. If the passport country was blue and the host country(ies) were yellow, the child would end up green.
I am American. At least, that’s what my passport tells me. Both of my parents are American. I lived in the USA until I was a first-grader. Then, my father got a job in Eurasia, and we moved. I’ve lived there ever since.
On any given day, I interact with two to three languages and cultures. At home, we speak mostly English, but I also speak the local language with my brothers. At school, I communicate in the local language, French, and English. I’ve even memorized three different languages’ keyboards and can switch between them easily.
At church, I worship with people of all sorts of nationalities and backgrounds. I have moved six times and have changed schools almost as frequently. Friends have come and gone since people move around often in the expatriate community. All of it has been both challenging and beautiful. I have struggled, but I wouldn’t trade my childhood for anything.
The Dreaded Question
So, back to that question: “Where are you from?”
Why is it so hard to answer?
Although my parents are American, and my passport says I belong there, I have grown up in other places. I haven’t grown up surrounded by American culture, community, and values. My family influenced me with some of those, but there were people and places around me from other cultures. I can’t say I’m “from America” when I’ve barely grown up there and have culture shock whenever I visit.
But I can’t say I’m from Eurasia, either. I don’t truly belong here, despite having a perfect accent and understanding the culture. The fact remains that I am a foreigner.
What do I answer? What do TCKs answer?
It changes. Some TCKs answer the question with where they lived the longest. Some respond with wherever their parents are currently living. Sometimes the answer changes, depending on what the person means by the question.
It’s tough for TCKs to honestly answer that question because they don’t always know where they are from. Feeling like they don’t belong anywhere is a huge struggle for many TCKs.
But that’s not the whole picture.
Beyond The Definition
The TCKs’ cross-cultural and highly mobile lifestyle affects who they become and what they deal with.
Here are four areas in which TCKs struggle.
- Rootlessness. Since most TCKs move around so frequently as children, they never have time or the opportunity to grow roots. They often feel as if they are not grounded in one particular culture or place.
- A lack of home and belonging. A home is a place where you belong, but when you’ve never fit in anywhere and lack deep roots, where is home? To many TCKs, home is not a place but a sense of belonging in a community.
- Maintaining deep and lasting friendships. Time and again, TCKs’ friends leave, usually because one of them moves. As they grow up, many TCKs create defense mechanisms for the grief involved in losing friends. Those walls, built to protect, end up hindering the formation of new deep friendships. TCKs can make friends, but getting deep with them and maintaining them in the long-run can be challenging to some. It’s a skill that TCKs have to learn as they grow.
- Unresolved grief. TCKs lose so much at an early age. Once the plane takes off, community, homes, extended family, and friends are all gone. Loss repeats with every move. Many TCKs are so young that they don’t know how to process their loss. Even when they grow, they often aren’t taught how to or given a chance to grieve. If so, this results in a tower of grief piled up over the years. That tower can and will tumble in later years in the forms of depression, anxiety, complex PTSD, etc.
But a TCK’s life isn’t all struggle. Just like anyone, we have good days and bad days. Throughout our lives, we have pain. At the same time, we also are given incredible blessings and benefits.
Here are three things in which TCKs are usually excellent.
- TCKs are flexible. Because they’ve had to deal with much change and unknowns throughout their childhoods, they’ve learned to adapt to new environments comfortably. One nickname for TCKs is “chameleon.”
- TCKs are empathetic. Since TCKs grow up in a cross-cultural setting, they interact with people of many ethnicities, beliefs, and values. It’s just everyday life to them. To connect with people and make friends, they have to cross lines of differing values and beliefs. They can also relate to those who have much loss because of various griefs they, TCKs, may have experienced as children.
- TCKs can notice, understand, and communicate cultural differences. Again, because of their cross-cultural childhood, TCKs learn to recognize various aspects of cultures. They often act as “cultural bridges” between two or more groups of people, explaining why each group behaves a certain way and what they mean.
Why Does Understanding Third Culture Kids Matter?
You may be asking yourself: “What does it matter to me that some people have grown up overseas? Why should I apply this knowledge to my life?”
Here are three reasons why trying to understand TCKs matters:
- Peoples’ stories matter. Jesus cares about our stories, and he has put us in a body of believers where we can learn from each other. Listening to someone’s story, we see the world through another pair of eyes, and we grow. We rejoice when we see Jesus working in believers’ lives worldwide despite boundaries, and we get a glimpse of his glorious, mysterious plan to create one body from a diverse humankind.
- Seeing your culture from a separate perspective matters. TCKs are skilled at recognizing good and bad things about different cultures. It’s important to understand that someone who has grown up in your culture and other cultures might have valuable insight regarding something you haven’t even thought about before.
- Listening to TCKs can help you interact with the various cultures around you in a better way. Many of you have friends with parents from other countries, or maybe you have friends of different ethnicities than you. Do you have foreign communities in your city? Perhaps there are international students at your college. Listening to TCKs’ experiences can show you how to better reach diverse people around you. As believers, we are called to connect with others to be a testimony for the gospel before them.
Are you a TCK? Do you know anyone who is? How can God use you as a TCK or to encourage a TCK?
Editor’s Note: This is part one of a three part series from Breanne about TCKs. Come back tomorrow for 9 ways to be a friend to TCKs!
For more info on TCKs check out:
I Am a Third-Culture Kid, And This is My Story
What It Means To Be a Third Culture Kid