Third Culture Kids (TCKs)

This term was coined to describe children who are living outside of the country where they hold their passport.  For example, our children, Toby and Ben, hold American passports but spent many years growing up in Mozambique.  They do not belong to the American culture, though they are greatly influenced by their American parents, relatives, and time spent in the USA.  They also do not belong to the Mozambique culture, though they spent most of their formative years there and enjoy the food, speak some Portuguese, and saw the sights of Mozambique daily.  They belong to a culture that is a mix of both, and they have characteristics of both.

For example, American culture puts a high on being on time.  Mozambique holds relationships to be more important than timeliness.  Therefore, as adults, my children will either employ a mix of those two priorities, or switch back and forth depending on the situation, perhaps without really being sure of which is “their” way of doing things.

TCKs have lives filled with a richness of diversity, but they are often not really sure where they fit.  This problem becomes increasingly troublesome as children get older, and have to make decisions about schooling, marriage, and where they will settle and work.

A little lesson about Culture:

A person’s culture does not just consist of things like behavior, the language/words they use, their customs and traditions.  There is a deeper level of culture, which includes things like a person’s beliefs, values, assumptions, and the way they process their ideas.  This is the level at which a TCK may really struggle as they go between cultures.  It is fairly easy to switch from using the word “soda” to “pop” as you move between areas of the USA, but it is harder to change your ideas about what is important in a friendship.

Charactistics, Challenges and Strengths

One of the biggest characteristics (and strengths) of a TCK is their ability to look at the world from a wider view.  Most TCKs have an awareness that there can be more than one way to look at the same thing.

TCKs have a greater awareness of the problems in the world outside of the passport country.  They’ve seen poverty close-up, perhaps experienced political upheaval, understand that “fairness” is not something people in poor countries experience.  It may be hard for them to understand why their peers are so concerned about clothes and video games when there are bigger issues out there.

TCKs can really struggle with confused loyalties because of these characteristics.  Although they hear about the wonders of capitalism in America, they’ve probably experienced some of the downsides of that in other places.  The “American Dream” idea may not jibe with the situation of people in the third world.  They may wonder which is right.

A real benefit of being a TCK is experiencing a richness of cultures; however, this usually means that they aren’t thoroughly grounded in their own culture.  When they return to their passport culture, they have to be coached in proper behavior (like the rules for entering and exiting an elevator) and all of the family relationships with the relatives they rarely see.  They can be thrown into very awkward situations with friends when their parents haven’t coached them well enough (as happened with Toby when he held hands with the 8 year old boy he had befriended – acceptable in Moz, but not in the USA).

Most TCKs possess unusual skills that can be of real benefit to them.  For instance, a TCK may be fluent in another language, or know how to navigate an airport easily.  They may have insights into why people do the things they do, culturally, and be able to bridge differences between people from varying backgrounds.  We see this already in our children, who are becoming adept at adapting to different kinds of people.

Where are you from?

This is a question that any highly mobile person dreads.  I (Cami) was born in Kenya, spent my childhood (except for a year in Nigeria) in the Midwest in various spots, moved to Florida when I was 12, and moved to New York for college at 19.  I lived there for 4 years, then 2 years in Namibia, 2 more years in Florida, 2 years in South Africa, 5 more years in New York, a year in Portugal, 9 years in Mozambique (broken up by 1 year in the USA, then 5 years later 10 months in the USA), then on to Namibia.  Where am I from?  I usually answer “Florida” since my teenage years were spent there.  Toby and Ben answered “Mozambique” but now Ben will answer “Namibia” but I don’t know what Toby will say because he goes to boarding school in Kenya. When someone asks them where they are from in America, Toby may answer “New York” since he spent his first 3 years there, or “Connecticut” since that is where we are based on furlough.

Hello and Goodbye

TCKs have to say hello and goodbye pretty frequently.  This is not just because they themselves are moving, but because the missionary community we live in is very mobile.  For instance, Toby’s close friend Johannes (Norweigan) left Mozambique in 2009, and returned there a month after we left for furlough.  Toby won’t see him for 2 years total.  His best friend, Quinton (American), leaves Mozambiqe 3 months before we return, for a year’s furlough, then left permanently a month after we returned.  Another friend he had to say goodbye to.  When we left Mozambique the first time, we moved out of our house and packed everything up.  We returned to another house after living in 3 different houses in Mozambique, then spent 10 months in the USA, then returned to Moz for 6 weeks to pack up and sell, then moved to Namibia.  The grandparents all came to visit during our terms, and saying goodbye after their 6 week visits was terribly hard.  Leaving Mozambique involved many, many goodbyes, and some of them were to people we will likely never see again because our worlds will not intersect.

On our first (and second) furlough in the USA, we said hello and goodbye constantly!  There was a brief, joyous reunion, and then we say goodbye for another 4 years.  At the beginning of our first furlough, we realized that Toby hadn’t seen my older sister, his aunt, since we lived in Portugal.  Almost 5 years had passed before he saw her again.  My two boys never remembered seeing me together with my two sisters since the last time we were all together, Ben wasn’t even born.  On this last furlough, my parents, sisters and my family were together for the first time in 11 years.

All of this hello-ing and goodbye-ing can be really hard on the kids.  We try to prepare them, give them time for transitions, and talk about their feelings.  However, often they just become overwhelmed and appear unfeeling to others.  Toby visited a Sunday school class in the USA on our first furlough and when I came to pick him up at the end he asked me if we would be visiting this church again.  I said we probably wouldn’t and he turned and faced the children, gave them a big smile and a robot wave, and said “Bye!  I’ll never see you again!”  He has truly absorbed some of the realities of our lives!  It becomes too hard to invest emotionally with people whom you will not see for a long time, or perhaps not at all, and so some polite small talk is the extent of the involvement.

There have been quite a few sad conversations regarding who we miss, and each of the children have wished mournfully that all of the people we love could live close to each other (as Ben says) “all in the same house!”.  Of course, this is now the reality for many people in this mobile day and age, but the distances we must travel to connect with our loved ones (including friends) are discouraging to the kids.

Unfortunately, one of the results of these multiple emotional losses for the kids will be a distancing of themselves from close relationships.  This is one of the things we are very aware of as we try to give them safe ways to express their feelings and try to facilitate deep friendships for them.  It is up to us to allow them to grieve the losses without trying to resolve it for them.  This is one item that we would really appreciate your prayers for.

We also ask prayers for them to feel involved with our work and be able to appreciate the eternal impact.  Occasionally they are asked to sacrifice because of the work, and we pray that this will mature them rather than make them bitter towards our Father.

We feel it is important that they do regard wherever we are on the field as “home”, and try to make our house comfortable with familiar items like posters and a few knick knacks.  As they get older, and as Toby is away at boarding school, this becomes more difficult.

Thank you for praying for our TCKs and supporting and encouraging them!