Third Culture Kids – A quick primer

Hi. My name is Michael, and I’m from Alabama. My story is simple. I was born and raised in Birmingham. I lived there until I went off to college. After graduation I returned. It’s where my parents and in-laws live and even though it’s not where I live, it’s where I’m from. To a certain extent, it’s home.

Ain't nothing like 'em nowhere!

Ain’t nothing like ’em nowhere!

Roll Tide. Sweet Home Alabama. The Camellia, the  yellowhammer. Dreamland. It’s Alabama.

My story is simple. And yours probably is too.

My kids on the other hand are different. If you’ve never met them before, please don’t ask them where they are from, or where’s home. They were all born in Alabama but have lived in Georgia, Tennessee and Barcelos, Portugal.

Bluntly said. They’re not from anywhere. They don’t feel like they fit in here because they’re not nationals. But, when they go to the States, their experiences in a foreign culture will betray the fact that they are American, and are supposed to act like Americans.

But inside they aren’t. And…sometimes they don’t.

They’re stuck. Half way between one world and the next, in a totally unique third culture.

For them, fitting in is a different ballgame. It’s like Manti Te’o fielding questions about his love life. Complicated. Very complicated.

So, rule #1. Don’t ask them where they are from.

Instead, ask them where they live or have lived. Ask them what they like about both cultures, and then sit back and listen.

The next time a missionary comes to your church, try to understand that there may be a reason that the kids are a little offbeat or out of style.

Be sympathetic if they act more like awkward wallflowers than what you expect out of missionary kids. Help to prepare your kids or Sunday school class about what challenges third culture kids face.

Even though you may not know it or understand it, such a simple question could present unwanted stress for kids in a 3rd culture. Don’t believe me? Watch this very good short film on the subject.

So Where’s Home? A Film About Third Culture Kid Identity from Adrian Bautista on Vimeo.

Or read this excerpt from an article by Nina Sichel.

TCKs are the children of international business people, global educators, diplomats, missionaries, the military  — anyone whose family has relocated overseas because of a job placement.  The children attend international or host-country schools, or are sent to boarding schools, or are home-schooled.  They are supposed to be coming home — even if they’ve never lived here, even if they’ve only been back on furlough.  Often, this is their most difficult relocation….The layers of loss run deep:  Friends, community, pets.  Family, toys, language.  Weather, food, culture.  Loss of identity.  Loss of a place of comfort, stability, a safe and predictable world.  Home.

Being a third culture kid is stressful. I’ve read the nasty Facebook comments about not belonging. I’ve seen the nervous ticks develop that come from special treatment – good and bad, from teachers at school.

Being a third culture kids is stressful, but it can also be rewarding. (More on that tomorrow). For now, educate yourself. Pray for the third culture kids you know. Think about how you might be a blessing to them, and practice asking, “Where do you live?” instead of, “Where are you from?”

  • Nina

    I’ve always thought missionary kids were a little strange. Especially when families would visit with us while we were in the States before moving overseas. I feel like I was always understanding though, as much as I could be with what little experience I had at the time. But I certainly noticed the peculiarity of third culture kids. – Now, we have a house full of those peculiar little people. They are by far, the most incredible people I know! Able to think in two languages and speak them both in a cocktail of hilariousness. They understand and most importantly, respect differences in cultures.

    They love a good, homemade chocolate chip cookie, but also adore a warm pastel de nata sprinkled with canela.

    When they’re in one country, they long for the other. It’s a way of life for them…for us.

    It’s been an incredible journey. I hope and pray they feel the same.
    Nina recently posted..Third Culture Kids – A quick primerMy Profile

  • Ricardo Sant’Anna

    Hi Michael.

    I think you’re focusing too much on the negative aspects of being a TCK. The film gives you very good answers for that. I, for example, can relate to the last kid who said that one day he will be an TCA; a third world adult, and he may become a role model for his children. Being a TCK is a real gift! Of course it’s harder to a kid to grow up surrounded by other kids who don’t really understand what it means, but it gives them the opportunity to broaden their minds, understand other cultures and even appreciate even more the good and bad things from the country you’re parents are from.

    My mother is Spanish, my father was Portuguese. I was born in Spain, only 400 kilometers from the city of Lisbon, but in a culture speaking term, it looked like i was from a distant galaxy. To my Portuguese friends, I was always that strange Spanish kid, and to my Spanish friends, I was the Little Portuguese weird kid. It was very hard for us during childhood. And if you add the historical rivalry between the two countries, you can imagine how many times we where set aside in both sides of the border by friends and others.

    Now, i live in Braga, north of Portugal, but always lived in Lisbon, the capital. Other culture shock. A little bit like being from Texas or Alabama and living in New York City or Washington DC. Where’s home? Well, I’m 41 and i don’t know… I feel misplaced everywhere.

    I’ve learned that home is where my loved ones are; my wife and son. And then, I have lot’s of homes. I have a home in Lisbon, with my Mother and Brother, I have a home in Spain, with my brother and uncles and cousins. And you know what? When i was in the States, I really felt at home!

    Your kids, believe me, are the lucky ones in this story. When they grow up, they will look at the world in a completely different way.than the other kids. They will be able to see that we all live in a world, with different races, religions and ideas, but we are all the same, we are all human. We all share the same feelings, the same sorrows and happiness, even if we express it in different ways. If i had to feel bad for someone, I would feel bad for those who live a life in the same place, without the opportunity to explore, to know other cultures and other people. Your kids, are the future and hope of this world.

    When i feel bad about these things, I turn to one particular music Michael, maybe you’ve heard it before… You’re neither blue not red, you’re… green, And who better than Kermit the frog to tell you about being green? 😉

    • Michael

      Ricardo, tomorrow I’m going to focus on the good aspects of being a 3rd culture kids (or adult). Today was just the primer, an introduction that will continue tomorrow. I know where you’re coming from. Tomorrow will be positive and completely outweigh the negatives in today’s post. Thanks for the comment and constructive criticism! See you later.

  • Mom

    And I would say, home can be where Nanny is. I’m so proud of my TCK’s.

  • Dawne

    It also helps a lot knowing that you are not alone in being a TCK. My grandmother was a TCK and talking with her about her experiences helped me to value mine. That may be why when I find another TCK, I feel like I have found a friend, someone who understands, has been there too and doesn’t put you down for what may be perceived as weird behavior.

    Of course this just addresses the negative aspect of being a TCK. There are a lot of advantages as well. Can’t wait to read tomorrow’s blog post.

  • Pingback: TCKs are cool! | CBC Portugal Missions()

  • June McCary

    If all TCK ‘s are anything like the five I know and love in Portugal ,I’d say its a blessing. They are such SMART individual’s. I consider myself fortunate just to be a small part of their lives.

%d bloggers like this: