where ARE we from?? … {third culture kids}

The Kwong kids saved up & bought 2 of their very own TCK mascot chameleons. This little boy is named Miko, his sister is Okim. 🙂

Those of us that leave one country & live in another for any length of time have experienced many of these truths. It helps for others to understand us, but even more important, this article helps us to understand ourselves. We have a blend of cultures making up our back story. It’s who we are, it’s who we’re becoming. We are not one or the other, but both & all of the cultures we ‘come from’… We are not just expats, we are Third Culture Kids/People (TCKs). (Other stories about TCKs)

Here are some wise words from a friend on what it is to be a person of more than one culture. -jk

Takeaways from four years among TCKs

I’ve been a missionary for almost fourteen years.  I’ve lived on three continents, in four countries.  I’ve learned a new language.  But for the past four years, I’ve been in a new chapter of ministry- one that has challenged me, enlightened me, made me laugh and sometimes made me cry: working with Third Culture Kids.

TCKs are not just the children of overseas workers.  They are, just by being, a ministry themselves, a part of the Great Commission and a shareholder in the call of God on their family.

I have been so honored to work with TCKs of all ages from all over the world.  And as this chapter in my life draws to a close, I just wanted to share some things that I will take away with me.  I hope they make you smile.

I’ve learned that a three-year old American child who has lived his entire life overseas gets pretty confused when you bring him back to America. 

I did actually learn this with my own children before I ever came to the TCK office.  But I have been delighted at the perspective of the many young children who come through our programs each summer with no real memory of what America is.  Their observations and perceptions are amusing, poignant, delightful and insightful.

I tip my hat to Carsten “Boose” Myers, who observed that Americans have reserved “potty” parking. (Handicapped parking,) and to Ian Dobson, who when asked what he wanted for a treat, answered “seaweed.”  And to every little TCK who is confused by white eggs, string cheese and playground equipment.  America is a weird place.

I’ve observed that there is no dividing line between child and adult.

There is more like a gray area of “no-man’s land,” entered when society legally defines an adult (age 18) and exited only when the neurons stop misfiring and maturity takes over.   For example, college students majoring in important fields like software engineering, linguistics or philosophy, may suddenly and for no apparent reason, decide it is perfectly acceptable to use a coffee table (not belonging to them) to sled down a snow-covered rocky bank at two in the morning.

Adult? Child?

Neither. And both.

I’ve learned never to underestimate the power of sickness to spread among people in a confined space:

Thanksgiving Retreat 2008, where what later became known somewhat tongue and cheek as the “Chameleon Flu” affected over 80% of us in just three days, with at least three of us ending up in the hospital.  Just thinking about it makes me want to hunt down a bottle of hand sanitizer.  Wash your hands, people!

I’ve learned that I LOVE Colorado:

Okay this is a personal one with not much my reader can take away.  But I’m so thankful I’ve had the chance to go to Winter Park every November for the past four years and revel in the outdoor culture and the magnificence of the Rockies.  Even if I was working 70-hour weeks while reveling.  Dear Colorado: Don’t worry, I’ll be back!

I’ve been reminded that everyone has a story:

Like a character in any good novel or well-written movie, our back-stories have molded and defined our present personality.  They form the lenses through which we perceive the world around us.  They shape and define our interpretation of other people’s actions and our responses.

Just because I do not understand someone’s actions or responses doesn’t mean they aren’t logical.  It probably just means I don’t know their back-story.

I’ve realized that it is okay to be proud of your back story:

 TCKs are proud of who they are.  They are proud of where they have been and the languages they speak and the food they have eaten and the wars they have lived through.  Sometimes Americans perceive this as arrogance.  But for the most part, it isn’t.  It is not any different than an American student going off to college in another state and hanging a banner from their hometown sports team.  Or me, living in Missouri, and hanging framed prints of Seattle in my office.  I’m proud of where I’m from.

I’ve learned not to dismiss other people’s back stories:

Remember that everyone, TCK or not, whether they have lived overseas or never left their home town, has loyalties and preferences.  They are proud of where they are from too.  They have experienced things you haven’t.  Their experiences are valid and real too.  Dismissing them as invalid only makes you look bad, and it closes the door on relationships.


I’ve observed that it isn’t always wise to hide behind your back story:

Just  because you were raised in a culture where a certain behavior is acceptable, doesn’t mean that people will overlook that behavior in a culture where it isn’t.  To put it more plainly, saying “where I grew up, it is okay for me to be rude to store clerks,” doesn’t make it acceptable to be rude to store clerks anywhere.

Understandably it is often difficult for TCKs to learn the “rules” in a new culture. I’m not talking about doing things unintentionally.  I’m talking about deliberately flouting the rules of one culture, because the behavior was acceptable in another.  Not a good idea.  You won’t make friends that way.

I’ve learned by observation that it isn’t a good idea to wrap your whole identity in your back story: 

Your story is still being written.  Where you have been, what you have seen, what you have survived, endured, or experienced is a part of who you are.  But ultimately it is only a part of who you are.  It isn’t the whole thing.  Don’t be so wrapped up in where you came from that you forget to be where you are now.  You are still a work in progress.

I’ve learned new words.  Like “freegan”. 

 Until I worked in this position, I had never heard the word.  I’m not naming any names, but thank you for educating me on this interesting lifestyle choice.  More power to you.

Thanks to my TCK friends, I’ve also learned how to do the Cha-Cha slide,  about Indie music,  and that some of you are truly bilingual or multilingual in a way that no language school can teach.  I’ve learned the merits of various national football teams (soccer for my American readers). I’ve learned that boarding school may not be as horrible as I used to think.  I’ve learned what a Global Nomad is, what a Third-Culture Kid is, and that among you there are  amazing future teachers, pastors, parents, engineers, ambassadors and missionaries.  I’m so thankful for each and every one of you and the relationships I have that I would have missed out on if the Lord hadn’t allowed me this position.

If you look at me and you wonder what you see, I may be tall, thin or fat, dark or fair.  I may have long hair, or freckles there, but I’m something extra special, can’t you see?  For my heart beats true to the red, white and blue, and I love my Lord Jesus too.  So you old-timers don’t forget, I’m a TCK, a Third Culture Kid!