The following is an article I researched and wrote a couple years ago … but was a little too specific on such a niche ministry area that the magazines I was submitting it to decided not to run it. They liked it – but it didn’t have broad enough application, which I understand, but I was also disappointed by. I’ve run it by other missionary kids who I knew from my days in South America, and the response was always the same – it described what they went through dead on. So, rather than letting it collect dust on my hard drive … here it is! Enjoy!
MINISTERING TO MISSIONARY KIDS AND THIRD CULTURE KIDS
Graduating from high school, an event eagerly anticipated by most teenagers, was one of the single most traumatic and devastating nights of my life. Looking back through my journals, I find now a repeated theme of dread and fear in the months building up to it. For me, it marked the moment in time when I would say goodbye forever to the closest friendships and relationships I had ever known, and leave for a country I no longer knew or considered as home. I was a missionary kid on the verge of retuning to my country of birth.
Third culture kids (TCK’s), whether the children of missionaries, military servicemen, or parents whose employment takes them abroad, lead lives of constant transition. By the time I had finished high school, at the ripe old age of 17, I had had close to two dozen bedrooms, lived in four states, three countries and two continents. Many of my friends at the boarding school for missionary kids which I attended had me beat on all counts, though. Transition and instability is the constant companion for a TCK; frequent moves and transfers characterize life. And even when settled into a home, the peer group is in constant flux as well; friends returning to their birth countries for furlough, being transferred to other bases and/or countries, and new arrivals every semester. It is an intense lifestyle involving heavy travel, boarding schools, culture shock on a regular basis and a constant feeling of displacement and instability. For me, it was a constant struggle of wondering where I belong. My heart was tied to Bolivia, the country I considered home – and yet, I never truly felt at home there. Towering a head above the natives with my sun bleached blonde hair and blue eyes, there was never any doubt I was different. And yet, while the United States was the country of my citizenship, and home to my relatives, it was not my home.
To a lesser degree, many young people participating in short term mission trips, whether abroad or nationally, can experience some of what I am describing. For most youth workers, interacting with students who have been briefly removed from their normal social context and immersed in another culture will be a more frequent experience. Students can struggle with feelings of displacement and culture shock, regardless of the length of the trip. My students from small town Maine struggled to process the transitions encountered during our trips to Uganda, thousands of miles away, and inner city Boston, only a few hours drive away. The distance is not the key factor, it is being removed from their primary culture.
Dr. Ruth Useem originally coined the phrase Third Culture Kid. While a common misconception, it does not refer to living in a third world nation. Instead, it refers to the child’s perspective on the world. The reasoning behind the name is as follows; a child’s first culture is the one in which they are born. A child’s second culture is the one in which they grow up. However, the end result is a blending of the two cultures, resulting in the child being unsure of who they are and where they are from. Instead, their perspective on their surroundings and the world becomes a third culture – one unique to them and only truly understood by others with similar backgrounds.
For a TCK, the return to the United States at any stage is traumatic. The rapidly evolving culture and society is often times confusing and overwhelming for people living in the USA. For the returning TCK it can be far more so, to say the least. While some would assume that a global nomad, as TCK’s often call themselves, would be used to adapting to new places it is a different situation all together to return to their country of birth. When I lived in South America, people understood when I wasn’t familiar with local traditions, terminology, clothing styles, popular musicians, actors and so forth. It was obvious that I was not from there, and so people were gracious and understanding. My friends were quick to explain what was expected of me in different situations and forgiving when I unknowingly broke cultural taboos. However, in America I look and sound like everyone else. When I act differently or violate social norms, people just think I’m strange. Some of my MK (missionary kid) friends would fake Latin American accents while in the United States because they actually found it easier to fit in and be accepted by their peers if they sounded like a foreigner. Suddenly, instead of people reacting as though they are weird, they would patiently explain what was going on and why.
The most difficult transition of all, though, is the return to the country of birth after high school graduation. And for most of these young people, they do it alone. They have completed their high school studies and said goodbye to all they know in exchange for a completely new lifestyle. Many TCK’s arrive in the United States to attend colleges they have never visited, live in towns they are unfamiliar with, and feel completely and utterly alone. After all, most likely their parents are thousands of miles away with limited accessibility. In addition, the reality is that while these young people have remarkable backgrounds, most Americans are not interested in hearing about them. In fact, talking about experiences abroad usually results in the TCK being viewed as bragging. In the end, most young people learn to keep their memories from abroad to themselves; their background is just too different for people to grasp.
This period of transition is usually characterized by self imposed isolation, withdrawal, exaggeration of problems, questions, fears, and grief. Typically, it can take anywhere from a year to several years for a TCK to struggle through this transition. It certainly took several years for me to process what I was feeling and to become willing to risk close friendships again. In South America, I had attended a boarding school for missionary kids. Not only did I attend all the same classes with my friends, but I lived with them as well. My departure was overwhelming for me due to the pain of saying goodbye to people who had become closer than siblings that I would most likely never see again. My classmates were literally from all over the world, and each of us were returning to our countries of origin. After high school, I took a year off to work and save for college. I virtually closed myself off from all those around me because I knew I was leaving in a year and it wasn’t worth the effort in my mind to make friends and then lose them again. A journal entry from my first month in college reveals some of the anxiety I felt as I finally began reaching out.
I’ve been here a quarter of a semester and it seems like I only just arrived. I dread leaving – I’ve already become friends with everyone. It’s frustrating, and it scares me – even to the point of nightmares. After over half a year of not dreaming of Tambo (my high school), I’ve woken up terrified from nightmares involving my close friends from there. I don’t know why. I do know that leaving Tambo was the single most devastating event of my life and after being a bit of a recluse for over a year, for fear of saying goodbye, I’m interacting with people close to my own age once again. But I keep thinking how many will leave in just a few months.
– September 29th, 1994
My response to transition as a Third Culture Kid was not unusual. While at the time I thought there was something wrong with me, many of my peers have described to me similar reactions. However, growing up in a different culture is not a bad thing. While difficult transition is a fact of life, there are many positive things that characterize most Third Culture Kids:
- TCK’s tend to be politically astute. They are interested in national and global events, and actively keep track of the news. They often times are aware of the issues and both sides of the debates.
- TCK’s usually speak more than one language. It is not unusual for them to know three or four languages, often times better than they let on.
- They are much more comfortable communicating with adults than the average American teenager.
- They tend to possess greater maturity in social skills. They are able to adapt well and notice details others might not.
- TCK’s possess global perspective. They are able to understand the perspectives other nations have and relate them one to another. As a result, they are usually less prejudiced than others their age.
- They are achievers. A far greater percentage of TCK’s go on to earn Bachelor degrees and advanced degrees than other groups.
- Because of their own experiences of feeling different, they are much more likely to reach out and accept new people, especially those with different cultural backgrounds.
For a youth worker, the arrival of a Third Culture Kid presents unique challenges. The temptation is to let his or her needs slide – after all, if they are home on furlough, they will be gone in a year anyway. And if they have returned to attend college, then they aren’t really a part of the youth program to begin with, right? However, these young people are an important responsibility for the church. For the supporting and sending congregation, there is a significant connection and relationship. The difficulties faced by these missionary kids are a direct result of the calling their parents received and the church partnered with them to achieve. Part of that partnership should involve the congregation helping to meet the needs of returning missionary kids. These needs cannot be met by their parents as a result of the realities of their calling. While at first seemingly intimidating, in many ways a TCK has the same needs as any other adolescent. They just happen to have a much more unique background.
One of the greatest ways a youth worker can help a Third Culture Kid in transition is to be a mentor. It is important to have a trusted friend to go to with embarrassing questions who they know will not ridicule them regardless of how obvious the answer may seem to be. Re-adapting to their country of birth can result in a wide variety of questions, ranging from dating issues, popular slang, and clothing styles, to questions about how to open a bank account, get a driver’s license, or apply for a job.
A vital need Third Culture Kids have of their mentors is intervention. If they are breaking social taboos, committing faux pas, appearing to be rude or abnormal, then intervene! When I lived in South America, the locals were quick to alert me when my comments or gestures were offensive or ridiculous. They understood that I did not know waving to someone in a certain way implied they were a dog, or calling someone a certain nickname was horribly offensive. Their intervention saved me much future embarrassment. And yet, the response was often times different in America. The assumption, based on the fact that I looked and sounded like most Americans, was that I was knowingly breaking taboos! When actually, my desire was to simply fit in! It is perfectly okay, and very much appreciated, to pull aside a TCK and let them know what the appropriate social expectations are. A Third Culture Kid at times will need to be taught how to interpret others’ behavior signals, and what the correct or expected response is.
For the TCK’s entering college, a mentor should help them connect with other Third Culture Kids. Many colleges have recognized that students with such a unique background need special attention which most effectively comes from other students with similar backgrounds. Christian colleges in particular have been very effective in forming such groups. Nevertheless, most arriving students have no idea such support networks exist and need guidance on how to seek them out. The most likely way to find such a group would be through the office of the dean of students.
Part of the mentor’s role is to simply listen. Most Americans merely want the answer, “it was great!” to the question “what was it like growing up in a third world country?” Anything more, and they quickly become bored. Yet these young people are going through a grieving process that necessitates talking about what they have left behind and the impact it has had on their lives. Their need to share is not some attempt to show off and brag about their globe trotting lifestyle, it is in fact a desperate need for people to understand who they are. The involved mentor gives these struggling students the opportunity to tell their story and seeks to recognize the impact it has had on their lives. Ask questions. Push for depth. Explore the feelings these memories evoke. Prove to them that you are not like others, but that you do in fact want to know who they are.
For the young person who has participated on a short term trip, adult intervention is needed as well. The distance of the trip is not important; experiencing another culture is a shocking transition regardless of whether it is a primitive tribe in the jungles of South America, or rural Appalachia. For many, the toughest aspect is not the trip itself, but the return to normalcy afterwards. Their mind is still reeling from the new experiences, memories, and perspective that result from being removed from their cultural context. They need guidance in processing what they have experienced and in integrating this new level of understanding to their everyday life. While not as intense a transition as what a Third Culture Kid goes through, it is still a challenging time none the less, a time in which a mentor’s assistance is critical. It will most likely take several months to process what they have experienced, and even so, their perspective on their nation and world will be forever impacted.
Most importantly, a Third Culture Kid needs spiritual guidance. Regardless of whether they are a military kid, a TCK because of their parent’s work, or a missionary kid, their spiritual needs have to be addressed. If they are being met during this time of transition and crisis, they will be much better equipped to endure and press on during the long months of adaptation. Do not assume a missionary kid a spiritual giant; for many, they are simply along for the ride on their parents’ calling. Give them the resources they need, and challenge them to become the young men and women God has called them to be.
“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)
Raising Resilient MKs; Joyce M. Bowers, Editor; 1998, published by the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI), Colorado Springs, CO
 “Third Culture Kids,” article by Lesley Lewis, www.wanjennifer.tripod.com