Dan Stringer

navigating the convergence of faith, culture and the common good

The TCK issue that won’t go away

April 30, 2014

Being a Third Culture Kid has its pros and cons.

Pros: global travel, cross-cultural exposure, international awareness, and geographic adaptability.

Cons: answering questions about where you’re from and determining where on the planet you belong.

Indeed, TCK life is a mixed bag full of goodies.

I remember first hearing “Third Culture Kid” terminology when I was about 15 years old. Although it was helpful to know someone invented a label for people like me, it initially sounded like a fancy way of saying “missionary kid,” which I had already known I was since age six. Plus there was another small problem with the TCK acronym, namely that pesky T for “third.” You see, the textbook TCK must grapple with three cultures: where you live, where your passport is from, and the nebulous region suspended between the first two. Identifying as a TCK seems to work better if your life is contained between two countries.

But what if you attend a boarding school in Manila, Philippines nine months out of the year, you spend your school breaks in Kathmandu, Nepal where your family lives (the place where you completed grades seven through nine), your passport says you’re an American citizen, and you still have vivid memories of DR Congo, where you finished grades two through four, back when it was still called Zaire before the First Congo War?

What does that make me? A Fifth Culture Kid? Do you want fries with that?

And what if I include attending first grade in French at l’école Notre-Dame-du-Sourire in Jonquière, Québec? Or the fact that I am the product of an interracial marriage between a white American man from California and a Chinese American woman from Hawaii? Or what about splitting my sixth grade year between Hawaii and Kentucky, which surely earns me some points on the cross-cultural scorecard, right? Do I get to be called a Seventh or Eighth Culture Kid? More accolades, please!

I always felt like the new kid in school, probably because I was.

While I don’t remember all the words, I’ll never forget how it felt when some of my high school classmates talked about things they did together in elementary school. It would begin with, “Remember when we were in fourth grade?” or “Remember so and so?” (in reference to a classmate/teacher/school incident). At this point in the conversation, it became clear I could not participate in reminiscing about what Southeast Asia was like in the fourth grade because lo and behold, I was in off in Central Africa at the time, wherever that is. Thus I would answer the question internally without speaking a word. No, I don’t remember that story. Because I wasn’t here. Because I’m the new kid. Again.

Third Culture Kids feel “alienation in every cell of their body,” writes Megan Hustad in her memoir, More Than Conquerors. “My people never found groups we wanted to remain in… We had a knack for sullen independence. This sullen independence got us to the margins, and we felt most alive there. Wherever we belonged, we wanted out.”

Like Hustad and many other TCKs, I’ve struggled to find social and spiritual belonging at various points along my journey. By the time I graduated from high school, I had attended seven different schools on three continents including most combinations of public/private, large/small, religious/secular, domestic/international, homeschool/boarding school one could imagine. My school friends have included Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists from Montreal to the Maldives. Since finishing high school at Faith Academy 15 years ago, I have attended a private Christian college, a public community college, a public graduate school and a private seminary—each with its own campus culture.

I’m still the new kid. Sometimes I desperately want in. Other times, I’m ready to fly away.

They say that going to school is about getting an education, developing life skills and cultivating a love for learning. Perhaps so. I’ve always enjoyed school, apparently so much that I’ve been enrolled somewhere 10 out of 15 years since my high school graduation day. Yet I wonder if my pathway in and out of so many schools has more to do with what school is really about for most kids: fitting in and finding your place to belong.

To declare, “My home is in Christ, and with Christ” is both the easiest and most difficult thing for a missionary kid to say. It’s easy because our parents taught us all the right answers. It’s difficult because we know how elusive belonging can be.

Almost as hard as telling you where I’m from.

What about you? What alienates you? Where do you find belonging?

  • Lorraine

    Unfortunately it’s so true…and I can relate ….right now I’m an American in my 10th State and 3rd country in the past month. My passport is dark blue (American) but I’ve lived way more than 1/2 my life in a green passport nation so almost all of my memories and thinking process are ‘green passported.’ I have culture shock in my own country…if it is still my own country- I’m not sure anymore. But like Psalm 84 says, “Even a sparrow has found a house and a swallow a nest to lay her young-even at your altars Oh Lord.” That’s the only place I truly feel at home.
    ….I hope instead of feeling on the outskirts you instead find that you have many homes, many friends across the globe, and many families. You were too good to belong to just one place so maybe God shared you with the whole world. Great reading your post once again; I look forward to them.

  • Hi Dan,

    Great blog post…I can really relate! I’m also a missionary kid – father from Norway, mother from Finland, born in England and lived between India, England and Norway. I went to an international boarding school in India but unlike the others who stayed there for their whole education, we continued to move back to England (to a new school) and return as the new kid a few years later! I think you would enjoy my book “Home Keeps Moving” — I touch on a lot of the things you wrote about. Hope it helps you on your TCK journey! All the best,
    Heidi

    • Dan Stringer

      Thanks Heidi. I have friends who attended boarding schools in India (Hebron, Woodstock). Sounds like we have a lot in common!

  • TCK, I have one of those.

    -ML

  • Sunita Puleo

    hmmm… This would be a great dinner conversation. Cool to hear of your background. I’ve been thinking a lot about my multicultural family and my international dad and how it makes me unique. I think there are a lot of us that have led more apostolic lives, whether by choice or compulsion. And when I compare myself to people in a more static community, I always feel different. I’ve felt different for being uber-nerdy, for being a female, for being an Indian-American who grew up in NYC and doesn’t speak Hindi (much), for being Christian but immersed in the real world, for being married, for having 4 kids, for not going to grad school…. and now for going to grad school. I think this part of the journey is as much about figuring out more securely who I am as it is about learning external things. But again, this would be a great dinner convo!

    • Yes, I totally agree that the best place to discuss such things is over food! I will say that the more I learn about others’ experience of feeling ‘different’ in one way or another, the more I realize I’m not alone. There are multicultural, international people all over the place if I’m willing to invest the time to connect and share stories.