Third Culture Kids



By Judy Armstrong

In July 1986, Danny, I, and our two kids, Jay and Joy boarded a plane bound for S.E. Asia.  That day our kids entered the world of Third Culture Kids (TCK). The term Third Culture Kids comes from the fact that our kids are caught between cultures, which results in their developing a third culture – an international culture.  They don’t quite fit in completely in either culture.  It has been said that a TCK is most comfortable when in the air flying between one country and the other.

In her book Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere, Lois Bushong describes our transitions from one world to another as involving a grieving process. That makes a lot of sense to me. When our children leave their passport country, they say goodbye to friends and extended family. While they may look forward to the adventure, they still grieve the loss of these relationships, as do we. When they arrive in their host culture, most kids will begin to adjust, form new relationships and before long, begin to feel at home.

With most of us, in a couple of years, it’s time to make a visit back to our passport country. Once again, we must say goodbye to our new friends, and once more, there is that grief of having to say goodbye, but excitement to reconnect with old friends and family in our passport country. We arrive back “home” to discover friends have moved, changed, the world we left is not the same; we are not the same. After 2 or 3 months of adjusting to this new world, once again we have to say goodbye as we return to our host country. Again there is both grieving and excitement. Again, the world we return to may have changed in the months we were away. And so the cycle is repeated. This doesn’t mean it is a bad thing. But, it is something we as parents need to be aware of with our kids. Some kids handle it better than others. We need to talk to our kids and let them know that their feelings are valid and not unusual. Not acknowledging these feelings can result in anger and bitterness which may be directed toward God or us as parents. Some kids may tend to isolate themselves because of the pain of inevitable “goodbyes”. Unfortunately, these “coping mechanisms” can be carried into adulthood if not addressed and dealt with properly.

When Joy was in 7th grade, we lost our Visa in Indonesia and returned to the States for a year and a half. That year and a half was difficult for her. She ended up being best friends with a Korean girl at her school. She was a third culture kid too as her dad was in the States attending seminary. Then, just about the time Joy was comfortable, we left for Asia again – not back to Indonesia which she considered home, but to Malaysia – new culture, new friends, new school. Again, it was a hard go for a short time. See the pattern?

So, what happens when it’s time for our kids to return home for college? Throughout their growing up as TCKs the one stable thing in their life has been us, their parents. Suddenly, it’s time for them to return to their passport culture and often this also means separation from the one stable thing they have known – their family. They may be returning to a world that they have not lived in for most of their growing up years. They are returning to peers who have not experienced what they have and who have experienced things they have not. Whether or not they realize it, their worldview has been altered by what they have experienced.

Our son and daughter now value their time of living overseas. They have both been back as adults to visit and reconnect. They now feel comfortable sharing some of their experiences from living in another culture and have fond memories and favorite foods that feed the nostalgia they feel. They have close connections with friends all over the world.

Growing up as a TCK doesn’t have to be a negative. On the contrary, it can be a huge positive. We just need to help our kids understand and acknowledge both the blessing and the challenges that come along with that.

Perhaps the transitions for our kids could have been easier if we had been more aware. I certainly wish I had known then some of what I know now. If I have any advice it is to educate yourself, do your best, and know that in everything, God is bigger than any mistakes we might make. Raising a TCK, while challenging can be a blessing to both you and your TCK!