Religion Magazine

Thoughts on Entry from a Third Culture Kid

By Marilyngardner5 @marilyngard

Thoughts on Entry from a TCK

Thoughts on Reentry from a Third Culture Kid

“As I boarded the plane I knew that life as I had known it, the life of boarding school and long train trips home, friends and surrogate aunties and uncles, curry, chapatis and chai in Jhika Gali on weekend evenings, was ending. And with that knowledge came deep feelings of loss and grief. Feelings unspoken because of the trauma of the day, but they were there nevertheless, and to be remembered for years to come.

I was one plane ride away from losing family, identity and skills that had proved themselves so necessary and reliable during my formative years.

An unspoken question was lurking in my mind, I did not dare voice it but it was loud and overwhelming. Could the God who had sustained me through my early years – through a broken wrist from playing “Steal the Bacon” on the small court outside the front of the school building; through homesickness, car accidents, and so much more, sustain me through this new journey? Did He actually live in America?  Foolish as that may sound, this was the resounding cry of my heart.

I begin this post with these words because without them, my thoughts are pure theory. I begin with these because this is my journey, my story — and most of what I know comes from that journey. I have not done any research on third culture kids, I’ve done no surveys. I’ve held no focus groups. Nor am I someone’s master’s thesis or research project.  What I say here may or may not be helpful — but it is my ‘earned fact’. I have walked this road and I speak from the road. I am not an outsider, but an insider in this culture we claim as ours. This blog post is for TCKs, Parents of TCKs, and others who are interested in this area we call ‘third’. And it’s long – way longer than a blog post should be, so grab a cup of tea or coffee and journey with me.


When I began looking into information on refugee resettlement and orientation programs for refugees entering a country, I was struck by how much the advice resonated with me as a third culture kid. I want to be clear — the TCK experience and the refugee experience are worlds apart. But with that caveat, the goals and the realistic expectations in refugee orientation programs are remarkably helpful.

Because orientation for the refugee is not just about theory and information, it is also designed to give the refugee “the opportunity to develop realistic expectations regarding their resettlement, to consider different situations that might arise in a new country, and develop skills and attitudes that will facilitate their adjustment and well being”*  So here is my offering that goes way beyond theory and information. If it helps – I am grateful. If it doesn’t – I ask for grace.

1. Realistic time expectations. Entering a new world is a journey. And it doesn’t happen in 3 months or 6 months. Think about how long our parents took to adjust to their adopted country.  Give yourself a minimum of 2 years, but don’t be surprised if it takes 5. This is a new world we’re in and as such deserves all the attention we would give to going into a totally different culture. So you spent summers here every once in a while when you were a kid?  Transitioning to our passport country is far bigger than spending a summer vacation.

2. Accept that we are a combination of worlds. As TCKs, our worlds are woven together in a semi-formed tapestry. Many of us feel like completely different people when we’re in our passport countries. This doesn’t mean we’re schizophrenic. It means we’re juggling roles, we’re weighing what is appropriate to say and who is safe. We are not chameleons and we are not impostors; rather we’re trying to make sense of our worlds and figure out what cultural adaptation looks like as we effectively transition to our passport countries. Yes – there is loss of identity. But as we work through these losses, our identities, as those who can live between worlds, emerge stronger than ever.

3. Understand culture shock. Culture shock in degrees is inevitable. And it often takes a while to surface. We don’t go through reverse culture shock – we go through culture shock. Reverse culture shock means we know a culture, have been away from it, and are returning to differences we didn’t expect. In our case, we don’t really know this culture we are entering. We may think we know it, because our passports tell us we should, but we don’t. Not really. And while reverse culture shock is described as “wearing contact lenses in the wrong eyes”, culture shock is having completely different lenses.

4. Give voice to a longing. Struggling to give voice to our longings is enormous. Somehow it doesn’t feel valid. But if there is one thing I want to stress, giving voice to our longings is legitimate. Our world, as we know it, has come to an end. We may be able to visit our home, our adopted country, but we know that we must have a valid and legal way to stay there should we wish to go back. We will have times of intense longing and wistfulness for what no longer exists. This can be captured best in the word ‘saudade’, a Portuguese word that came into the existence in the 13th century. “The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness. ~ In Portugal of 1912, A. F. G. Bell”  Giving voice to ‘saudade’ helps take away its power and ability to control. The longings are there, they are valid, but if they control us we will despair. Our longings can be expressed through writing, through connecting to other TCKs, through the visual arts, through theatre, through faith, and through friendships.

5. Understand the shaping of our worldview. While our parents went overseas with already developed worldviews, and through their interactions in their host countries had their worldviews affected, ours began developing in our host country. Our first memories are rarely of our passport countries, rather they are of our host country. If your ideas and conception of the world began with memories of the Call to Prayer; or a dusty road and traffic jam involving a buffalo, two donkey carts, and your parent’s jeep; or a crowded and colorful bazaar filled with colorful fabrics and bangles — then it’s highly unlikely you’ll be suspicious of Muslims, hate crowds, and be scared of traffic jams with mere cars. Our perceptions are shaped from early on and our perceptions differ markedly from those of our parents, those of our peers in our passport countries, and those in our churches. Having realistic expectations on differing worldviews helps us to not expect or demand that others understand.

6. Faith can be complicated. For many of us, faith is paramount to who we are. But it gets tangled up in our adjusting to life in our passport countries. It’s particularly difficult if we feel we can’t question God, express disbelief or doubt, or change denominations because it feels disloyal to our parents. If we have good relationships with our parents we care about what they think. This can inhibit our honesty as it relates to our faith journeys. If we’re struggling with identity and belonging in college and get a call from our parents that inevitably ends up with “Are you going to church and getting connected?” we can feel worse. How do we tell them “No–I can’t stand church.”  “Are you praying about this?” they say with love in their voices and tears in their eyes, and we want to say “Maybe the question is ‘am I praying at all?’” They’re miles away and desperate to know we are okay. Perhaps doubts were never a part of our faith journey before, but now that our world has changed from familiar to ‘un’, the doubts surface. Who is this God I thought I trusted? Does he care? Will the faith that sustained us through our journey thus far be big enough to get us through this crucial juncture? Those are important questions, valid questions – and sometimes our parents handle them well. Other times, we may need to find those others who can hear them, understand them, and speak truth into them.

7. The importance of cultural brokers. Often there emerges that Person. That Person who doesn’t share our background but understands in a way that defies our understanding. This is a gift. This is the person that explains life to us, that walks beside us. This is the one that looks through our high school yearbook and says “Now who’s this with you? And did you go on that camping trip where you got in trouble for sneaking over to where the boys were sleeping before or after this picture was taken?” This personal interest helps us understand what friendship, listening, and cultural brokering look like. So learn from them. Look to them. But don’t put undue burdens on them.

8. Place and its significance. As humans, at our core is a need for ‘place’. Call it ‘belonging’, call it ‘home’, call it anything you like. But all of us are integrally connected to place. We are “incarnate beings” and so when those places are taken away, we suffer from a “disruption” of place. It is clear that the TCK has a disruption of place – and often multiple times in their lives. If the disruption goes beyond our ability to adapt it becomes a pathology – the late Paul Tournier, a gifted Swiss psychologist, calls this a “deprivation of place”. He says that to be human is to need a place, to be rooted and attached to that place. Many of us downplay this connection to place by over spiritualizing it or underestimating its importance, but I have come to an absolute conviction that God uses place. He uses place from the minute we are born to the day of our last breath. He brought Abraham out of Ur. He took Joseph to Egypt. He brought Ruth to Israel.  They were all expatriates or third culture kids and God used place to work out the details of their lives. In God we are given a full allowance and understanding of this need. We need not dismiss it, we need not idolize it; we must only acknowledge it and recognize it as valid. 

9. The yearning heart. All of us as humans have a heart that yearns for belonging, for acceptance, for love. This is a fundamental truth and it is not unique to the third culture kid. What is hard is tying this in with all of our TCK experiences, life story, and worldview. It is easy for us to mistake our yearning for only that which we left, instead of remembering that we had a heart that yearned before we ever left our passport countries. If we can grow in an understanding of our hearts, what is global and universal in our yearning, and what is specifically tied to being a third culture kid, we are in a good place.  A desire for place is universal, a desire for our particular place, whether it be Buenos Aires or Bolivia or Cairo or Lebanon, is specific to our TCK background.

10. The need for grace. In the midst of all of this, it is so easy to want grace, and so hard to give grace. Yet all of this is about grace. The grace that we were given by our host country, the grace of others who walked beside us as kids, the grace of our parents in caring and loving even when they don’t fully understand. Most of all the grace of God. Those of us who ‘get’ grace will find it easier to give grace. Indeed this is my daily prayer — that I will never forget the grace I’ve been shown and that this will shape my responses by the day, the hour, and the minute. The big questions are these: Can we give grace to those who we feel dismiss us, hurt us, misunderstand us, or don’t like us? Can we give grace to the people who we misunderstand, who we don’t like, who we dismiss?  

There is so much more that I think and feel. And more too that I’ve not even thought about. And although there are similarities that bind us together as TCK’s, ultimately we each have our own story, a story unique to us. I may have walked a similar path, but you own your story. So none of this is a formula, it’s not a list of stages, but it is my earned fact – and that is perhaps more valuable.

Blogger’s Note: In writing this I borrowed from a couple of earlier posts, namely Packing up Place and Saudade – A Word for the Third Culture Kid.

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