When I was 5 years old, my missionary parents moved our family from northeast Pennsylvania to northern Italy. We settled into a little town nestled at the base of the Alps and my parents set themselves to the work of church-planting. From that moment on, I had a foot in two worlds—America and Italy—even as I felt like I never belonged to either. In other words, I was a Third-Culture Kid (TCK).
These challenges are common to TCKs. In their book Third-Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, authors Pollock and Van Reken define a TCK as “a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years culture outside the parent’s culture. The TCK builds relationships to all the other cultures, while not having full ownership of any.” Growing up between worlds can be taxing. But there are also unique advantages to being a TCK. Let me highlight a few.
Most people dread time in airports. I love it. Why? Because airports feel like home. We spent a lot of time in them growing up. They marked the beginning of a new trip and the experience of another culture.
I know many TCKs would agree with this. We tend to find each other. Our frequent travels gave us unique opportunities that sometimes even accompany unique abilities. For example, TCKs often become well-versed in various languages. Most are at least bilingual, and some know three or more languages. The acquisition of these languages at an early age gives TCKs a serious advantage over some of their monolinguistic peers, especially in an increasingly globalizing world.
On a deeper level, our immersive exposure to a variety of cultures and languages helps us appreciate the wise creativity of our Creator God. In Revelation 7, John gives his readers glimpse of what the global church of God really looks like. She’s made up of a great multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language. As a TCK, I experienced a just small taste of that great variety, and for that I am thankful.
Once established in our new country, our family still made regular trips back to the States to visit family and supporters. The back-and-forth sometimes felt like a rollercoaster. Every trip raised new questions and observations. As I’ve reflected over the years, I’ve realized that my frequent exposure to different places made me culturally adaptable, and I’m thankful for that.
TCKs develop an intuitive sense not to jump to conclusions about cultures. We’re more likely to observe and ask questions in order to understand. Understanding and, in some cases, mimicking the behaviors and values of other cultures forces you to learn to appreciate them. There are praiseworthy elements of every culture, and there are sinful elements of every culture. I’m thankful that my life as a TCK taught me to observe culture and submit everything to the gospel of Christ.
As a child, I remember going to the large government building with my family so we could renew our residency visas. Because we chose not to obtain citizenship of our host country, we had to make this trip regularly. For a decade, I was legally a citizen of my passport country while living and breathing the culture of my host country. This raised many questions in my mind: Did I truly belong to my birth country? What does it mean to be a citizen of a country? At what point do I culturally become a citizen of one country over another?
Many of these questions were put to rest for me when I read Philippians 2:20: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and we eagerly wait for a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.” In my search for an identity, for somewhere to belong, the Lord graciously reminded me that, whatever my passport or address says, I’m always first a citizen of his kingdom.
My TCK status helped me grasp this reality from experience. I had grown up accustomed to feeling confused. I wasn’t really sure where I fit in and that made it difficult to connect with friends. But when I began to see that the Bible speaks very clearly to the identity of the Christian, those matters of legal and cultural citizenship shrank in importance. Now I felt able to claim a heavenly citizenship and a home country I will see one day.
Is growing up as a TCK a hard thing? I don’t know. There certainly were challenges, but that’s true for everyone. Challenges are a normal part of life and the Lord uses them to shape us. If you’re reading this as a young TCK and find yourself struggling to figure out where you belong, please hear me say this: the Lord will take care of you.
There are two ways to view your life as a TCK: you can view it negatively and try to reject it, or you can see it as a gift from God. I invite you to give thanks to God for the opportunities and challenges he is bringing your way. He’s using them to shape you to be used for his glory and your good.
Pollock, David C, et al. Third Culture Kids. Hachette UK, 26 Nov. 2010, pg. 21
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