The Third Culture Kids gathering at Urbana 15 was buzzing with laughter and excited introductions among students from around the world. It felt like a family reunion—except no one had never met before!
In our increasingly transnational world, a growing number of students identify as Third Culture Kids, or TCKs. Michael Pollock, director of Daraja, defines a TCK as someone who spends a “significant part of the developmental years in a culture other than the parents’ culture.” They may grow up in multiple cultures because their parents serve as diplomats, military personnel, international teachers, missionaries, business leaders, or in other professions that require extended time away from their home culture.
The TCKs at the Urbana 15 gathering (hosted by the International Lounge) laughed and cried together about the struggles of being global nomads. Struggles like answering the question “So, where are you from?” For a TCK, this common question can be difficult, painful, or simply exhausting to answer. Similarly, although TCKs can often identify with multiple cultures or nations, many feel like they don’t fully belong to any one group.
For a TCK, answering the question “So, where are you from?” can be difficult, painful, or simply exhausting to answer.
Many TCKs also experience the challenges of
- Maintaining friendships from childhood. Children of military personnel may feel this one acutely. Moving cities and schools frequently makes it especially difficult to stay in contact with childhood friends, as opposed to living in only one town or school district for your whole life.
- Finding “home.” “I can’t go back ‘home,’” lamented one TCK. Where is home? Is it where you grew up with your family? What if you grew up in multiple countries? Is home where your family currently resides? What if they live in multiple parts of the world right now?
- Interacting with mono-cultural people. Misunderstandings happen cross-culturally—especially with people from a mono-cultural background. It can be frustrating to encounter other people’s fear, suspicion, or superiority.
- Being misperceived. TCKs may appear to belong to a certain national, cultural, or ethnic group on the outside, but identify with a vastly different culture on the inside. One American who grew up in Taiwan called herself “Whasian” (White on the outside, Asian on the inside). Having cultural differences under the surface can lead to misperceptions and cross-cultural conflict.
- Finding support as a TCK. Being a TCK can be lonely. It can be hard to find friends who understand you and identify with your stories and experiences.
- Deciding where you want to live in the world. After graduation, the possibilities of where to live are endless for TCKs. It can be especially challenging to figure out where to put down roots—or whether to put them down at all—if your family has moved again while you were in college.
- Dating cross-culturally. Dating someone from a similar culture can be hard enough, but with cross-cultural romantic relationships, throw in the different values, communication styles, ways of dealing with conflict… enough said.
The 9 Gifts
Despite the challenges, TCKs have a huge potential to be cross-cultural leaders and bridge-builders in God’s global mission. In particular, TCKs have these nine gifts to bring to missions:
1. Seeing the world through multiple lenses
“We have a special role, and we need to be on our knees praying, because we see things that the average person cannot see or does not see,” explained Meg, a TCK from the United States and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. Growing up in multiple cultures gives TCKs a unique ability to see situations, people, and the world through different lenses.
2. Being risk-takers and being open to try new things
“We’re not as afraid to try new things,” explained one young woman from Brazil, the United States, and Senegal, who enjoys introducing mono-cultural students to different ethnic foods.
3. Influencing others
“We’ve had to take risks so now we can invite others to take risks,” reflected Rachel (from Taiwan and the United States). TCKs can influence others in a special way.
4. Welcoming others on the margins
Perhaps from feeling like an outsider before, TCKs can uniquely reach people who are excluded for one reason or another. “As TCKs, we are drawn to people who feel like they don’t belong somewhere,” stated one participant, who got involved in ministry among Latinos on campus.
5. Seeing God uniquely
TCKs may be more aware of how culture and church are intertwined. We need their voices in our faith communities today so we can how to be better witnesses cross-culturally.
6. Interceding and mourning
One Urbana participant who grew up in Korea, the United States, and Kenya reflected, “I think a person who is a TCK knows the world. And if they know the world, they can therefore mourn when the world is hurting. And when you mourn, you are able to pray well.”
7. Making peace among conflicting people groups
“A lot of times there is pain coming from stereotypes. We can represent a people group that has caused oppression and say we’re sorry on their behalf,” reflected one TCK from Costa Rica, Spain, and Jordan.
8. Being willing to go
TCKs may be most open to living in another part of the world in response to God’s call to mission. Briza (from the United States and Saudi Arabia) experienced growing up overseas because of her parents’ international teaching job. This experience opened herself up to international teaching herself—but in a completely different part of the world. She currently lives in Kazakhstan, where she teaches sixth grade.
9. Building cross-cultural relationships
TCKs have years of experience building cross-cultural relationships, a needed skill in missions. Whether it’s reaching international students on campus or an unreached people group abroad, TCKs can use their cross-cultural skills to advance God’s kingdom.
As followers of Jesus living in a multiethnic world, we need to be aware of Third Culture Kids on our campuses, and in our churches and cities. If you are a TCK yourself, know that you are not alone. You are uniquely gifted as a bridge-builder in God’s global mission. You can see, interact, pray, mourn, and make peace in ways that no one else can. We need your voice in our faith communities so we can learn how to be better witnesses cross-culturally!
If you’re not a TCK but are seriously considering serving overseas long-term, know that any children God may grace you with will be TCKs. They will face unique challenges, but they will have great strengths to offer others, too!