July 4, 2008

Third Culture Kids

What does it mean to be a third culture kid? Is it knowing 2 national anthems word for word? Is it smiling to yourself when you hear another language? Is it feeling a sense of bitter-sweet but undefinable longing whenever you smell something familiar? Is it never feeling like you belong in any one culture, or have a home anywhere?

I’m not sure, I don’t think it’s anything you can fully describe.

Third culture kids are children that spend a substantial amount of time in their youth in a culture that is not the culture of their parents, not the culture in their home and not the culture they are expected to spend the rest of their life in. These children’s parents are generally missionaries or international workers and the third culture feeling strikes hardest the more different the two cultures are, and often when returning back to their ‘home’ culture.

These children spend most of their time in their host country but may come back to their ‘home’ country every few years. They have friends in the ‘host’ culture but often do their schooling in their own language and following their home country’s curriculum. Their home life is a mix of the home culture and the host culture – it varies depending on where they are and how involved the family is in the host culture.

They know they do not fully fit into their host culture. They probably look different, they speak a different language, they most probably have had a bit of experience in their home culture.

But they do not fit into their home culture either. They may speak with an accent, they may dress differently, have social habits form their host culture, they have had a wide range of experiences, they may be unfamiliar with many parts of the home culture we take for granted. Some bits of the home culture are bewildering and they prefer the way things are in their host culture.

Many third culture kids are expected to spend the rest of their lives in their home culture, so what do they do? They develop a third culture to try and bring the two together. They become good at observing and pretending. They build up defence mechanisms in both cultures to make sure they are accepted, but they know they will never have a ‘home’.

At times it seems hard, but it’s not all bad. As much as I had a hard time growing up I would not exchange my childhood for anything. I would change how I reacted and how I behaved but I would not exchange it.
I got to see the world. I can speak two languages. I have seen Christianity in two cultures. I can make up my own world view to try and make sense of things. I know there are so many people beyond my own little circle, I have had my horizons broadened.

What’s the point of all this? I’m not exactly sure. I guess just to make people aware that there are third culture kids out there and to take special care of them when they get back ‘home’. They may never adjust to being anywhere; accept that. - I still like to find the lowest and most inconspicuous place in a room full of people (especially if it’s mixed society) and I trace that back to my Vanuatu up bringing. I have been in Australia 10 years, but I still don’t feel like I’m Aussie – I don’t think I ever will. But I also know I will never be Ni-Vanuatu.

You know another great thing about being a third culture kid? I can not wait for Heaven. Then I will finally be home.

photo by Dad :)


Anonymous said...

u r so cute in that pic!!

Sarah @ Ordinary Days said...

Wow. What an interesting story. I've never even thought of the lives on missionaries children but now I feel like I want to learn more. Thanks for sharing!

Erin said...

Elise; :), and Josh too - he's adorable in that pic

Sarah; It's definatly something people forget about, but it makes sense - what happens when you grow up impacts you for the rest of your life.

I read somewhere that 'when God calls the parents he also calls their kids' which is so true but we don't often look at it that way.