Third Culture Kids and the Conundrum of Home

“Where are you from?” We all know the question is coming. We’ll usually take a deep breath, maybe wince, and endeavor to answer. The typical get-to-know-you question is nearly unavoidable.

For most people, the answer isn’t rocket science. However, when you first meet Third Culture Kids (TCKs), be aware that our answering can be difficult because “home” is a relative word for us.

“When you first meet Third Culture Kids, be aware that answering ‘Where are you from?’ can be difficult because ‘home’ is a relative word for us.”

Authors David C. Pollock and Ruth Van Reken of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds define a TCK as, “a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture. The third culture kid builds relationships to all the cultures, while not having full ownership in any.”

I’m an American citizen. My parents are American, but I grew up in Asia because my parents served as missionaries. My personal identity and worldview is a synthesis of cultures, including my passport country. So defining home is difficult. It’s beautiful though because TCKs often see people as “home” and they can find elements of ”home” wherever they live.

Not having complete ownership within any country means TCKs are a patchwork quilt of worldviews, philosophies, and ideologies. TCKs have a unique ability to understand multiple points of view because they’ve been exposed to diverse people groups, faiths, and cultures.

We can be a hidden population—sliding in and out of your church pews, sometimes wanting to open up about our complexities, and other times just wanting to blend in—because explaining where we’re from is simply exhausting.

Defining Home is Difficult

In the country where they grew up, third culture kids may say they’re from the state or country their parents are from. In the country of their citizenship, they’ll usually call home the country where they grew up. Sometimes, they’ll give the full explanation, depending on who’s asking and why—are they just asking to be polite, or do they really want to know?

My parents are from two different states, so when I was in Asia, my answers vacillated between the two states. There were times in the United States when I said I was from Thailand, which was rebuffed with, “But, you don’t look Thai.” Even naming a home overseas is complicated for me because I grew up in four different countries. All of them can feel like home.

Home is Where the Heart Is

Home is usually associated with belonging. TCKs long to feel like we belong somewhere, yet we usually flinch when people try to typecast us or box us into a location because no one place or culture defines us completely. Often, we feel at home and have the most in common with other TCKs, even if they grew up in a different countries.

We have change and transience in common. Although many dread the “Where are you from?” question, paradoxically, we want to be known and understood. And where we spent our formative years is foundational for truly understanding us.

Like many TCKs, I’ve wrestled with the inner turmoil of needing a physical address as home. If you asked me what place feels like home, I’d probably answer the Hong Kong harbor, mountains and waterfalls in Thailand, streets in an Asian megacity, and my grandmother’s house in the United States. However, I’ve come to accept that home isn’t one physical location. It’s my family, extended family, missionary family, and friends who are scattered across the globe.

TCKs are prone to recognize that our true home isn’t an area code or a childhood house. As Christians, our citizenship is in heaven. Verses like Philippians 3:20–21 and 1 John 2:17 remind all believers to hold loosely to houses and hometowns because this world is fleeting. When TCKs long for a permanent home, we can be reminded, as Hebrews 13:14 says, to look forward to a permanent home in heaven.

“TCKs are prone to recognize that our true home isn’t an area code or a childhood house. As Christians, our citizenship is in heaven.”

Serving Third Culture Kids

TCKs who come back to the United States for college may feel lonely and isolated, especially if their parents are still serving overseas.

Here are a few ways you or your church can serve them:

Adopt a TCK college student
Check with your university’s admissions office or the international student department to see if there are any TCKs enrolled. If the TCK’s parents are still overseas, they may only see them once or twice a year. They may not have anywhere to go for Thanksgiving or long weekends. Invite them to spend holidays and weekends with you.

Ask them what their favorite food is from back home, or if there is an American food they haven’t tried yet. Prepare food native to your state that they may have never tried. Invite them to bring a friend. Send leftovers and homemade goodies back to campus with them.

My best friend’s parents live in the city where I went to college. They “adopted” me and invited me to be a part of their family during college. They sent me care packages, had me over for dinner, and made me a part of family events.

TCKs often feel misunderstood and that can lead to emotional isolation. You don’t have to understand. Simply listening means the world to TCKs.

Connect culturally
Research the culture, customs, and festivals of their country and ask if there are ways to celebrate and engage in these festivals in the United States.

It’s tricky for TCKs to find where they belong in the schema of societies that operate on the definition of home as physical addresses and citizenships. However, you can help them find a piece of home in your family and community. My college town became a prominent “square” in my patchwork quilt of places that feel like home largely because of the people who became home by reaching out, loving me, trying to understand me, and making me feel like I belonged.

Caroline Anderson is a writer with the IMB. She currently lives in Southeast Asia. Her childhood in Asia consisted of two important ingredients: braving hot chili peppers and telling people about Jesus.