Thoughts on being a Third Culture Kid: the background

by mendibpng


(above) This is me, at one year old, when my family first moved to Indonesia in 1975.


One of my friends spoke in church about her anthropological study of Third Culture Kids (TCK) here in Ukarumpa last week and it sparked some ‘new’ processing for me…comparing my kids and my childhood experiences. I started writing, and it turns out I had a lot to say.

David Pollock’s definition of a third-culture kid is

an individual who has spent significant part of his or her developmental years in a culture other than that of the parents, resulting in integration of elements from both the host culture and parental culture into a third culture. (Raising Resilient MKs: Resources for Caregivers, Parents and Teachers.)

I met David Pollock in 1993 when I attended a ‘Reentry’ course for TCK’s and saw him occasionally throughout my college years when I attended Houghton College. He devoted his life to serving TCK’s and their families, and I would highly recommend anything he has written on the subject of third-culture kids.

I’ve done a lot of naval gazing down through the years, trying to understand how my TCK experiences shaped me as a person: particularly to how it relates to me as a wife, mother and friend. A significant event which helped me greatly was a letter of apology written by the organization my parents were with in their magazine Alliance Life.  You can read the whole article here.

The significant part for me was this section:

“The investigation also concluded that some school administrators, teachers and dormitory parents were not properly trained for or sensitive to the individual needs of the children with whom they were entrusted. Methods of discipline were at times harsh, humiliating, insensitive and abusive.

We, the Board of Directors of the C&MA, recognize that the policy of mandatory boarding school was hurtful to many and abusive to some, leading to a lifetime of significant pain.”

Until this article came out, I thought that the people who ran the organization didn’t know and didn’t care about how the ‘mandatory boarding school policy’ had affected my family and my missionary kid friends. I was grateful to read that I was wrong about that and continued processing these issues with that knowledge.

Back to the talk my friend gave last week: I became intrigued by some of the similarities and differences between my experience as a TCK and what my kids are going through now, which is the basis for the next few blog posts. [I have asked my kids and family members to read this, and am posting it with their permission and input.]

In case you are new to this blog, I will give you a little background on us. My parents left the United States with my four year old sister and me, one year old. Another sister joined the family a few years later. I lived in Indonesia until I graduated from elementary (primary) school, and then lived between Malaysia and Indonesia for junior high and high school.

My husband is not a TCK; however, he married me nearly 16 years ago. He has become accustomed to all the discussions we’ve had around the dinner table about TCK issues, and I think he understands me very well for someone who grew up in Wheaton, IL, and lived in one place for his entire childhood! Ben and I along with our five kids: ages 13, 11, 9 and twin 3 year olds live in Papua New Guinea, training Papua New Guineans to do Bible translation, literacy and Scripture Use.

I started boarding school at age six and continued schooling away from my parents until I graduated high school in 1993, with the exception of grades four and ten, furlough years for my parents. My kids do not live apart from us, except for Josiah, who stays in a hostel for 2-5 weeks at a time when we go to our village for translation workshops. Our other school aged children attend school when we are in Ukarumpa. Their teachers prepare school work for Noah and Ellie to complete while we are away and I home school them.

I seem to deal with the whole boarding school thing in cycles; however, two events in particular triggered some major processing: when my oldest child turned six and then later when we left him in a hostel for two weeks for the first time. I was told by a trusted friend (who is also a counselor) that these things are always going to be a part of me, that the processing will be a part of who I am.

By the way, in case anyone is interested, my favorite books written by TCKs (specifically describing their boarding school experiences) are:

“Letters Never Sent” by Ruth VanRyken (autobiography)
“The Happy Room” by Catherine Palmer (fictional story)
“Too Small to Ignore: Why the Least of These Matters Most” by Dr. Wes Stafford (autobiography)

Everyone has their own story, but I noticed that the three books above have some similar threads to mine even though these people grew up in different countries and went to different schools.  Stay tuned for the next part of my story, where I will compare my experiences with that of my TCK children….


16 Comments to “Thoughts on being a Third Culture Kid: the background”

  1. Thanks for being open and sharing this. I pray it will help to prepare us as we plan to teach TCKs in the coming years. Much love, Jennie

    • Jennie, I love to read your newsletters and to hear your heart for TCKs!! I hadn’t seen your blog before, am following it now! 🙂

  2. … who you are is the Beloved.

  3. Love you Mandy. I love your introspectiveness and all the wisdom, thoughts and insights you so graciously and lovingly share. Miss you dear friend!

  4. Thanks for sharing, Mandy! I’m sure your reflections will be a blessing to many and I am definitely going to look up those books, too.

  5. I’m delighted that my musings could spark some of your own. It’s an ongoing conversation!

  6. Thanks for posting this. I had a similar experience growing up as an MK in another country, with another mission board. I tried as a kid, and have tried as an adult, to flag up some of the painful experiences, but have met with anger and disbelief. I’m glad that you still have your faith, and seem to have your head screwed on straight. I applaud your husband’s and your approach with your own kids, and your courage to go back to the Coral Triangle as an adult, in similar work to your parents. I hope your relationship with your extended family has healed. I look forward to reading further!

    • David, I am so sorry to hear about the anger and disbelief. So often people resort to denial to exonerate their own guilt or to avoid the pain of facing reality…it is very sad! May you continue to find healing in spite of that. Thank you for your insightful comments.

  7. Ooo, I can’t wait to read more on this. As a Waxhaw kid who has always been on the fringe of TCKs without having been one, I find all this fascinating. TCKs have a culture of their own that is pretty tricky to “break into.” I wonder if TCKs raised by TCKs have an easier or harder time understanding their own culture. What do you think? (This is not meant as a “pointed” question. I’m genuinely interested in your thoughts.)

    • Katrina, I can see how the ‘in group’ feeling can be rather strong at times amongst TCKs. I do know TCKs who have never been able to assimilate into their home countries because it’s so hard to let go of what is familiar and safe or they might have a sense of superiority, as Donna (who commented earlier) has pointed out in her anthropology of TCKs in Ukarumpa. (I’m sure there are many other reasons as well.) I don’t know about TCKs raised by TCKs…I am waiting to find out how much I’ve screwed up with my kids. 🙂 I think I probably overreact to some things because of my background and I underreact to others (or expect my kids to be able to do things I could do independently at their age!) However, having a non TCK husband has probably balanced me out quite a bit. He relies on me to tell me when someone needs extra care and I rely on him to help me stay grounded (ie and have good boundaries). I don’t know if I answered your question or not!

  8. Thanks for writing about being a TCK, I am one too and like you my husband is not a TCK but he is a CCK (cross culture kid, he has some roots in Indonesia). I have read the book “Letters Never Sent”by Ruth van Reken, but I do not know the other 2 books. Have you heard of the book by Heidi Sand-Hart “Home Keeps Moving”? It’s worth reading too. I grew up in Africa, a different continent but still there are similarities because I grew up as a TCK too. I write a blog too and invite you to come over and have a read :).

    • I haven’t seen that book yet: I will look for it, thank you. Thanks for visiting our blog, I will check yours out! Blessings to you on your journey… 🙂

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