Thoughts on Being a Third Culture Kid: lack of sense of identity and belonging…

by mendibpng

N&E furlough
(above) my kids experienced snow for the first time in 3 years on our last furlough!

Have you ever asked a Missionary kid, “where are you from?” and gotten a blank look? I still hesitate with that question. Do I say “I am currently from…..” or do I say “I grew up in…..” or do I pee my pants because I don’t know what to say?

We are only 1.5 years away from furlough, where we will return to the U.S., our passport country, for a year. Already one of our kids is begging us to keep it at six months. He doesn’t want to leave his friends or miss out on important events because rites of passage occur all the way through high school here. We explain to him that he needs to learn how to live in the U.S. because in a few years he will be attending college. Six months wouldn’t give him the time he needs to learn those things. The other kids have expressed anxiety about going back to the U.S. because they remember how, over two years ago, they arrived in a strange place where they didn’t know anyone well.  I can relate to this because I felt it too as a child…and even now as an adult, I ask myself the same questions, “will I fit in?” “will I be able to function in the U.S. after all these years?”

Ben reminded me recently of our son’s fear of the unknown which he voiced before we left for our first furlough, that he wouldn’t remember his own grandparents. He couldn’t remember anything that his older brother was looking forward to returning to. Thankfully, someone in our home church connected him with another boy and they began to email before we left PNG, so that he knew he would have at least one friend upon arrival to the U.S.! I didn’t even know that this son was struggling until he started exhibiting antisocial behaviors at school (very unusual for him!) and we sat down and asked if he was worried about leaving for furlough. (yes!)

For me as an adult, driving an automatic car or just being in American supermarkets and stores was overwhelming!! I remember having a near panic attack at COSTCO and asking Ben to get me out of there quickly.

For those of you who are Lord of the Rings fans, I love the part where Frodo gets back from his extensive travels and walks into a pub. Everybody in the pub is the same as when he left months before, but Frodo is different after enduring all kinds of trials. When I saw that, I thought, that is what I feel like: who you are is different after all of the new experiences and you can never go back…how do you begin to explain that feeling to others who you left behind years ago?

I don’t generally struggle with jealousy or envy, except when it comes to furlough, and I think it relates to the sense of identity and answering the question, “who am I?” When I go home and see people living in the same house that they had when I left for Papua New Guinea 10 years ago,  I long for the stability of living in the same place. All it takes is a moment of acknowledgement to God and I can let it go. Ben tells me that he is similar, except that he struggles more with feeling envy over the nice beautiful houses, even though he is perfectly content with more basic housing overseas.

As parents, we hope to make our home a place where our kids feel free to express these things but also to give them a grounding in Christ, where their true identity resides. I could write a whole post about this and why Heaven is so appealing to me–no more airports, packing boxes and suitcases, no more saying goodbyes to loved ones! And, now that technology is better, our kids can stay in touch with family and friends more easily than when I was a child. For instance, my grandparents would send us cassette tapes, while these days, my kids can email and video skype (when the connection is good!) with their grandparents. In June when my parents showed up at the airport, our two year old twins went right into their arms (even though we hadn’t seen them since they were 6 months old!) because they had seen Oma and Pap Pap on Skype. It’s not easy to have long distance relationships with loved ones but we do it because we need it.

I will always be grateful to Kay who introduced me to Henri Nouwen and Brennan Manning (Abba’s Child), spiritual writers who have significantly pointed me to Jesus in times of trouble…

A split between divinity and humanity has taken place in you. With your divinely endowed center you know God’s will, God’s way, God’s love. But your humanity is cut off from that. Your many human needs for affection, attention, and consolation are living apart from your divine sacred space. Your call is to let these two parts of yourself come together again.

You have to move gradually from crying outward–crying out for people who you think can fulfill your needs–to crying inward to the place where you can let yourself be held and carried by God, who has become incarnate in the humanity of those who love you in community. No one person can fulfill all your needs. But the community can truly hold you. The community can let you experience the fact that, beyond your anguish, there are human hands that can hold you and show you God’s faithful love. (The Inner Voice of Love, by Henri Nouwen)

I love that Nouwen makes the point about community, because that’s where God can meet us. I have really moved towards this in contrast with my ‘old’ self, which said that I needed to rely on ME because I was the only one who I could rely on. Having community that is centered on God’s love really does work and it makes a huge difference!

Here are some books I would recommend on the subject of identity and belonging to Christ:
“The Inner Voice of Love” Henri Nouwen
“Abba’s Child” Brennan Manning
“Tired of Trying to Measure Up” Jeff VanVonderen


7 Comments to “Thoughts on Being a Third Culture Kid: lack of sense of identity and belonging…”

  1. This is awesome blog. We at follow your blog

  2. Thanks, Mandy. Would you mind if I use some of your thoughts some time in one of our newsletters, giving you credit?

    • of course Jennie! If you want anything specific (that I haven’t written yet) please let me know, I can write more for you. 🙂

  3. I once abandoned a full cart in the aisle at Sam’s Club. It was that or a full-blown panic attack. I love what you’re writing!

  4. Thanks for the insights on being a TCK – and the Nouwen quotation.

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