‘Where are you from?’ – not an easy question to answer as a third culture kid!

I was born in Hong Kong to culturally Mexican and American parents. By the time I was 11, I had lived in four different countries and seven different cities. I have dual British and American citizenship. Even though I have lived in England for 12 years, the British think I’m American. And when I’m in America, they think I might be Canadian or maybe even Scottish. These experiences are not unusual to other people like me. I am a Third Culture Kid and this is my life.

Frequent moves

It is not commonly known that there is a group of internationally minded individuals in our midst referred to as ‘Third Culture Kids’ or ‘TCKs.’ The book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds describes the TCK as ‘a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture’ (Pollock, D. & Van Reken, R., 2010). This often means that a TCK and his/her family have moved several times, as in the case of military or diplomatic families, or perhaps have lived in one foreign country for a long period of time, which is the case with many missionary families. In either situation, TCK families tend to develop a complex identity, having been influenced by a variety of cultures.

Internationals and TCKs

Having done some work with international students through my church, I was curious to make a comparison between international student and Third Culture Kid experiences upon arriving in the UK to study. I found that, in general, since international students have grown up in one place their whole lives and have only come to England for a short period of time to study, their experience of ‘homesickness’ tends to be greater than the TCKs’ experience. TCKs do not usually have an actual place that they miss; rather, they miss their family and friends who understood and shared in their mobile lifestyle. Also, TCKs may not experience ‘culture shock’ as quickly as international students do, since they are used to adapting to new environments. It is important to note that TCKs returning to their passport or ‘home’ country for university often face different challenges than TCKs who attend university in another ‘host country,’ that is, not their country of citizenship.

I needed help

I was torn between staying in the UK for university or going to the States. I am an American citizen and other members of my family live in the States, so my family expected me to choose a college in America. My closest friends were English and in their eyes I was still American, so they expected me to go to America as well. It seemed the thing to do, so I signed up and left to begin my first semester at university in the state of Illinois. I thought going there would be easy since I had lived in Illinois before when I was younger. However, I quickly realised that there was so much I didn’t know about American culture, such as the way you address others, or the sense of humour, and other small things that added up. At first glance, I seemed American and so I wasn’t given the support that the international students received as they adjusted to American culture and learnt their way around. But I needed help and the only comfort I had was in talking with the Lord, hearing from friends back in England and seeking out friendships with other TCKs at the university. In the end, I left that university before I finished my degree and returned to a place where it didn’t seem I belonged, but where I understood the culture much better: England.

Be aware

Therefore, in terms of reaching out to new students in your area, be aware that TCKs with British passports may be considered as home students by universities. British TCKS are not necessarily up-to-date with British cultural norms. They may initially adjust quickly and settle in, but over time they may get frustrated about all the little things they did not know about British culture. They then need to be given the same welcome, and shown the same understanding and love, as the international students.

Sharing the gospel with TCKs is not unlike witnessing to other groups. As Paul demonstrates in Acts 17, Christians must be culturally relevant and opportunities to share the gospel will often arise when one is willing to meet a person in their situation or mindset. With international students, one finds opportunities to build relationships simply by the fact that the students need to practise their English with a native speaker. TCKs usually have no difficulty speaking English, but they do not often find a sympathetic ear when it comes to their backgrounds. Being from multiple places does not suit an introduction of, ‘Hi, what’s your name? Where are you from?’

Therefore, the best way for Christians to reach out to TCKs is by being genuinely interested in their lives, willing to listen and also being prepared to have intelligent conversations with them about the countries in which they lived.

Where do I belong?

One of the most problematic aspects of being a TCK is knowing where one belongs. Moving around so often makes it difficult to feel truly ‘at home’ anywhere in the world and a group of TCK students told me they feel they belong everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It is an extremely vulnerable position to be in and, as such, requires a response of sincere care for the person’s situation. Yet, despite the discomfort of this feeling, it gives Christian TCKs a very real understanding of what it means to be citizens of heaven: ‘And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country — a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them’ (Hebrews 11.13-16).

If you meet Christian TCKs, encourage them. Remember that a TCK will not necessarily be familiar with the church culture in Britain. Do not let them feel ostracised by not understanding church practices. Explain things and help them to understand. Accept them and love them, for it is right that they should feel they belong through fellowship with other believers, for ‘now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it (1 Corinthians 12.27).

After living in England for 12 years, I still don’t feel like I fit in. And I know that no matter where I go on earth, it will be the same. I will always be plagued with the question, ‘Where are you from?’ and I’m not sure I will ever have an adequate answer. Yet, I can only rejoice, for the Lord is with me wherever I go and he has shown me the way home.

Missy Benton works with Friends International in the city of Bath and is a member of Widcombe Baptist Church.