Third Culture Kids in the World of Faith

by Editor on April 7, 2014

Tcks and faith 1

By Cindy Brandt

Every person in the congregation put their right hand over their chest and started reciting something in unison. Like having discovered I was driving on the wrong side of the road, I frantically tried to make the correction and catch on to the protocol. Rather panicked, I looked to my American husband for guidance, but having spent years abroad with me, he was a bit confounded as well.

We were living in China at the time. Me, a TCK born in Taiwan but raised in an international school, and my husband from the US. During the summers we usually travel back to Colorado to spend time with my husband’s family. That particular Sunday happened to be the Fourth of July, and as was customary at this church, they recited the pledge of allegiance during the service to honor the occasion. Having spent time trying to communicate our faith to people outside of America, we sensed a sudden jolt of dissonance at the way patriotism and church tradition intertwined.

I grew up in Taiwan and can be considered a “missionary convert”. Attending a Christian International School, I began my journey as a TCK as my educational life existed in an American cultural bubble in the midst of the broader local Chinese culture. Infused into the ethos of the school were Christian teachings, and I received my faith wrapped in red, white, and blue. I became an expert shape shifter. At home, I spoke my mother tongue and watched Taiwanese TV. At school, I switched modes and studied, socialized, and worshipped in English. If conversion is defined as a definitive turning from one identity to another, then my entire existence was one continuous conversion experience. Managing two distinct cultural identities became my vocation, the framework through which I developed emotionally, physically, and spiritually.

After graduating out of the small community I was raised in, I entered the larger world of ideas. With my persistent TCK curiosity about other cultures and customs, I discovered the vast disparity between what people considered meaningful. For instance, in Taiwan, birthdays for children are a minor affair but a really big deal in America. In adulthood, I began to understand the motivation and values behind my Chinese family upbringing and how it differs so drastically from the sentiments of my American in-laws. Having been exposed to both cultures and in fact, embracing both as the norm as a TCK, those differences do not induce fear but challenge me to expand room for what is true. I realized the faith passed onto me by American missionaries were clothed in a set of cultural patterns but the God I believe in is not limited to one outfit.

I began to convert again. Previously, I adopted faith traditions as a Chinese girl welcoming American Christian practices. Now, I must discover how the religion of my childhood can possibly be truth for all cultures. The more I searched the Bible and the more I experienced encounters with my big beautiful global family, the more I became convinced such diversity of peoples must reflect the very character of God. In other words, the closer we draw in our faith quest to find Truth, our embrace of the variety in cultures broaden.

In the west, Christian hospitality looks like wedding and baby showers; presents with lovely gift wrap, crafty party favors and pretty decorations. In Asia, hospitality manifests primarily with food and lots of it! Big, boisterous banquets where the amount of leftovers indicate the level of intentional love. Neither form of this spiritual exercise has the monopoly on faith. On the contrary, being exposed to both cultures expands one’s view of the outworking of our beliefs.

By the time our scrambling minds understood what was happening, the reciting of the pledge was halfway through. We felt sheepish and awkward for not joining in the custom, the familiar feeling of not belonging quietly crept in. I fight the urge to disappear, to flee this discomfort of exclusion. I remember I am bound to this community by marriage and by faith. I am reminded the TCK life can’t be forever reaching for a place to belong, but to bravely stay and still the voices in my head telling me I can’t fit in. Soon, a friendly face leaned over the pews and explained to us what was happening. The simple explanation communicated embrace. My complicated story entered a space, and instead of threatening the community with a different culture, it required explanations and elicited hospitality. Perhaps it caused some to be reminded not all who go to church pledge allegiance to a country, but that faith makes room for all cultures.

Our generation is in need of voices with storied backgrounds. TCKs who participate in a faith community are equipped to bring about a certain vitality and prophetic voice. They embody a different story to congregations with a single narrative. In this fast paced society of sound bytes and noise, we need the sharpened clarity brought by multiple cultural lenses, a valued asset TCKs possess. They live outside the box, upset the status quo, captivate larger dreams, and compel those around us to examine preconceived notions and to live with deeper integrity and passion.

A Note from the Author: My name is Cindy Brandt. Like a true Third Culture Kid, I feel sure I belong someplace, yet live each day in search of it. Along the way, I write about faith, culture, and beauty in the margins at I live in Kaohsiung, Taiwan with my husband and two TCKs with very well-stamped passports.

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  • Elizabeth Trotter

    “Perhaps it caused some to be reminded not all who go to church pledge allegiance to a country, but that faith makes room for all cultures.” I love this part. Truly, we aren’t (or shouldn’t be) pledging allegiance to any particular country when we follow Christ. And I love the idea that God himself is available for all people in all times — that He both meets us in, and transcends, our cultural boundaries. So thankful He’s willing to work with our human hearts!
    And, I love this part too: “I realized the faith passed onto me by American missionaries were clothed in a set of cultural patterns but the God I believe in is not limited to one outfit.” Whether a TCK, or a missionary convert, or a [insert nationality] Christian, I think that statement is true, though I’m not sure it does anyone any credit as missionaries. Also thankful He can get hold of people’s hearts even when the messenger is heavily culturally clothed — and this piece gives the hope of that.

    • Yes! Even though the gospel delivered to me was from American missionaries, I am still eternally grateful for that gift to me, a Chinese girl. Thanks for commenting!

      • Marilyn Gardner

        I loved the post Cindy – still thinking about it today – and I love this comment. I would so love to chat in person but until that time glad to have your voice online.

  • Shannon

    Cindy, Thank you for sharing a part of your story that is so deep and meaningful and for writing with such beautiful eloquence. I second your motion that TCK’s voices bring powerful insight, new perspective, and uplift everyone within the Body of Christ! I also see that as valuable with anyone who is living “displaced” in a culture that is not their original home. Even within my own U.S. of A., my parents moved to another part of the same country to have and raise children, and it was a new culture for them. So I grew up where I never really “fit in” with the people and culture I was surrounded by (although I still call it and my dear friends there “home”). Now living in Africa, I recently attended several African celebrations, including a wedding; I was such a fish out of water! But the cultural celebration was such a beautiful thing although there was little I understood. God creates, desires, and cultivates Unity AND Diversity with the people He fashioned, and I only hope and pray to embrace that. I hope to read more from you soon! Blessings.

  • Cindy, your last paragraph– holy moly, I loved it on so. many. levels. THANK YOU for being here and for writing such perspective. Seriously encouraging to my heart today– the VALUE in the differences. YES!.

    • Hey Laura, it’s good to be here! With globalization, more and more of us TCKs and cross-cultural adults are “infiltrating” faith communities. I see a great need in helping communities become more welcoming to those of us edgy people because we really need each other.

  • Beautiful essay. You are right that you carry a lot of diversity to the table others do not. For the record, Fourth of July is just a really ackward moment for me too. When I first went to the states after two years in Asia, the first sunday back was 4th of july. Someone from the choir got up there and said America was the greatest country ever – I knew it was not. They sang songs about the greatest country – I knew it was not. It reduced me to tears because I felt out of place suddenly. I ended up walking about because I could not compose myself.

    • There is always a hot mess of emotions that first time back after an extended period of time away. Reverse culture shock manifests in many ways – your reaction is totally understandable! I’d be interested to hear whether subsequent trips back provoke the same kind of reaction.

      • Other times it has been better, but I think it was because I stayed away from people. I’ve learned to not go places when I first get back and take time to breathe.

  • Marlyn’s Mom

    I had to laugh about the pledge of allegiance in church. Not a TCK but mother of 5, and Grandma to several, I am very uncomfortable/awkward with this in church. And just today, helping out in a class of 2 and 3 year olds at my Community Bible Study, I had the same ambivalent moment when the flag came out and we recited the pledge of allegiance. Actually I’m not sure anyone but the teachers recited it, but they sure are starting these kids off young. I try constantly to communicate something of the richness of the global Family of God in our present context in retirement. I am happy to say that I do occasionally find a kindred spirit who gets it and really appreciates the amazing breadth and diversity of the worldwide Church. Too often I get glazed eyes or a change of subject. Loved reading your post. Blessings on you!

    • You sound like a fantastic mom!

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