Capable of Complexity


I loved growing up overseas. I loved that I knew how to traverse the globe at a young age, that I grew up on curry and hot pakoras, that I could see some of the highest mountains in the world from the grounds of my boarding school. I loved the colorful stamps in my passport – the story of my life in a legal document; the feel of excitement when a plane took off; the visceral sense of home when I was surrounded by palm trees and minarets echoing a mournful call to prayer. I loved it.


Ah! That word “and”! That freeing, amazing change agent! And it was also hard. I struggled with belonging, with connecting to place. I experienced long nights where tears of homesickness and grief were shed, with only God and a bunk bed as witnesses. I sat uncountable times in rooms full of people enveloped in a bubble of longing, with the words from Ijeoma echoing through my brain: “too foreign for here, too foreign for there – never enough for both”.

It takes many missionary kids years to accept that their experience was a complicated, beautiful package of good and hard. Owning the hard feels like a betrayal. And might I say, there is nothing that makes an MK/TCK bristle like a condescending adult looking at you and automatically saying “Wow – that must have been really hard. You must be glad to be back in [insert country].” I remember standing up as straight as my five foot three frame could make me and saying, with daggers in my voice and eyes, “I loved my childhood. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.” My voice said “Just try me, lady, and I’ll throw that macaroni casserole in your condescending face!”

Okay – that’s harsh. But I was a teenager, and to be told what my life must be was simply unbearable.

For years, all I could do was claim the positive. I was like the Joel Osteen Missionary Kid, except that my teeth weren’t as bright and shiny as his. My childhood was perfect, thank you very much, and don’t even start with the negative.

The problem is that of course, it wasn’t. There was the good and there was the hard. Trying to be fair to both those things felt like an impossibility, so I stuck with the good.

Here’s the thing: When we talk about the MK/TCK experience we have got to be capable of complexity. I’ll say that again: we have to be capable of complexity. As Tanya Crossman points out so well in her book Misunderstood, the third culture kid narrative is a perspective and not a one-size-fits-all single story. Each TCK story contains things that are deeply painful and other things that are incredibly unique and joy-filled.

I recently read a book called All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir by Nicole Chung. Though born of a Korean family, Nicole was adopted as a baby by a white family. The book is her story of coming to terms with her adoption and ultimately finding her birth family. But it’s much more than that. It’s a story about belonging, about the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our reality, about the stories that families tell to make sense of their family narrative. At one point, the author says this:

Family lore given to us as children has such hold over us, such staying power. It can form the bedrock of another kind of faith, one to rival any religion, informing our beliefs about ourselves, and our families, and our place in the world. When tiny, traitorous doubts arose, when I felt lost or alone or confused about all the things I couldn’t know, I told myself that something as noble as my birth parents’ sacrifice demanded my trust. My loyalty.*

Though my circumstances were not those of an adoptee, this paragraph made a deep impact on me when I read it. How many of us as third culture kids, as missionary kids, had our own family lore that we believed? How many of us believed that we must trust our parents’ sacrifice, and wrongly believed that we must not let them, or anyone else, know when things were hard?

In my own journey I have found that the things that I found difficult were also difficult for my parents. I have come to know more fully some of the stories that I only knew partially. I have come to realize that saying something is hard does not mean that it was not good.

I wrote this in my memoir, Worlds Apart: The Journey of a Third Culture Kid:

Many of us find it hard to reconcile the good with the bad. For years, I thought it would be disloyal to my parents if I talked about the hard. I have come to realize that most of the things that I found hard, they too found difficult. Reducing the third culture kid experience to a single experience or story fails to do it justice. It’s far more complex than a single story.

Being a third culture kid – like the life of any child – was paradoxical. It was marked by tears at train stations, goodbyes that left a pit in my stomach, early morning wake up on the first day of boarding, confused and disoriented, and the evil of gossip.

Boarding was homesickness and misunderstanding, wishing Mom would be there, only to feel unable to communicate once she arrived. Boarding school with its rules and institutional living wasn’t easy. From bunk beds to dressers, all of our living space was shared. We bathed once a week in three inches of water, and washed our hair once a week unless we melted snow. Boarding school separated us from our families, even when we saw our siblings. We learned to relate to family in a completely new way. We had to learn crowd control and learn who could make our lives miserable, or comfortable. It was community living – at its worst, but also at its best.

Being a third culture kid in boarding school brought with it joys and losses that cannot be dissected until later in life. It was the good and the terrible, the happy and the sad, the laughter and the tears. I learned that grace covers memories, and magic can happen in unlikely places; that one bad teacher doesn’t define your life; and that forgiveness is a necessary ingredient of life. In short, my third culture kid childhood crammed most of life’s lessons into twelve short years.”

This is a piece of my story, a coming to terms with its pieces. Being able to finally admit the hard and the good has made it so much richer. It has changed my story from the Pollyanna version to a solid, grace-filled version that continues to grow and change. If I could see the well-meaning woman who looked at me so many years ago, I would look at her with clear eyes and I would be able to honestly say “Yes. there are some really hard parts to my story. And there are some really beautiful parts to my story – probably much like your own.” 

Being capable of complexity is one way to honor third culture kids, missionary kids, and their parents. Crafting our questions and our conversations in a way that honors the complexity is a way to build relationships and open up doors to deep conversations about this life overseas. It’s a way to honor the full story, the person, and the many events that comprise the life of a TCK. It’s a way to honor the work of God and the mystery of faith in the life of what can be a rich and complicated childhood.

*All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

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An adult third culture kid, Marilyn grew up in Pakistan and then raised her own 5 third culture kids in Pakistan and Egypt. After finally learning how to live in the United States, she finds herself unexpectedly living in the Kurdish Region of Iraq working at a university. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and Worlds Apart - A Third Culture Kid's Journey. Her writing appears in Plough Magazine, Fathom Magazine, and a few other places around the web. You can find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries: Communicating Across the Boundaries of Faith & Culture.

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