Rice and Beans and the TCK Hybrid Identity

by Hannah Flatman

Rice and beans: the perfect combination! Where we live in NE Brazil, beans are often served first, with rice on top. That seemed strange to our family at first, coming from the UK where most people put their rice on the base and ladle the beans on top. One of my TCKs currently likes rice first with beans on top; she was born in the UK. My other TCK prefers beans topped with rice; he has a Brazilian passport. Although essentially it is the same meal, it does change your experience depending on whether you place the rice or beans on the base, top, or side by side. 

This versatile meal got me thinking about the hybrid cultural identity of our TCKs. Which cultural influences are central to their identity? Which are secondary (or tertiary) at the moment? At what stages in cross-cultural transition do TCKs begin to identify more with their host culture than their passport culture? 

In some ways the terms “host culture” and “passport culture” limit the multidimensionality of influences and experiences making up a globally mobile lifestyle. They don’t allow for multiple passports or multiple simultaneous hosts, and they assume that any one culture is self-contained and not already a melting pot of cultural influences. Alternatives such as “root culture” or “heritage culture” are less widely used, however, so for the purposes of this conversation, I’ll refer to the more commonly used “host culture” and “passport culture.”

All TCKs have a hybrid identity, but individual TCKs may emphasise different aspects of their cross-cultural identity. They may be rice-first or beans-first depending on the places they’ve lived, how long they lived in those places, and their age in each of those places. Their experience of the world is quite different from their monocultural peers, who may think in terms of rice-only or beans-only.

Our family has a third combination of ingredients on our plate. My husband had a long-term ministry and calling to South Sudan before we met, and I to Brazil. From our current ministry base in Brazil, we usually make an annual visit to South Sudan. We are discovering this was one thing as a couple, but another as a family with young kids. 

When we got married, we wanted to remain true to our commitments to two countries on different continents. We chose to see opportunities rather than competing demands. With children, however, our time and resources are more pressured than they were as a couple. For this season as a family with two little ones, Brazil is our home, and South Sudan is the place we keep returning to.

When a South Sudanese friend spent a month with us last year, our children’s links to South Sudan came alive to them. They discovered that South Sudan is also “their place” (both have Dinka middle names). They now have another combination of ingredients, another colour to add to their kaleidoscope identity. 

Having a wider pool of significant cultural influences than the traditional model of passport and host cultures is very common for TCKs. As we introduce our little ones to a fourth (or sometimes fifth) culture, we notice increasingly how different members of the family have different cultural identities. My husband and I came to South Sudan as adults; our children are having a significant experience of South Sudanese culture in their formative years through lived experience and ongoing relationships there. 

Though children may have more cultural influences than passport and host cultures, we still use the term third culture kid to describe their experience. It is the experience of living cross-culturally, outside of their passport country, which is the Third Culture, not the number of cultures in the mix.

At different stages in their lives, and particularly during times of transition, TCKs’ palates change. The experience of cross-cultural living and engagement in those formative years shapes who they are. Our rice-first child was once decidedly beans-first, until we spent a year in the UK during the pandemic. We intentionally provided opportunities for her to engage with our serving country’s culture despite the distance, as well as to maintain her Portuguese and friendships whilst away. During that year our beans-first boy learnt to sleep under a blanket, and to eat rice without beans (literally and metaphorically). 

Lauren Wells reminds us of the chameleon-like ‘ever-adapting identity’ of TCKs and gives some ideas about how to anchor their identity.1 During those early years identity is constantly being constructed and moulded. What can parents and TCK care-givers intentionally do to anchor our TCK’s identities? This is an important question for both host(s) and passport cultures. Are we having an ongoing conversation with our TCKs about which aspects of their cross-cultural identity are important for them to maintain, for themselves or for the family, and why? How do we give them the tools to evaluate which aspects of the culture are good (and which aren’t), which are significant, and which will help shape them into Christ-likeness? Whilst there are some cultural practices of the host culture they need to adopt whilst living there, there are choices about which other ingredients they add to the plate which can be made together with their care-givers and family.

As a family we’ve added even more questions to the list. Each member of the family may adopt a different form of hybrid identity to the other. How do we cater to that? How can we support family members who struggle with an aspect of our host culture which we enjoy? Which particular family traditions or events are shaping our little ones? How can we intentionally create routines, traditions, and relationships which take the best from each culture? How can we help our TCKs to grow in Christ-likeness? 

I often think about how our saviour was shaped by cross-cultural experiences, including being sent to live as a TCK on earth and his time as a young child in Egypt. His siblings and parents did not share in all these experiences. I wonder how Mary and Joseph navigated that. I wonder how I, as a parent, can navigate my children’s different experiences of the world.

TCKs are known for being sociable and quick to make friends. My two connect most readily with other rice and beans kids, or really any child who has lived a cross-cultural experience, whether that’s rice and beans, or yam and chicken, or ramen and kimchi. Sometimes their monocultural (just rice, or just beans) friends don’t get them fully. 

Even if they might not completely understand, we appreciate when anyone takes the time to listen to our little ones and engage with their rice and beans identities and hear their beans and rice stories.

One of the rice and beans stories we tell in our home is A Fish out of Water. I first told this story to my little ones before a cross-cultural transition back to our passport country, the ‘home’ they couldn’t remember. It is the story of a little fish struggling with a cross-cultural transition, until a new friend with similar experiences reminds her about her home with the Creator. Conversation questions at the end help families to open up discussions with their TCKs about culture shock, loss, and how to support each other through a cross-cultural move.

I hope A Fish out of Water will give MK and TCK caregivers ideas about how to intentionally walk through a transition (before, during, and after) with their little ones. Let’s embrace every combination of rice, beans, and foods which make up the hybrid identity of our TCKs!

(You can find A Fish out of Water on several Amazon marketplaces globally. It is also available in Brazilian Portuguese through Betel Publicações.)

 

1. Wells, Lauren. Raising Up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids: A Practical Guide to Preventive Care. Kindle Edition. p. 1984.

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Hannah Flatman writes about culture shock, transitions, and raising resilient Third Culture Kids. She has been serving as a missionary in NE Brazil since 2005 and is mum to two little ones whom she has already guided through several significant cross-cultural transitions. Hannah is the Short-Term Missions Coordinator for Latin Link Brazil and also serves in South Sudan, where she and her husband have an ongoing commitment to the Ngok Dinka community in Abyei.

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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