Questions Third Culture Kids (and Their Parents) Dread

Next month I will share Questions Third Culture Kids (and Their Parents) Love, so stay tuned.

You just arrived in your passport country. Someone is approaching. You can’t remember who they are. You can’t remember where you are. What time is it? What language do they speak here? They are getting closer and closer and then the questions start…

Aren’t you glad to be home? Two hard things about this question – first, the TCK most likely does not consider their passport country home, especially if they have been abroad for a long time. My own kids vacillate, but most consistently they say that Djibouti is home. That’s where their bedrooms are, their treasure boxes, their bookshelves, their dog, their holiday traditions, their friends and school and church and sports team, their memories. That’s where they feel comfortable. Second – the TCK might not be glad. That’s a massive assumption. They might be angry or bitter or sad or intimidated or confused.

Don’t you remember me? Probably not! They’re kids. Even adults! We’ve been gone a long time, have maybe visited a lot of churches or gatherings. We love you. And the kids love you and we are so grateful for you. But we might be jet lagging, culturally overwhelmed, weary or broken. Please remind us of your name. I have been so thankful when someone just says, “Hi Rachel, Marilyn. We were in Bible study a couple years ago…” Almost every time, I know who they are, but that little gift is something I’m glad for.

Where do you buy clothes/food/stuff in your country? The kid might start thinking, “Uhh…my parents buy it…or are you saying I’m dressed funny? Or are you asking for a story from the market or…?” This is a complicated question and especially teenagers might feel awkward about it, already wondering if they are fitting in or sticking out.

How is your host country? Um…What do you mean? Third Culture Kids are just kids, they probably don’t know the political situation or the COVID situation or the economic situation. How is it, like the temperature? The food? The education? This is a confusing question.

You must just love it there! Okay, so that’s not a question, but it makes another big assumption. I was never asked that as a kid when people found out I lived in New Brighton – do you just love it there? Wuh? I dunno. I lived there. It was a place. I’ve learned to answer that question with, “Most of the time.” And people laugh and don’t really care for more than that. Still, I don’t like that question because what do you mean? Should I love it there? What if I don’t? Would you care to hear that longer, complicated answer?

How’s the ministry? Not only do the kids maybe not know or not care, they aren’t the missionary, They are a kid. Would you ask a pastor’s kid about the quality of the church work? Would you ask the child of a surgeon how surgery is going? Plus, not all TCKs identify as missionary kids. 

Say something in XXX language. For my kids, their language ability is a treasure. They use their foreign language skills as a shield sometimes, when they feel overwhelmed in the USA, they start speaking to themselves in their learned language. Or, it is a unique gift that they will pull out when they want to, like when they see a Somali at the store. They don’t often want to spill that gift out, or feel like it is a party trick.

How was your trip? Uh, not a trip. A life. Still living it…

Don’t forget next month I’ll share the great questions people can ask.

What are some questions you or your kids dread?

Coming Back From Narnia: What Re-entry Feels Like

by Beth Watkins

It’s been a little more than a year since my husband, a new immigrant, and I relocated back to the U.S. after I’d been away for more than 6 years.

It’s hard being back. They call it re-entry shock – the special kind of culture shock that happens when you’re back in your own culture after significant time away. You feel disoriented in a place and among a people that is and are your own.

It is also hard because I have no idea how to sum up the last few years, even to those who know me well.

It was like I went to Narnia. When Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy stumbled out of Narnia and back into the dusty wardrobe from whence they came, they weren’t the same people who went in. No one could understand what had happened and how their experiences changed them. I’m sounding dramatic, I know, but the extraordinary had happened and they struggled explaining it, being understood, and assimilating, because they no longer fit in the shapes of where they came from and returned to.

The people they returned to hadn’t seen what they had seen. And it was no one’s fault, but it was grievous to them. They’d been profoundly changed – and were distraught that they couldn’t return. They’d loved deeply, experienced loss, felt alive. But they went back through the closet and couldn’t take others back with them to see what they’d seen. So, they tried to explain, but as we know, words can fail when it comes to describing our deep life-altering experiences.

I don’t feel fully American anymore. My cultural glasses have fogged. But I also don’t at all feel Sudanese, South Sudanese, or Egyptian. (And though I’ve picked up lots of British-isms from my husband, I am certainly not at all British, either.) I am a sort of in-between. I’ve been warned by people who lived overseas for many years that I have been changed by my overseas life, and I’ll always be a bit “other.”

The best way I heard it explained was that I was, let’s say, an American square going to live in the triangle culture of North Africa. While in North Africa, my square edges got sanded down a bit. I acclimated to the culture there, I assimilated a bit, while still retaining much of my core American-ness. The longer I was there, the more the subtle sanding continued. Now, in my return, my sharp edges don’t just come back. I’m still squarish, but also a bit triangular now, too.

I don’t fit in the triangle of North Africa, but I don’t fit right back in to my square here.

I’m mostly this, with a little bit of that, a splash of other, and the people I feel “get” me and my husband and what we have gone through the most, are those who have gone through their own bit of sanding down in other places or through other experiences. Diamondish circles, squarish triangles, rectangular diamonds: those are our people.

It is difficult and frustrating sometimes feeling like we don’t actually fit anywhere, that no place feels quite right. But it’s a gift too, I’ve found. It’s sharpened my gaze to those who are a bit other where they are too.

I know in small part the feeling of the refugee kids in the after-school program where I volunteer, trying to speak our language well and figure out how to do life in an overwhelming place. I have a heightened sense and immediate sort of understanding with people I can see are hurting, who have survived or are surviving very difficult circumstances. Our experience has drawn us to go to a very different church than the type of church we would have chosen in a previous life. It’s made me braver about the situations I enter into, about the conversations I’m willing to start, about the kind of life I still want to pursue.

So, while I still feel out of place, sometimes even among my own family, I’m so grateful I was able to walk through that door and enter into a reality other than my own. And now that I’m back, while I will grieve not being able to return to my own Narnia, I am grateful that it’s left me craving diversity, itching to be in proximity to others who are different from me, and sure that these things make our lives richer, our own selves better, and the world a more gracious and empathetic place.

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Beth Watkins spent the last 6 years working in North and Sub-Saharan Africa with street children, refugees, and other vulnerable populations. She is currently settling back in the US with her immigrant husband and writes about living toward the kingdom of God and flailing awkwardly into neighbor-love at iambethwatkins.com. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Thoughts on Entry, Reentry, and Third Culture Kids


Every summer I begin thinking about change and transition, about reentry and culture shock. With the first warm breezes of the season, I am transported to places and times where this was my reality. And I begin to hear stories from others who are going through these transitions. The stories are told in photographs and short, often humorous, statements, hiding the tremendous impact of transnational moves.

When I began looking into information on reentry, I came across refugee resettlement and orientation programs for refugees entering a country. I was struck by how much the advice resonated with me as a third culture kid. While on one level the TCK and the refugee experience are worlds apart, the goals and the realistic expectations in refugee orientation programs are remarkably helpful.

Because orientation for the refugee is not just about theory and information, it is designed to give the refugee “the opportunity to develop realistic expectations regarding their resettlement, to consider different situations that might arise in a new country, and develop skills and attitudes that will facilitate their adjustment and well-being”*

The first thing I realized is that we, like the refugee or immigrant, don’t ‘reenter’. Instead we ‘enter’ a world that is not familiar, a world that calls up all of our flexibility and ingenuity to adjust. It may seem like a small thing, but the difference between those words is huge. 

So I began developing my own list for my tribe, the third culture kid tribe. I offer it here with hopes that both those who enter and those who re-enter may find a nugget of truth. I’d love to here your thoughts through the comment section!

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  • Realistic time expectations. Entering a new world is a journey and it rarely happens in three months or six months. We are moving to a new country, a new world. As such it deserves all the attention we would give to going into a totally different culture. Transitioning to a new life in our passport country is far bigger than spending a summer vacation there. Give yourself a minimum of two years, but don’t be surprised if it takes five.
  • Accepting that we are a combination of worlds. As TCKs, our worlds are woven together in a semi-formed tapestry. Many of us feel like completely different people when we’re in our passport countries. We are not chameleons and we are not impostors; rather we’re trying to make sense of our worlds and figure out what cultural adaptation looks like as we effectively transition to our passport countries. Yes – there is loss of identity. But as we work through these losses, our identities as those who can live between worlds emerge stronger than ever.
  • Understanding culture shock. We don’t go through reverse culture shock – we go through culture shock. Reverse culture shock means we know a culture, have been away from it, and are returning to differences we didn’t expect. In our case, we don’t really know this culture we are entering. We may think we know it, because our passports tell us we should, but we don’t. And while reverse culture shock is described as “wearing contact lenses in the wrong eyes”, culture shock is having completely different lenses.
  • Giving voice to a longing. Struggling to give voice to our longings is enormous. Somehow it doesn’t feel valid. But giving voice to our longings is legitimate. Our world as we know it has ended. We may be able to visit our home, our adopted country, but we know that we must have a valid and legal way to stay there should we wish to go back.

    We will have times of intense longing and wistfulness for what no longer exists.

    This can be captured best in the word ‘saudade’, a Portuguese word that came into the existence in the 13th century. “The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness. ~ In Portugal of 1912, A. F. G. Bell”  Giving voice to ‘saudade’ helps take away its power and ability to control. The longings are there, they are valid, but if they control us we will despair. Our longings can be expressed through writing, through connecting to other TCKs, through the visual arts, through theatre, through faith, and through friendships.

  • Understand the shaping of our worldview. While our parents went overseas with already developed worldviews and through their interactions in their host countries had their worldviews affected, ours began developing in our host country. Our first memories may be the sound of the Call to Prayer or a dusty road and traffic jam involving a buffalo, two donkey carts, and our parent’s jeep. They may be of a crowded and colorful bazaar filled with colorful fabrics and bangles. Our experiences shape our worldview this will probably differ markedly from those of our parents and those of our peers in our passport countries. Having realistic understanding and expectations on differing worldviews helps us to not expect or demand that others understand us.
  • Faith can be complicated. For many of us, faith is paramount to who we are. But it gets tangled up in our adjusting to life in our passport countries. It’s particularly difficult if we feel we can’t question God, express disbelief or doubt, or change denominations because it feels disloyal to our parents.This can inhibit our honesty as it relates to our faith journeys. Perhaps doubt was never a part of our faith journey before, but now that our world has changed the doubts surface. A question emerges: “Will the faith that sustained us through our journey thus far be big enough to get us through this crucial juncture?” It’s an important question and often we need to find people beyond our parents who can hear and understand us, speaking truth into our faith and our doubt.
  • The importance of cultural brokers. Often there emerges someone who doesn’t share our background but understands in a way that defies our understanding. This is a gift. This is the person that explains life to us, that walks beside us. This is the one that looks through our high school yearbook and says“Now who’s this with you? And did you go on that camping trip where you got in trouble for sneaking over to where the boys were sleeping before or after this picture was taken?” This personal interest helps us understand what friendship, listening, and cultural brokering look like. So learn from them. Look to them. But don’t put undue burdens on them.
  • Place is significant – significant physically, emotionally, and spiritually. As humans, at our core is a need for ‘place’. Call it ‘belonging’, call it ‘home’, call it anything you like. But all of us are integrally connected to place. We are incarnate beings and so when those places are taken away, we suffer from a “disruption” of place. It is clear that the TCK has a disruption of place – and often multiple times in their lives. If the disruption goes beyond our ability to adapt it becomes a pathology. The late Paul Tournier, a gifted Swiss psychologist, calls this a “deprivation of place”. He says that to be human is to need a place, to be rooted and attached to that place. Many of us downplay this connection to place by over spiritualizing it or underestimating its importance. We need not dismiss it, we need not idolize it; we must only acknowledge it and recognize it as valid.
  •  The yearning heart. All of us have a heart that yearns for belonging, for acceptance, for love. This is the human condition. It’s a fundamental truth and it is not unique to the third culture kid. What is hard is tying this in with all of our TCK experiences, life story, and worldview. It is easy for us to mistake our yearning for only that which we left, instead of remembering that we had a heart that yearned before we ever left our passport countries. If we can grow in an understanding of our hearts, what is global and universal in our yearning, and what is specifically tied to being a third culture kid, we are in a good place.  A desire for place is universal, a desire for our particular place, whether it be Buenos Aires or Bolivia or Cairo or Lebanon, is specific to our TCK background.
  • The need for grace. In the midst of all of this, it is so easy to want grace, and so hard to give grace. Yet all of this is about grace. The grace that we were given by our host country, the grace of others who walked beside us as kids, the grace of our parents in caring and loving even when they don’t fully understand. Those of us who ‘get’ grace will find it easier to give grace. Can we give grace to those who we feel dismiss us, hurt us, misunderstand us, or don’t like us? Can we give grace to the people who we misunderstand, who we don’t like, who we dismiss?

None of this is a formula and it is not a list of stages. Although there are similarities that bind us together as TCK’s, ultimately we each have our own unique story.

Walking through the entry process and emerging on the other side is one more chapter in that story, one more pattern in the ever-evolving tapestry of our lives.

To the Displaced and the Exiled

Old city quote

To the Displaced and the Exiled

I get it.

You sit in a crowd of people and you feel your mouth go dry, the bite you just took from your scone chokes your throat. How can you be this lonely in a crowd of people? How is it possible that your passport country feels so alien?

You were excited to return, there were many things you were sick of in your adopted country. You were tired of the dirt. You had enough of the chaos. You had to boil water one time too many and you had forgotten to soak the vegetables in iodine solution resulting in a visiting guest getting dysentery.

Your household help, who you love, was complaining and asking for more money and you simultaneously felt angry and guilty. You have so much. She has so little. But it’s not that simple.

And you were feeling so alien in your other world. The last few weeks have been chaotic and hot. So many people to see, so many projects to finish, children to prepare, suitcases to pack. You could hardly wait to go to a coffee shop and order coffee in your own language, not tripping over verbs and adjectives. You read an article on burn out and knew immediately that the article described you.

But as you look around , you let out a soul-deep sigh. You pictured all this so differently. You thought it would be so good, such a rest, such a time of peace.

You had barely arrived when you realized that life had gone on in this, your passport country. You call your best friend. She squeals with delight and then says “I’m so sorry. Can’t talk now! Heading to a work party. Gotta get the kids ready for the baby sitter. And next week we’re swamped! Kids are getting ready for camp, we’ve got church stuff. Can’t wait to catch up”.

Oh.

And your siblings. Oh. Your. Siblings. You so want to be able to sit down with them, to share life. But two of your brother’s have wives that are not speaking to each other and the idea of a fun family dinner is just that – an idea.

So there you sit. All of this going through your mind. And you feel one hot tear trickle down your face. You brush it away impatiently. But there’s another. How can you escape and just let all the preceding weeks and the now fill up your tear ducts and fall freely, a red sniffley nose and all?

You are displaced. You feel you are in exile.

You’ve no home to go to. You’re not fully at home there, but neither are you here.

You make it to the car and sit. It’s begun to rain and the rain blocks the windows, sending streams of water down and hiding you from the world. It has been a long time since you’ve seen rain. Your tears fall like the heavy raindrops. You sob like you will never stop.

There is no one to hold you. There is no one to offer tangible, concrete comfort.

Slowly the sobs swallow you up. You begin to feel such relief, the relief that comes only from a cry so deep you can’t explain it.

And somehow you know that God is there. The God you cried to for weeks before making the move, late at night when all were sleeping so you would upset no one. The God who was with you when you held your 2-year-old in a steamy bathroom, far from good medical care, praying that the croup would go. The God who was with you when you first arrived on the soil of another country, looking out-of-place and oh so tired. The God who you prayed to when you went off the road in a car accident in the middle of nowhere and suddenly help was available.

The God of the Displaced and the Exiled is with you. Here and Now.

You recall the verse given to you by an older woman, one who knew what this nomadic life would hold – knew the good and knew the hard. You breathe. Slowly.

You say the verse aloud, your voice raspy, knowing you are at the end of your human strength. “Blessed are those whose strength is in you; whose hearts are set on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baka, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, until each appears before God in Zion.*”

Softly you repeat the words “Strength to strength” and you start the car.

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In January I had the extraordinary privilege of going to the countries of Lebanon and Jordan to work with refugees. One of the days that I was there, we went to the Bekaa Valley, now home to thousands of Syrian refugees. Historically, the Bekaa Valley is known as a valley of weeping, a valley of lamenting. As I sat with refugees in their tents, I thought about this,  about how the valley has witnessed extraordinary pain and grief in the lives of these refugees, staying true to its history.

But the verses I quote above from the Psalms change the picture.

The person of faith walks through this valley on their way to worship. And as they do so, the valley of weeping became a place of springs, a place of blessing.  

I don’t know what is going on in your life today, but my prayer is that if you find yourself in the valley of the weeping, that God will make it a place of springs. That you will go from strength to strength, knowing your God is big enough.

This article appears in the Goodbye section of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging

[photo credit: Stefanie Sevim Gardner taken in Jerusalem looking out over the Old City.]

*Psalm 84:5-7