Why Cross-Cultural Workers Need Tent Pegs

Home is a complicated word. A complicated idea. What is it? Where is it? As global nomads, we’re not entirely sure how we feel about home. We’re not sure we have it, and we’re not sure how to get it. We know the correct spiritual answer – that Christ is our home. That He is busy preparing an eternal home for us. And that even now, He makes His home in our hearts, wherever we go. Still, we search for a more earthly home. A physical place to set up camp for a while.

As an adult Third Culture Kid, I’ve spent a lot of time seeking out roots. But lately I’ve been wondering if I should stop my search. I’m far too easily disappointed; permanence of people or place is not something we’re promised in this life. Even so, we need a support system for lives as portable as ours. This summer I started describing those supports as tent pegs.

A tent is a temporary shelter, and the tent pegs that fasten it to the ground also provide only temporary security. Tents and tent pegs are mobile, going with us wherever we go. They allow us to make a home right here, right now. And when the time comes, they allow us to make a home somewhere else too. Every time we pull our tent pegs up out of the ground, pack them in our bags, and move on, we can take the time to hold each tent peg in our hand and remember.

We can remember the things we did in special places with special people, and in ordinary places with ordinary people. We take those memories with us. We can take physical reminders too, small objects that represent the people and places that are dear to us; a typical expat’s house is full of knick-knacks from previous places. We can hang photos of our tent pegs on the walls of our new homes and keep them saved on our smart phones for anytime the saudade hits.

This summer on home assignment, my husband and I tried to be purposeful in giving our family tent pegs and in recognizing them as such. In addition to all the normal ministry commitments, we visited our family’s places. The settlement of Czech immigrants among the rolling hills of Iowa and the cemetery where most of them were buried. The university campus where my husband and I spent four good years and discovered a heart for ministry.

The Christian college most of my husband’s family attended — and where his great-grandfather was university president for 29 years. Our agency’s home office and its sprawling rural Kentucky campus. Dear friends and family spread across the Midwest, and the little country churches that welcome us with open arms. In between travels, we live at my parents’ house, which is a tent of its own. At each place and with each set of people, we laugh, and we talk about hard stuff. We take photos and we sear the times in our memories. We’re collecting tent pegs.

We look at the old pictures and we tell the old stories. Over and over again. Each place we visit, we tell the story of what happened there. Each person we speak with, we tell the story of what we did together. We listen to the music we heard when we were in each place and with each person. We tell our children the same stories over and over again, until they know them by heart like we do. We tell stories from two, three, and even four generations back. We’re sharing our tent pegs.

Of course, at each of these places, things are not exactly the same. My grandparents have both died, and someone else owns their house, the tent peg house I returned to over and over again as a child. The aunt who lived across the street moved to a different house. All my cousins have moved away. Our agency’s home office building is still the same, but most of the people who served there ten years ago (when we joined) have moved on by now, many to overseas location. We stopped visiting some churches and started visiting others. Sometimes the same people are there. But others have moved on or died, while new families have arrived.

Things change in our host countries too. Favorite restaurants shut down. Coffee shops close. Schools change locations. Open space gets developed. Beachfront vacations become too expensive to continue. Visa laws change. People come and go. We can’t always go back to the same places, and we can’t always see the same people. But we can take out our tent pegs and look at them. We can look at the old photos and listen to the old music and tell the old stories, and we can feel just a little more loved. We can feel just a little more settled and secure.

Our trip to our passport country is coming to an end soon. We’ve been packing up our tent pegs this week (along with enough clothes, medicine, and school books to last the next two years). In a few hours I will get on a plane to return to another one of my earthly homes — for as a friend once noted, we are always heading home, on our way from home. But wherever we go and wherever we stay, we can keep collecting tent pegs. We can take our memories of love and friendship with us to each new place. And we can anchor ourselves anew anywhere we venture off to.

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Here are two songs that my family and I discovered this summer during our travels. They speak to our third culture kid hearts, and we like to listen to them on cross-country (and cross-city) drives. Perhaps they will speak to you too.

No Roots by Alice Merton

Fly Away Home by Pinkzebra

Cumin Lamb and Cigarettes: A College Bound TCK Looks Back as He Looks Forward

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Just three weeks before we moved to China we celebrated with some of our very best friends.  Their son was turning 7 (that’s him totally owning the noodles).  We partied like we were shipping out tomorrow (even though we still had several days left and we were taking a plane).

The ironic twist to that story is just four weeks before we moved to China we had never met any of them.  That’s how instant our connection was.  They were Lifers from the get-go and while I could write volumes about the adventures our two families have had since then I’m actually going to let the 7 year old write this one.

He’s headed to college next year.

In response to an essay question on The Common Application he beautifully exposed the heart of a TCK, with the poignancy of his mother (who is an artist with words) and the clarity of his father (whose passion, expertise and life’s work it is to help ministries and missionaries tell their stories).

Here’s a glimpse into a brilliant young mind, shaped significantly (in his formative years) by life abroad.

The Question:  Some students have a background, identity, interest or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it.  If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Zach’s Response:

My childhood was three years long and a few city blocks wide.

The first seven years of my life remain in my memory as a misty blur of brick townhouses and on-brand cereal, highlighted by space themed 4th birthday donuts, and hours of self-driven multiplication tables with my dad.   

k fam 6My clearest memories began when my parents announced that we were moving. Twelve assorted suitcases and plastic bins later, we arrived in Tianjin, China with a week of jet lag and no language skills whatsoever. It was here, among 15 million other souls, that I found my childhood home.

Our 1000 square foot flat perched at the top of a six-story apartment building, where we lived alongside a jumble of first year expats like ourselves and 100th generation natives. Behind our building, a patch of green peeked out of the ubiquitous smog-gray, a miniature Central Park nestled in an oversized New York.  This haven, affectionately called “The Garden” was a motley collection of tree-like shrubs that had gotten lost on the way to Mongolia, and hesitantly blossomed each year for a month or so before succumbing to some combination of acid rain, dust, and icy slush.

Beyond the rusting gates of our complex, which were emblazoned with the fading characters “Fù Kāng huāyuán (Fu Kang Gardens)”, were streets crowded with vendors, pedestrians, grocery laden bicycles, and lawless taxi cabs.  Cigarettes sprouted like tiny smokestacks from the mouths of men playing chess at street corners, and plastic bags rolled by like urban tumbleweeds.  When Chinese New Year rolled around, the newly comforting sights and smells transformed into a thunderstorm of fire crackers, which rang out from every alley and market for two weeks, driving us (along with a host of evil spirits) back into the familiar shelter of our home.  We were strangers in a strange land, an ocean away from the suburban cul de sac that we had left behind.

Needless to say, Noah (my younger brother and best friend) and I spent countless hours inside our shared room, on a floor strewn with two generations of Legos, free from the bounds of reason. Our stuffed animals waged war: with weapons ranging from clusters of magnets dropped from Noah’s top bunk to legitimately dangerous Lego cannons.  While our CEO-destined, Korean classmates left our international school for an evening of tutoring to learn the ways of the real world, we got lost in our own worlds.

k-fam-3Most of what I remember from my three years in Tianjin is composed of oddly specific memories supported by a terabyte of photos. My family holds onto these memories like relics, because of how defining they were for each of us individually and as a family.  The term for people like me and my siblings is TCK (third culture kid).  Our home culture is neither American nor Chinese, but a hypostasis of the two.  I am not Chinese-American (my sister is), but Chinese and American.  Even as the last remnants of my meager Chinese vocabulary fade, leaving behind only the lyrics to “Happy Birthday”, my childhood in Fu Kang Gardens will continue to define who I am.

I am Zach Kennedy (Zhā kǎ lǐ), and my most heart wrenching nostalgia comes from the the taste of cumin seasoned lamb and the smell of cigarette smoke.

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That’s Zach (second from the left) without noodles looking all collegiate.  Noah the Magnet Bomber on the left, Hannah (the Chinese-American) out front and Mia on the right.  Dan and Sara now live, with these four amazing TCK’s, in Richmond, Virginia (USA) where they practice getting more photogenic every day.

If this post strikes a chord send Zach a note in the comments below and wish him well on what comes next.

Parallel Lives: TCKs, Parents, and the Culture Gap

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By Tanya Crossman

Something I’ve heard a lot of expat parents say is that their whole family is “in it together” or that they are “called” together. The basic assumption is that all members of the family go abroad and live overseas together – they are bonded by the same experience. When I hear this, however, I think two things:

First, I am so glad you and your kids are on the same team!

But, are you aware that you aren’t sharing the same experience?

To explain what I mean, I need to define some confusingly similar acronyms: TCK, ATCK, and TCA.

TCK stands for Third Culture Kid – a young person who has spent a significant part of childhood outside her passport country.

ATCK is Adult Third Culture Kid – an adult who had a TCK childhood.

TCA is Third Culture Adult – an adult who has lived outside his passport country, but only as an adult.

An important thing to grasp is that TCKs (who become ATCKs) begin their expat journey as children, while TCAs do not live abroad until adulthood.

It might sound subtle, but the difference is actually very significant. The children of expat families are TCKs – but the parents are usually TCAs. They are living in the same country, but while parents experience and process the challenge of cross-cultural living as adults, TCKs grow up and form identity in the middle of it.

Expat parents have parallel experiences to their children – in the same places, but qualitatively different.

You live in the same countries.

But it affects you differently.

Overseas life is different for TCAs/TCKs in a few ways. These differences do not mean the TCK has a better (or worse) experience. If these differences go unnoticed, however, they lead to misunderstandings between parents and children. This leaves many parents feeling frustrated and many children feeling unheard.

I’ve worked with TCKs for 11 years (I lived in China for most of that time). And I’ve spent the last three and a half years working on a book that explains the TCK experience of life to those who care about them. I interviewed nearly 300 TCKs about their experiences (and surveyed 750 TCKs). Most were aware that they experienced their host countries and passport countries differently to their parents; many felt their parents were far less aware of the differences. In fact, one third of the 750 TCKs I surveyed said they felt misunderstood by their parents.

I am going to outline three of the differences between what a TCA and a TCK experience overseas: connection, identity, and choice.

 

Connection

A TCA moves abroad having experienced comprehensive connection to one country as a child. A TCA has deep emotional connections to her passport country because a large percentage of her life was spent there. These emotional connections are experiential – memories of lived life there.

A TCK, however, experiences multiple countries/cultures during childhood. Two-thirds of the TCKs I surveyed first moved abroad before age five, 58% spent more than half their childhoods abroad, and a 30% spent less than three years in their passport countries. Most TCKs have more time in their host countries than in their passport countries, so that is where most of their emotional connections are made.

Why does this matter?

Your TCK children will not have the same emotional connection to the people, places and activities of your country (and your childhood) that you do. Things that mean the world to you may not mean much to them. They may dislike your comfort foods, find your favourite sport boring, or be unmoved by things which bring you to tears. They may intellectually understand that these things are supposed to matter, but not feel a connection to them. If they fear disapproval, they may learn to “fake it”. Giving your TCKs space to feel differently, even if it is sad or disappointing to you, is vital to maintaining open communication and strong understanding between you.

 

Identity

A TCA comes abroad with a fully formed sense of self, connected to a particular country – the place that is “home”. A TCK grows up caught between two places that are both “home”. Most TCKs develop personal identity against a backdrop of frequent change. TCKs are not just experiencing life overseas, they are trying to make sense of the world (and themselves) while doing so.

The events of international life certainly affect TCAs, but they affect TCKs much more deeply – becoming part of the bedrock of their emotional worlds. For example, many TCKs I interviewed spoke of learning that “everyone leaves”. Watching friends leave, or moving on themselves, affected how they saw the world. Woven into their sense of self was the knowledge that nothing is permanent.

Why does this matter?

TCKs are individuals, and they deal with international life differently. But regardless of how they process the experience, living overseas will impact how they see the world, and the people in it – leading to what may be very different worldview to your own. When your child’s view clashes with your own, take time to understand why they think what they do, rather than trying to “correct” their perspective.

 

Choice

Being an adult, a TCA has far more control over the decision to live abroad. No one becomes a TCK by choice. Not that it’s a bad thing (quite the opposite – 92% of MKs surveyed were thankful for their experience) but it happens because a decision has been made on the child’s behalf. Even when a child (especially an older child) is consulted about moving abroad, it is still the parent who has the power to actually make the decision.

While a few MKs I interviewed said they felt they as children were missionaries alongside their parents, that living abroad was their own “calling” as well as their parents, most did not share this feeling. A few expressed strong resentment that these choices were made on their behalf (12% of MKs surveyed felt resentment about their childhoods).

Why does this matter?

All parents make decisions on behalf of their children, but the decision to take a child overseas means giving them a very different childhood. It is important for parents to understand their choices have created a culture gap. That gap is not evidence of a bad decision – it is a natural consequence of a different cultural upbringing. Denying it or trying to “fix” it does not change the situation. What does make a difference is recognising the gap and taking steps to listen to the child’s point of view.

You live abroad together.

But the impact of that life is different.

 

My book is called Misunderstood because that is how many young TCKs feel. Having spent years helping expat parents understand their children, I wrote a book to do what I do – give insights into the perspective of TCKs.

When parents (and other adults) recognise the difference between an adult’s experience of life overseas and a child’s experience, it is a huge step toward the sort of understanding that encourages and comforts TCKs.

You are on the same team.

You do experience life abroad differently.

But with awareness and care, you can still understand each other deeply.

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TC_headshot-sqTanya Crossman went to China to study for a year and ended up there 11 years, working for international churches and mentoring Third Culture Kids (her book about TCKs releases this week). She currently lives in Australia studying toward a Master of Divinity degree at SMBC. She enjoys stories, sunshine, Chinese food and Australian chocolate. |www.misunderstood-book.com | facebook: misunderstoodTCK | twitter: tanyaTCK

Particle Physics Finally Explains Third Culture Kids!

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Some of you know I’m a science lover. Our friends back in the States know this too, and a couple times a year they send us a package with their old science magazines (along with other treats). I love Magazine Arrival Day.

Earlier this year I cracked open the September 2014 issue of Discover magazine and read about neutrinos – tiny, subatomic particles I don’t even pretend to understand. I’m a chemist, for goodness sake, not a physicist. My scientific understanding only goes down as small as protons and electrons, and not a quark smaller. Neutrinos are smaller than that, and also, extremely secretive.

As I read (largely uncomprehendingly) through the article, one particular section caught my attention, and I paused. Are we sure we’re talking about tiny subatomic particles here?? Because to me, this paragraph sounded more like the description of a fellow Third Culture Kid than anything else. Or, to enlarge the conversation a bit, it sounded like a Cross Cultural Kid (CCK) or Third Culture Adult (TCA) — terms I first read about in Lois Bushong’s insanely helpful Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere.

Check it out:

Neutrinos are notorious shape-shifters. Each one is born as one of three types, or flavors – electron, muon, and tau – but they can change flavors in a few thousandths of a second as they travel, as if they can’t make up their mind what to be. Neutrinos, like other subatomic particles, sometimes behave like waves. But as the neutrino travels, the flavor waves combine in different ways. Sometimes the combination forms what is mostly an electron neutrino and sometimes mostly a muon neutrino. Because neutrinos are quantum particles, and by definition weird, they are not one single flavor at a time, but rather always a mixture of flavors. On the very, very rare occasion that a neutrino interacts with another particle, if the reaction appears to produce an electron, then the neutrino was an electron flavor in its final moments; if it produces a muon, the neutrino was muon-flavored. It’s as if the shy neutrino’s identity crisis can only be resolved when it finally interacts with another particle.

So let’s break that down a bit and see if we can find any similarities:

  1. Neutrinos are shape-shifters. Or, as the TCK literature says, we are “cultural chameleons” who can shift between cultures and adapt to new ones more easily.
  2. Neutrinos can change flavors as they travel, as if they can’t make up their mind what to be. Again the chameleon quality is shining through. TCKs may have divided loyalties, and we might not want to choose one culture over another.
  3. Neutrinos are quantum particles and by definition, weird. TCKs often feel different from other people – “weird,” if you will. (And for me, that differentness has sometimes left me feeling lonely.)
  4. Neutrinos are not one single flavor at a time, but rather always a mixture of flavors. Likewise, TCKs aren’t one single culture or flavor; we’re a mixture.
  5. It’s as if the neutrino’s identity crisis can only be resolved when it interacts with another particle. Not only do we often struggle with identity crises – who am I?? – but TCKs can also be so good at adapting that we take on the culture of whatever people we most recently interacted with.

 

If you’re a TCK (or you love someone who is), did you find yourself or your loved one in any of these descriptions of the neutrino? Or am I just plain crazy to see this metaphor??

Do you have any other TCK metaphors? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

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for a more contemplative TCK metaphor, click here

article and photo credit