Today’s TCKs Need Us To Be Culturally Humble

Our family was finally slowing down for lunch after having been mostly separated from one another for the past day and a half. I turned from the breathtaking ocean view and let my eyes adjust on my sun-kissed kids. We were on our yearly team retreat, and the kids had been hanging out on the beach learning and playing with one of the Americans who had come to lead our retreat time.

“Mom, I thought she just wanted to play volleyball, but then she started asking all these questions like a therapist. Did you tell her to do that? Is there something wrong with us?”

It was not at all the reaction I had expected from my teen and tween children, but they were clearly distressed by the subtle hints from the adult TCK/leader that they were weird and needed to be fixed. While I cannot claim that my children are without their fair share of weirdsies, they were certainly not fitting into the TCK boxes that their retreat leader had perhaps unconsciously drawn.

Without a doubt, there will come a day when they begin wrestling with their TCK status, but for now, they feel at ease with kids of their generation no matter which part of the world they find themselves in. In their minds, the leader was the weird one! 

Most TCKs feel pretty normal in their international environment, but it is usually after repatriation when they will feel the rub. However, global trends may be changing the degree to which young TCKs will feel “out of place” in their passport culture, or any culture for that matter. Seeing the digital trends quickly changing nearly 15 years ago, some researchers even posited that TCKs were something of a prototype of generations to come.

When meeting youth from other countries, many Gen Z kids are finding a common baseline of shared slang, idioms, and humor as a result of a generation-wide digital narrative. Throughout the world, Gen Z is consuming web-based products such as social media, video games, and streaming services more easily and more frequently than any generations past.

This is partially due to the reality that many of these services simply did not exist prior to Gen Z’s arrival. A generation ago, a child from Kenya and a child from Croatia may have had little shared culture. Today, however, youth from two different corners of the globe may share a die-hard loyalty to the same K-Pop group, binge watch the same Japanese anime series, and simultaneously respond to awkward situations using the same catchphrases from viral TikToks.

Gen Z is more globally aware, socially conscious, and culturally inclusive than generations past. Their coming of age in a globalized and highly connected world is, for better or worse, having an enormous impact on how youth around the globe communicate and relate to one another.

The reality remains that TCKs, upon returning to their passport countries, will still bear unique features of both identity and belonging that influence the rest of their lives. However, the common assumption that TKCs are confused about their identities and ever searching for a place to belong is changing. While this has certainly been the case for some, research shows that many TCKs are not perpetually confused about their own cultural identities, but that others may find the cultural identities of TCKs to be quite confounding. This phenomenon stretches not only beyond those of us outside of today’s generation of TCKs, but also to adult TCKs. 

Whether a TCK feels totally at ease or immensely unsettled with their sense of identity and belonging, we need to start talking to TCKs without preconceived notions that were formed by past generations and vastly different situations. Adult TCKs often see younger TCKs and feel deep compassion and empathy for them because they intimately understand some of the challenges of the lives they are living. For those who have repatriated, they also know the difficulties of what may lie ahead for young TCKs.

Adult TCKs or indeed anyone who genuinely wants to extend empathy and understanding to young TCKs must have a stance of cultural humility. Simply put, cultural humility is the stance of an eager learner who is willing to critique their assumptions and beliefs as they encounter new information and experiences. This may mean withholding assumptions about family life, social life, and identity issues, and instead just being a curious learner and listener. 

Jesus lived out cultural humility as he interacted with both the lowly and elite. Having neither assumptions nor beliefs that were inaccurate, he had no need to ask anything. But despite knowing, he still inquired. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus’ two-word question allowed his flummoxed disciples a chance to speak and process the devastating things they had just witnessed: “What things?” (Luke 24:19).

Having a full and firsthand understanding of all that had transpired over the weekend in Jerusalem, Jesus still wanted to hear what these two disciples were reeling over as they traveled. Time and again, Jesus, being in very nature God, took the time to ask questions to which he already knew the answers. He asked and listened for perhaps no other reason than to allow people the opportunity to know and be known by him. 

Today’s TCKs need us to listen to their stories without trying to put them in a box or assuming we know their struggles better than they do. As we do so, we may find that our own hearts are changed and our perspectives broadened. 

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Emmy Lopez

Emmy Lopez lives and works with her husband and two kids in the Arab Gulf. She loves cooking spicy food, bird watching, and early morning runs. She spends part of her day chauffeuring her two children to school but also can be found drinking an alarming amount of tea with Afghan and Pakistani women.

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