Third Culture Kids

It is the beginning of 2009 and this year will be one of major transition for us.  After 10 years overseas, our family will be returning for a year in North America.  We will leave Benin which has been our home since February 2000 and move to the USA, a foreign country to our children.  Afterward we hope to return to West Africa but to another assignment.

Why make this move?  There are no finished tasks, no fall-outs, no instant convictions that this was the way things should be.  Rather, it was a slow coming to a decision as many factors guided us in this direction.  One of the reasons for going to North America for an extended period is the knowledge that our children are growing up overseas instead of living in the culture in which they will most likely settle some day.  Our hope is that an extended period in North America now will make it easier for them to adjust later on when they return as young adults.

Jeremiah and Deborah are part of a small but significant minority of children know as “Third culture kids” or TCK’s.  TCK’s are children whose parents are from a different culture/country than the one in which they live.  Included in this group are the children of missionaries, embassy, state department/foreign service, or military personnel, and of parents who work overseas for transnational corporations or NGO’s, etc.  What is distinct about TCK’s is that they do not share the culture of their parents.  They often don’t feel “at home” in their parents’ home country.  At the same time, they do not necessarily fit in in the culture/country in which they are growing up because they are being raised by their parents who are from a different culture.

The characteristics of TCK’s are many.  They are “homeless” in that they don’t feel rooted or belong anywhere and yet they can be at home anywhere.  They are often “awkward” in that they don’t fit into the culture in which they live (whether that be in their partents’ country or in the country where they grew up).  At the same time, they are able to operate as world citizens, able to adapt to many different environments.

The advantages for TCK’s are that they often speak more than one language and have a broader outlook on the world.  They are exposed to people from many different countries and so are less intimidated by “difference.”  They understand world issues such as poverty or differing world views because they have seen them firsthand.  They have a better sense of world geography (or at least a different sense!)

The disadvantages for TCK’s are: the rootedlessness and feeling out of place everywhere that leads to a longing to find home.  As well, the transience of their lifestyle and the movement of people in and out of their lives make it difficult for some TCK’s to form lasting relationships.

In practical terms, how does this look through the eyes of Deborah or Jeremiah?  In November we were going to an American Thanksgiving dinner.  The children asked what would be on the menu.  I explained that there would be turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing…  “What is stuffing?”  Jeremiah asked.  That reminds me of a similar question a number of years ago now, as we were going through a breakfast buffet:  “What is cereal?”  Our children know many foods:  pounded yam, bean cakes, “yovo doko”, “aloko”, but they don’t know cereal, stuffing, or pumpkin pie!  They know were Dassa, Ouagadougou and Accra are, but couldn’t name 50 American states or 10 Canadian provinces.  Along with George Bush and Obama, they know Dr. Boni Yayi, President of Benin, as head of state.  (I’m not sure they have a clue as to who is the head of state of Canada – if Canada even has a government right now!) At school they learn how to use currency: CFA (that we use in Benin), euros (for Deborah who goes to the French school.)  and the British pound (for Jeremiah who goes to an English school.)  They also understand dollars – Canadian and American.  Some of their knowledge would be extraneous in a North American context.

One day the children were watching the animated film “Pocohontas”.  At one point the European settlers and the North American natives are getting ready to go to war against each other.  Each side begins to sing a song: “Savages, savages, barely even human; they are different from us and so they must be evil; now let us sound the drums of war.”  Jeremiah asked why they were saying this about one another and I explained that people are often afraid of people who are different from themselves.  Jeremiah who is exposed to people from every continent at his school found this hard to understand.  The greatest blessing of being a TCK is perhaps this: being different, it becomes easier to accept and appreciate people who are different from us.  Everyone is a potential friend.

Praise and Prayer items:

  1. Praise God for a wonderful family Christmas, made extra special by the presence of Grandma Fray.  Praise God for her good health and her ability to adapt to our lifestyle.
  2. Pray for our on-going ability to trust God to lead us as we make major changes in our lives this year.  Pray for clarity of direction as we anticipate where we might live, work and study and where our children might go to school.
  3. Pray for a good transition out of Benin as we sell household effects, say goodbyes and wind down ministry commitments.
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