Particle Physics Finally Explains Third Culture Kids! {A Life Overseas}

Elizabeth is over at A Life Overseas today, offering a science metaphor for Third Culture Kids (and anyone who lives or has lived cross-culturally).


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.

Finish reading here.

A Prayer For My Third Culture Kids

Earlier this week I shared my expat parenting philosophy on Velvet Ashes. Today I’m linking up with The Grove on Velvet Ashes with a prayer for my TCKs. ~Elizabeth


I remember reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond together and feeling such a kinship with the main character Kit. She’d lived a life of privilege with her wealthy English grandfather on the island of Barbados, but when he died, she discovered his large debts. In order to pay them all, she then sold all his belongings.

After that she didn’t know what else to do, so she booked a passage to New England, where some of her Puritan relatives lived. Her cousins’ conservative lifestyle and religious customs were completely alien to her. When the ship docked on the shores of Connecticut, Kit realized “There was something strange about this country of America, something that they all seemed to share and understand and she did not” — a TCK moment if ever I saw one.

Kit suffers intense culture shock. She’s already grieving the loss of her grandfather, and she now doesn’t fit into Puritan culture. In some ways she’s even rejected by the community. She doesn’t understand their religion or their worldview, and friends are hard to find. Her uncle is particularly cold towards her, and she’s never performed such difficult, backbreaking labor before. New England winters are brutally cold and long. She misses leisurely tropical island life in Barbados: the heat, the sunshine, swimming in the ocean, her grandfather’s extensive secular library.

But she grows to love her extended family. She even grows to love the beautiful fields nearby. Towards the end of the book, Kit attends a wedding. She thinks about how she doesn’t fit in in New England, even though she loves the people and the place: “An almost intolerable loneliness wrapped Kit away from the joyous crowd. She was filled with a restlessness she could not understand. What was it that plagued her with this longing to turn back?”

wbbShe had previously decided to return to Barbados and search for work there, but as she continues reflecting on both her old life and her new life, she realizes she can’t go back to the way life was with her wealthy grandfather. Her two cousins have both fallen in love, and she realizes that she has as well — only the man she loved wasn’t a Puritan permanently rooted to the Connecticut soil. He was a sailor, a migratory man, a man of good character, a free spirit like herself. And he loved her back. “Home” for her would be anywhere he was. Marrying him would mean continually traveling between Barbados and Connecticut, always on the move, but always with him. Literally, and not just figuratively, she was going to live in the In Between.

Our Sonlight curriculum chose this novel for its relation to the Salem Witch Trials in early American history, but for me it turned out to be a metaphor for the life of the TCK. Crossing cultures, never completely identifying with one culture, never fully belonging, always grieving a loss of some sort, but needing, so desperately needing, someone to love, care for, and understand her. So with that story in mind, I offer this prayer:


My child, I’m well aware that in this life, not everyone gets married.

But should you happen to marry, first and foremost I pray you will marry a fellow lover of Jesus.

And then — oh then I pray you will marry someone who feels at home in the In Between spaces, who knows how to live in the margins of life, who’s comfortable crossing over and blending in, even if never quite fully.

I pray you will marry someone with a wide view of the world, who doesn’t think you’re crazy for your wide view, either.

I pray you will marry someone who looks to God for full identity and belonging, someone who will understand your need to do so as well.

I pray you will marry someone who understands the pain of separation and of goodbyes, someone who shares your yearning for heaven.

I pray you will marry someone who understands that love is the best kind of medicine for a hurting heart and who knows how to give it.

That person doesn’t have to be a TCK, though they might be. Your Papa isn’t a TCK, but he understands loss and living in the fringe. He understands love and nuance.

So I pray for you to experience what I have experienced myself: that your heart will be fully understood and accepted, fully loved and wanted, fully celebrated and cared for.

I pray you will have many years of adventure together, tasting of a perfect heaven here on a very imperfect earth, each year growing ever closer to our God and to each other.


What I Want to Give My TCKs {Velvet Ashes}

by Elizabeth


I didn’t know how hard it would be to parent Third Culture Kids. I assumed that my own TCK upbringing would make it easier; I was only partially correct. While it’s true that we share common feelings and experiences, and that my kids enjoy hearing stories from my own TCKhood, I didn’t foresee the way living overseas would duplicate the pain of my youth. The grief of constant goodbyes, the temporariness of our community, the missing of friends and family back “home” – all these things deplete me.

I didn’t know I’d need to juggle my own complicated emotions at the same time as my children’s. It’s hard for me not to outlaw my own emotions, so it takes conscious effort to give my kids the time and space they need to grieve and mourn their own losses. I want to find the silver lining too soon, to rush too fast to a happy ending. It’s hard not to swoop in prematurely in an attempt to ease their pain.

So in times of emotional distress, I actually tell myself to shut up. Then I open my arms and give them space to cry. I open my ears and give them time to speak. I want to give them a safe place to express themselves and to process their own emotions. I don’t do this perfectly by any means, but it is my heart’s desire nonetheless.

There’s something else I want to give my TCKs, and that’s privacy. I’ve chosen a very public profession; my children, however, have not. They may go wherever I go and live wherever I live, but they didn’t choose to live a public life the way I did. Perhaps when they’re grown, they will. I don’t know. I only know I want to give them the luxury of choosing it for themselves.

Not too long after moving to Cambodia, I decided to keep my children’s lives and struggles offline. I pulled back from sharing things about them on social media, and I focused on telling my own stories, and not theirs, on my blog. I’m guided by my own mother’s example in this. Some of you know I struggled with an eating disorder as a teenager. I’m open about it now, but I would have been mortified if my mom had shared it publicly then, and I’m thankful for the way she protected my privacy.

I’m absolutely in love with my TCKs. They’re amazing — so amazing, in fact, that they deserve to grow up out of the public eye. They’re public enough as it is. That doesn’t mean I’ll never tell a story about homeschooling or family life, or share photos from a vacation or outing. But it does mean that, especially as they grow older and barrel towards upper elementary and middle school, I try not to post private details about their lives. It means I think carefully before sharing about them, and that in any public discourse, you’ll find me honoring them by accentuating the positive rather than the negative.

None of this means I don’t have trusted real-life people to whom I turn for prayer and parenting advice, because I do. And it doesn’t mean we don’t have a sending organization and a sending church that are checking up on us and making sure that our whole family is thriving, because we’re blessed to have both. And it most certainly doesn’t mean we don’t celebrate our children and their hilarious antics with our family and friends. Because we do! That’s one of my favorite parts of family life, in fact, and we have a private Facebook messaging group for our closest family and friends just so we can share their sweet words and funny stories across the continents.

I love these words from fellow blogger and overseas worker Lindsey Lautsbaugh: “If people want to share their good news on Facebook and bad news in person, what’s it to you? That actually sounds pretty healthy to me. ’Keeping it real’ does not need to be an occasional #hashtag. If I see only people’s success and not their struggle, failure, and fights with their kids, then I assume someone else gets the privilege of seeing those glorious moments. Someone else gets to gently say, ‘Let your children live to see another day, walls can be re-painted.’ Someone else gets to say, ‘Call the counselor, and I’ll babysit for you and your husband tonight.’ Another friend gets to challenge our tendency to hide our weaknesses and struggles.”

In saying all this, I recognize that different families do things differently. Some families may be more comfortable sharing their kids’ stories publicly – and I don’t judge that. All I want to do today is share my own personal parenting philosophy: I respect your right to feel your feelings, and I respect your right to keep those feelings private. Those are the things I want to give my TCKs.

Originally published here; reprinted with permission.

Mrs. Trotter’s Neighborhood

–by Elizabeth

I love my neighborhood. I really do. Come with me, look past the trash on the streets and the smell of funky Asian food, and let me show you my neighborhood.

Every day the kids next door greet us with a “Hello Jonneeeeee!” They think that’s especially funny because Jonathan’s nickname, Johnny, is a brand of whiskey: Johnnie Walker. (No one in this country can say his name, and they can’t say Nathaniel or Faith either.)

We play outside on our street regularly. (No worries; it’s a dead-end.) Our boys ride their scooters and race up and down the street. Then they share their scooters with the neighbor boys. They play Frisbee, and sometimes the neighbor boys join in. If our regular tuk tuk driver happens to pass by and see them playing, he’ll stop and throw the Frisbee too. (He’s new to Frisbee-throwing.) And if we forget to take our frisbee with us when we go inside, the neighbors put it on our doorknob for later.

Our neighbors have a push toy for their baby. Faith is in love with this push toy. So our neighbors let her push their baby in it, and they push Faith in it too.

The neighbors also have a plastic chair that is just the right size for Faith. She’s in love with that as well. They don’t even stop her when she drags it over to our door to sit on it.


The kids next door speak a little bit of English. Our kids speak a little bit of Khmer. And everyone knows Gangnam Style. The recipe for a budding friendship, right? Sometimes my boys play with Legos in their top-level bedroom while the neighbor kids play on the shared roof. Listening to them talk back and forth through the open window is one of my favorite things.

I just walk down the street to buy water. If I accidentally leave the money at home, it’s no big deal. I can pay the guy later. I can’t think of a place in America that would ever let me do that.

It feels like a village. (In fact, we even have a village chief — I know this because he had to sign the papers for us to rent our house.) I love my village. I love my neighborhood. And maybe you remember this song about neighborhoods:

It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine? Could you be mine?

I am glad that mine have answered with a resounding yes.


Third Culture Thoughts Part 2 (On My Childhood)

— By Elizabeth

I’m a third culture kid myself.  I didn’t realize the uniqueness of my upbringing until we started preparing for Cambodia, but life as a military kid gave me a TCK experience. Until I was 5, I lived in West Germany – yes, it was so long ago that Germany was divided into East and West. We ate pomme fritz (fries) with miniature plastic forks. I wore a German dress called a dirndl. My dad would call out “auf wiedersehen” as he left for work.

The next five years were mainly civilian while my dad taught Army ROTC at an American university. But the next few years were highly mobile, including 4 school moves in 4 years and lifeon post.” The school moves were hard — at each school I was the “new kid” for several months, and other kids picked on me. Until the next school year began, anyway, because by then we were all friends. Sometimes half-way through that next year I would have to move again, starting the whole painful process anew.

I was 12 when we left military life and began “re-entry” into civilian life. Civilian life is different. Even the vocabulary is different. Instead of living in quarters, I now lived in a house. Instead of shopping at the PX and the commissary, we shopped at Wal-Mart and Hy-Vee. I didn’t swim at the Officers’ Club pool during the summers anymore. I kept calling policemen “MP’s” (military police). I wondered where all the black people were. (I came from a multi-racial military installation, but the Kansas City suburb where we settled was primarily Caucasian.) And I was the new kid yet again, ripe and ready for being made fun of.

The question “where are you from?” is hard for TCK’s to answer. I had always had difficulty answering that question. Where was I from? I wasn’t sure.  For many years, I didn’t really feel like Lee’s Summit, MO (where my parents moved after the Army) was home. I hadn’t lived there long enough to feel at home. It certainly wasn’t any of the other places I had lived either.  Sometimes I answered that I was from Kansas City. Sometimes I listed all the places I’d lived. Other times I said that my parents were from a small town in central Iowa.

 Growing up, this quote from Bernard Cooke was always hanging on the walls of my many homes.

Fast forward to last year. Now I’m a parent of future missionary kids, so I read Pollock and Reken’s Third Culture Kids book. All of a sudden I identified with these TCK’s. Even though it didn’t span my entire childhood or take me to a third world country, I realized that my transient young life, coupled with an entirely different American military sub-culture, gave me insight into what being a TCK will be like for my kids. Reading about TCK’s helped me understand more about myself, and assured me that I would be able to empathize with my children in their difficult experiences.

TCK’s often feel homeless. They are moving, or their friends are moving.  Constantly.  They don’t have roots in one place, but have connections all over. They feel at home everywhere, and they feel at home nowhere. This was a big concern for me as a mom. Home is important to me. I want my kids to feel at home somewhere.

To me, though, home is where family is. It’s where memories have been made, and where they will continue to be made. I think you can have more than one home. And really, don’t we all have another home in Heaven?

My parents’ home town in Iowa still feels like home to me – the place and the people stayed constant throughout all my moves. My parents have lived in their current house for 12 years now (their longest stay), and it feels like home. Today, I live in Phnom Penh, Cambodia with my husband and 4 children, and it feels like home. In the words of musician Alex Ebert, “Home is wherever I’m with you.”

In the end, the best part about being a TCK for me is the nebulous definition of home as everywhere and yet nowhere.  How wonderful that my Heavenly Father could use a few uncomfortable years of my childhood to help me fully embrace wherever He puts me in His wide world.

Third Culture Thoughts Part 1 (On My Kids)

By Elizabeth 

A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background. (Definition from the book Third Culture Kids by David C. Pollock and Ruth Van Reken)

Third Culture Kids don’t live in their passport country, or the country of their parents’ culture. They live in a host country. They don’t belong to their parents’ culture (the first culture), nor do they truly belong to their host culture (the second culture). They are in a culture all their own, a third culture. Their life is both global and mobile. My kids are TCK’s now. In early May I recorded some of my concerns for them:


It’s still a common occurrence for our kids to talk about missing people and places “back home,” but they are becoming happier here as well. They get sad A LOT about missing home, Grandma mostly, but also saying that our new home will NEVER be as good as our old home.

I recently learned more about missionary kids (MK’s) from another missionary who is himself an adult MK and currently works with teenage MK’s.  He said that the culture that most affects an MK’s stability and happiness is the culture of the family’s home, not the host culture. He also told me that 8 out of 10 times, an MK’s attitude toward language learning and the host culture comes from the mom, simply because of the extra time kids spend with their mom. He said those pieces of information are either encouraging to parents, or discouraging to parents, depending on their situation. I found it to be encouraging because our home is a happy place — Jonathan and I work hard to make our family fun, open, and loving — and because I am no longer the “trailing spouse,” as of 2 years ago this month.

Sometimes, however, I wonder what I am doing wrong and why my good attitude isn’t rubbing off on my kids like it should. I like it here, why don’t they?? That other missionary said they would, right!!??  But then I realized that I have been in the process of transferring my heart from America to Cambodia for the last 2 years. Although our family talked a lot about Cambodia and why we were going, their little hearts simply lived where they had always lived until they stepped on that plane in mid-January.   I sent my heart ahead of my body, so I’m a bit ahead of them in my adjustment.  Their bodies travelled first, leaving their hearts in America with friends and family. They need time, and I will give that time to them.

I tell them a lot that nothing will ever replace home, or Red Bridge, or Grandma, or Susan, or cheese bagels, or our awesome yard. Just because we were happy in America, it doesn’t mean we can’t be happy here. We won’t ever try to take away from the good of our life in America, but I want them to have hope that life can be good here as well.


In our training we were told to say goodbye well, and that it’s ok to grieve the loss of people and places when we make an international move. We’ve tried to be very understanding when our kids get sad and talk about home. We let them talk, we look at old pictures, we let them Skype family.  We hug them when they’re sad. At the same time we are making new memories here. We take them to the park, we take them swimming, we play badminton on our roof. We make jokes and laugh uncontrollably around the dinner table. Our kids’ lives have changed drastically, but one thing has not changed: they know they are immensely loved.

Our family in America

Our family in Cambodia

Memories, of the Way We Were

by Elizabeth

On our way out to CO for missions training we drove through Fort Riley and Junction City, Kansas.  Fort Riley looked just the same.  All the housing, just as I remembered it, having ridden through those streets on the school bus so many times.  I got out of the van at our old quarters and walked around.  I met my first homeschooled friend there, next door.  Drove past the garages converted from horse stables.  Drove up the hill to my old middle school, where I passed my very favorite school year, 6th grade.  Not even Mrs. Sample’s Brit Lit and Mr Smith’s Chemistry in 10th grade at Lee’s Summit High School could eclipse my year at Fort Riley Middle School.  Drove past the big hill where Dad left us sledding in the cold with those homeschooled friends and Mom got so irritated.  Drove past the Fort Riley Elementary School where the tall metal swings still stood, 20 years later.  On the way out of post there was a dog park where the buffalo used to be. No more caged bison.  Shocking, I know.

We drove through Junction City to our townhouse there.  I tap danced in that kitchen, read in my bedroom with the window open while it rained, talked to Dad in my bedroom, just the two of us.  We drove past the Church of Christ in Junction City, which was so much smaller than I remember it I almost couldn’t believe it.  The years at that church were very formative for me spiritually because that’s when I started going to Silver Maple Camp.  Camp is where my love of singing was born, and it was a place of incredible learning.  I returned to Silver Maple year after year until I was in high school.

Lastly we stopped by Eisenhower Elementary, the school I attended before we moved on post. I sat and nursed Faith, my fourth born, on the step of the shadeless playground where I played so many years before, and watched my older 3 play now.

As I contemplate leaving the country of my birth for a new one, I am so thankful my husband took an hour break on our drive through Kansas to let me see with adult eyes the places of my youth.  Over the last few months I have been able to process my years in Fort Riley and Junction City.  I’ve finally integrated the bad (the part when kids were mean to me as the new kid in school) with all the good.  In many ways those years were defining for me, and my soul is at peace with them now.