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.