Third Culture Kid: The Collision

I was 19 years old, sitting in a counseling office, convinced the weight of the world was on my shoulders. The reasons for being there that day were varied and loose. I still don’t remember what we talked about in that short time except for one statement.

“You are a third culture kid, Alicia.”

She posed this phrase as a statement. It wasn’t a question.

Even if I wanted to tell you all that transpired after our move from Otterburne, Canada, to Lancaster County, USA, I couldn’t. [Find out why we moved HERE]  Mostly because I don’t remember a lot of it. Some days vague memories jump out at me, but its mostly gray and foggy, like a dream where you try to completely open your eyes but you find it impossible to do so.

5th grade hit me like a ton of bricks. I went to a private, conservative Mennonite school. I was distantly related to half of my class. My last name was no longer unusual, but commonplace and almost expected. The ability to introduce myself in French could not help me conquer verbs and adjectives nor did it do anything for my math homework. If it is possible to have a constant headache for months on end, then that is what I most remember.

The headache of trying to figure out a new school system. The shock of going to a church that all dressed like us, instead of being the only girl wearing different attire. Sunday School wasn’t a program of skits or songs about Pharaoh baby and sailing home, but an actual class around a table, where we sat on hard-back chairs and read from the lesson.

This new period of life was a maze of confusion and guilt. I looked like these people. I dressed like these people. My name implied that I belonged here. The guilt came from feeling like an outsider and an intruder. It came from the exorbitant amount of time I fantasized a different life. The confusion was trying to navigate the murky waters of adolescence and a new culture at the same time. I cried several times a week, always in private. The only reprieve came from daily, then weekly phone conversations with my best friend.

It was not a particular person, group, or individual circumstance that caused these hard years. It was the clash of cultures blown up in the world of a child. It wasn’t one moment of misunderstanding. It was a thousand little details that left me confused and frustrated. Some were humorous, like the time we asked where the washroom was at a friend’s house, and they led us to the laundry room. Others were hard, like the day I figured out you need to be invited before you randomly go over to someone’s house.

The simplest way to sum it up is this: In my Canadian world, I was different and I knew it. My friends knew it too. “Why do you wear dresses and skirts all the time?” In these moments I would gather them around and, in hushed tones proclaim “It’s because I am Mennonite.” Then we would run off and play another round of soccer or grounders. It was curiosity, but it didn’t change our relationship.

In my new American world, I looked the same. I dressed the same. My name said I belonged here. But I didn’t think the same or act the same, and this is what set me apart most. Attempting to even describe the exact differences is nearly impossible without categorizing or labeling.

From the age of 10 until that day in the counselor’s office 9 years later, I tried to convince myself that someday I would fit in. I wanted to believe that at some point in my life there would be a time I could clearly say, “I am from here,” and wholeheartedly mean it. It hadn’t happened yet, and suddenly I knew it never would. I am from Lancaster, yes. But I am also from Ontario and Manitoba and all those pieces of life have influenced who I am, whether I admit to it or not. It is different, perhaps, but not bad or wrong.

Throughout my teenage years, I looked at this difference as a detriment. We all applaud the idea of being different, but the reality of being different was and is excruciatingly frustrating some days. Most common love-hate questions?

“Where are you from?”

“Where did you grow up?”

“So you’re Canadian, eh?”

“Where are your parents from?”

“What was it like to live in  __________?”

Every TCK dilemma is how to answer these or similar questions. The long version? The short version? The sarcastic version? Sometimes they are good questions. Other times it’s hard to know how to respond without launching into a 10 minute explanation.

Becoming an adult has its own set of problems. Where do I root myself? Do I even try to root myself at all?  Which place do I refer to as “home”? Sometimes the heightened awareness of culture shock and adjustment is an asset. Sometimes you enter another country and tiptoe around, figuratively speaking, because you don’t want to offend anyone. Like a human chameleon, most TCK’s are subconsciously or consciously looking for ways to blend in or adapt quickly to the culture(s) we are in at any given time.

It’s not always an obvious difference that “sets us apart.” There are definitely varying degrees of Third Culture experience. Perhaps the greatest significance in the TCK label is just that: we actually have a definition for what we are. It wasn’t so much that a professional counselor told me I was a Third Culture Kid, but rather it was because someone who barely even knew me paid enough attention to recognize that part of my story.

Belonging everywhere and nowhere is a gift, not an impediment. It’s hard, confusing, exhausting, and soul-searching, but it’s still a gift. It’s okay to be different. The world needs to hear your insight and perspective that spans beyond a singular, primary culture. It needs you to risk in the places that hurt most. My hope in these series of posts is not just for you, the reader, to hear my story. Rather, that we as a community of people, no matter the story, can start engaging each other in discussion and dialogue on how to use our multi-cultured childhood experience as a tool for good.

How can we walk in grace towards the people and cultures around us?

What has been most helpful to you, as a TCK, in your Third Culture experience?

To my non-TCK readers, what have you learned (if any) from these posts? What can we do to better engage you with our experiences, while also hearing yours?



14 thoughts on “Third Culture Kid: The Collision

  1. Hey Alicia…. I love what you’ve written here…. and what you will write!!! It makes me sad… like I could have been there in a bit better way….. but this blog seems redemptive – blessings for this new venture!!

  2. This is great writing! We should sit down and talk sometime. You have put words to some of my feelings and experiences. Blessings to you in your journey. Lois

  3. “In my new American world, I looked the same. I dressed the same. My name said I belonged here. But I didn’t think the same or act the same, and this is what set me apart most.” Your words resonate with m–as a Canadian who is moving to his third American community, as a Mennonite who has never fully fit in at a rather homogenous Mennonite church, and as a parent who is making choices that will turn his children into TCKs. May we learn to find a home in the family of God wherever we are, while also learning to embrace our identity as strangers and pilgrims and embrace those unlike ourselves.

  4. This is why I struggle with my tightly structured Mennonite culture. There are far too many Anabaptist churches who only self-propogate, creating a culture of “all of us do it this way always, and when you get your act together, you will too”. If our “godly” culture could welcome and embrace those who are redeemed from multiple cultures, I believe that it would go a long way in bridging the gaps.
    –raised Menno, married to a non-Menno, members at a Menno church

    1. “If our “godly” culture could welcome and embrace those who are redeemed from multiple cultures, I believe that it would go a long way in bridging the gaps.”

      So true, and I think this is something we should strive for- understanding and embracing people from other cultures is so important.

      However, I also think we do ourselves a disfavor if we say this is an Anabaptist issue. It’s a human issue, and those type of mindsets (‘get your act together and be like us’) can be found anywhere and are, unfortunately, a part of many churches. For example, I lived with a Baptist family who didn’t feel at home in their church because of their Russian background and the fact that they were not as well-to-do.

      So interesting how our cultures and sub-cultures affect us. May God give you grace as you struggle.

  5. Wow, Alicia! Love your stories. This says how I felt the many times we moved around as a family. Keep processing your journey well with Jesus.😊

  6. Ahh Alicia… Wow. You put this into words so well. I can identify with almost all of this, which is so cool because our experiences have been so different, and yet there’s a sense in which they’re the same. It’s so funny to read your fifth-grade thoughts on moving to PA, but at the same time I feel your pain. I’m so glad for how God has walked with you through that to the place you are now.

    The love- hate questions… Lol. 🙂 I always think I’ll come up with a good answer for those, but whenever someone asks me where I’m from, I’m still like, “uhhh…..”

    I also appreciate your thoughts on becoming an adult: “Where do I root myself? Do I even try to root myself at all? Which place do I refer to as “home”?” It’s so good to know we’re not alone in this.

    I think one of the things that has been most helpful to me is, like you said, the tck label. It’s comforting to know that there’s a bit of a reason for why we think the way we do.

    On the flip side, my human nature wants to take too much pride in my ‘tck-ness’ and look down on people who are mono-cultural. But that’s defeating the purpose! Labels like TCK or non-TCK should be used to understand each other and not divide us.

    Anyway, I could go on but I really appreciate your writing on the topic. Thanks!

    1. Thanks, Cheyenne! I loved reading your feedback and know your speaking from some very real places. The whole idea of using labels to understand and not divide is absolutely true. Realizing this has helped me learn to be more gracious towards those who are mono-cultural and that growing up in a different culture doesn’t mean I have life “figured out” (I’m definitely still learning both!)

  7. Love this.

    The most helpful experience for me, as a TCK, was the huge Grace of being forced to find my identity in Christ instead of my country or culture pretty early on.

    1. Ah, this is so true! I struggled with knowing how to word this piece of identity outside of culture, so I would love to hear more of your thoughts on it sometime.

  8. “Belonging everywhere and nowhere is a gift, not an impediment.” Love it. A TCK myself, I struggled with my cultural identity growing up. But these days, I believe just that. Great article 🙂

  9. So I came across this and man did you nail it. So true + something I wish lots of people could understand…Thank you for writing this.

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