A primer on Third Culture Kids (TCKs)

David Pollock, the co-author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, defined and described Third Culture Kids (TCKs) as “a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture.” The TCK frequently builds relationships with relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any.

Sociologist Ruth Hill Useem divides original TCKs into four main groups: foreign service kids, military kids, corporate kids and missionary kids. In the context of OMF and other Christian mission organisations, TCKs usually refer to missionary kids or MKs. However, the TCK experience and ministry may not necessarily be restricted to just MKs; it can also apply to the other three groups as mentioned by Useem.

Pico Iyer, a British essayist and novelist, estimated in a 2013 TED Talk that there are 220 million TCKs worldwide and this number continues to grow.

Growing up as TCKs

In Chapter 7 of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, there are several benefits and challenges of TCKs. Some benefits include an expanded worldview due to learning from multiple cultures and being cross-culturally enriched. Challenges include confused loyalties as TCKs are torn between different cultures and host/home countries.

A big challenge for TCKs is a sense of grief that comes from recognised and unrecognised losses that they have experienced but never mourned in a healing way. Arunee, a second-generation OMF missionary who is half-Thai and half-Singaporean, explained in an interview that she did not acknowledge or recognise this sense of grief, i.e., living and studying far away from her parents in her growing years until she was in bible college. “As part of the programme, we had to go through counselling. And that kind of forced me to grieve the many losses that I had as a child,” she said.

Unfortunately, many adult TCKs are still not able to acknowledge or even address/mourn their losses when growing up. In the context of ministry, giving TCKs, or even adult TCKs the space and permission to grief will help them immensely in their healing, which something both parents and ministry workers should be aware of.

Parents, especially Singaporean parents who are missionaries, diplomats or expatriates with TCKs, usually focus on their children’s academic adjustments when moving back to Singapore and getting them into the local education system. Although the TCKs’ academic performance can provide an indication of how well they are adjusting to the local education system, parents should also pay attention to their other areas of development. This can include areas like their emotions, relationships with other people and involvement in church.

Conclusion

TCKs may grow up in environments and cultures that constantly change, and this usually causes a lot of mental, social and relational dissonance, as their identity markers like culture and language(s) are always in flux. They may not be able to acknowledge this grief or self of loss, even after they become adults.

TCK Parents, missionary supporters, ministry workers or those providing member care should recognise that TCKs need the realisation and space to deal with their grief.

A broader understanding of how missionary parents’ decisions to move to another country or location will have a profound impact on the development of TCKs – churches and mission agencies also need to be cognisant of this and provide the necessary care and support.

Examples include re-entry programmes, ongoing opportunities for TCKs to process their experiences and struggles, as well as an understanding church community.

Written by Dean Koh

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