At an international primary school in Hong Kong, a first-grade teacher made a bulletin board on which students labeled their home countries. A pair of American parents were shocked to see their blond-haired, blue-eyed son marked on the board as from Taiwan. After that incident, the father decided to make sure his son understood that even though he was born in Taiwan, he was actually American and “from” the United States. As that child grows up, he has choices about where he declares “home” to be — is it the United States where his grandparents live? Taiwan where he was born? Hong Kong where he is going to school? This is the life of a “Third-Culture Kid” (TCK).
TCKs are generally recognized as children or teenagers who have spent a significant part of their formative years living in a culture outside of their parents’ home culture. These young people — often children of diplomats, business people, missionaries, or military personnel — live in a highly mobile and transient world. They have a relationship with multiple cultures while not fully belonging in one. The key difference between immigrants and TCKs or expatriates is their perspective on the idea of “home.” For the immigrant, they are moving to a new place to make it home; there is no expectation that they will return to their homeland. For the expatriate, there is an expectation that one day their family will return “home.”
The TCK experience, while developing unique world-views in the young people who live it, also holds lessons to teach Christians living in a multi-cultural and increasingly pluralistic society.
1. There’s no place like home.
Unlike Dorothy, who only wanted to get back to Kansas, the concept of “home” becomes diffused for TCK’s. There are no clear answer to the questions “So, where’s home? Where are you from?” This diffusion may leave a sense of longing for home, even if it’s for an unknown place.
Though Third Culture Kids may feel it in an earthly sense, as Christians, we are also a people longing for “home.” Paul expresses this longing in 2 Corinthians 5, as paraphrased by Eugene Peterson, “Compared to what’s coming, living conditions around here seem like a stopover in an unfurnished shack, and we’re tired of it! We’ve been given a glimpse of the real thing, our true home, and our resurrection bodies! The Spirit of God whets our appetite by giving us a taste of what’s ahead. He puts a little of heaven in our hearts so that we’ll never settle for less…When the time comes, we’ll be plenty ready to exchange exile for homecoming” (2 Cor. 5:4-5, 8, The Message, emphasis added).
2. God is with us.
The same longing for home is seen in the book of Exodus as the Israelites journey from a land of slavery to an unseen, unrealized, promised land. As the Israelites are traveling through the wilderness, God reveals that God is a faithful provider for them. God provides food and water and leads the people in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. Through these tangible encounters with God, the Israelites learn that God is a faithful provider no matter where they find themselves. Unlike other understandings of the gods in the Ancient Near East,
“God is not like the gods who remain at some remove from a messy world, enjoying their own life, often uncaring and oblivious to the troubles of the creatures. God leaves the mountain of remoteness and ineffable majesty and tabernacles right in the center of a human community” (Fretheim, Exodus, 273).
Centuries later, God again demonstrated a willingness to encounter the messiness of human life through the incarnation. As “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). Even as Jesus Christ prepared to leave the world and return to the Father, he promised the Holy Spirit to his followers to remain with them wherever they are (John 14:15-17).
The mobility inherent in the lives of TCKs — whether their own travels or their friends’ — can find stability in a God who enters into life with them. This God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — is a God who lives in a tabernacle, who dwells among God’s people, and who is not limited by a remote physical location.
3. We cannot limit where God may call.
Researchers Jeffrey Keuss and Rob Willett describe the TCK experience from a theological perspective, using the phrase “sacredly mobile.” When seen in this light, they describe the experience of the sacredly mobile adolescent as a journey in following God’s vocational call. More importantly, the sacredly mobile adolescent reminds the rest of the Christian community that our identity and vocation in Christ are not physically located in a “home” but can be anywhere in the world.
For TCKs who have roots in multiple places, and for whom physical boundaries of location do not define them, the world is open. The idea that God might call them to leave the place they are living and move around the world wouldn’t be a surprise. Can the same be said of you or me, who have staked our lives in a physical location? Do we believe that God could call us elsewhere?
Books and Articles to check out:
Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, Revised Edition — David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken (2009).
“The Sacredly Mobile Adolescent…” Journal of Youth Ministry, Fall 2009, Vol. 8, Issue 1, p. 7 — Jeffrey F. Keuss, Rob Willett