third culture kids (part 1)

Ever heard of the term “third culture kid” or TCK? When I asked one of our girls what she thought it meant, she said, “Someone who grows up in a third world country?”

Good answer but not quite.

David Pollock, co-author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, defines it like this: 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.

(Side note: when I was preparing to student teach overseas, I attended a weekend seminar of Dave Pollock’s. It was an intimate group of college students and an amazing experience. Sadly, Dave died in 2004, well before he had finished learning/sharing his brilliance on this topic with the world.)

So, one example of a TCK would be a 12-year-old girl (we’ll call her “Ava”) who moves to Cambodia with her parents and two sisters. No matter how long she lives in Cambodia, she’ll never really fit into Cambodian culture completely. I mean, she’s tall and white and speaks English (and, even if she learns Khmer, she’ll speak it with an American accent), and she’s not Cambodian and never will be.

On the other hand, the longer she stays in Cambodia, the harder it will be for her to feel like she “belongs” in America. When she goes back to visit, it won’t really feel like home.

So where does she belong? Where is home?

Excellent questions.

I’m doing a lot of reading about TCKs, because my girls are going to be TCKs. (Typically, you have to spend a year or more in another culture before you’re considered a bona fide TCK.) I want to know how to help them adjust and cope and not be a mess.

But, beyond that, I want them to thrive as TCKs. Not in a worldly-successful kind of way. But in an emotionally & physically & mentally & spiritually healthy kind of way. A reaching-your-full-God-given-potential kind of way.

Because, as challenging as it is to be a TCK, there are tons of benefits as well, and I’d like to explore those in the weeks and months to come.

But, for now, two months into this TCK adventure, I’m going to interview 2 of my 3 kiddos (Daughter #2 was occupied and said she’ll join us next time.) and get some of their initial thoughts/feelings on this whole deal.

Here goes. (My words will be in bold.)

Interview with Olivia & Nina, soon-to-be-TCKs:

What do you like best about living in Cambodia?

Olivia (14): First of all, it’s not cold.

Nina (9): It’s hard to just pick one thing.

Okay, let me ask a different question. How is it harder than living in America?

N: No bacon. No candy corn.

There’s bacon here. You’ve eaten it.

N: Well, it’s more expensive. I think.

O: Buying groceries is harder. Cooking is harder. You can’t find all the ingredients you need in one store. You have to lock and unlock five doors before you can leave the house. Oh, and there’s no place to play or run around outside.

How is it easier?

O: You can just go outside in your flip-flops, and you don’t have to put on a coat and hat and scarf and boots. You can just walk right out. Except you have to unlock a lot of doors.

N: I’m thinking.

Do you feel like you belong in Cambodia? 

O: Yeah, I belong here, but I don’t really fit in here.

What do you mean by that?

N: We want to be here, but we’re not like everyone else.

What do you think needs to happen before you’ll fit in here?

N: My face needs to turn brown. Old ladies pinch my cheeks.

O: When we learn Khmer and make more friends. Also, when we shrink. We’re so tall.

Have you made friends here? Who are they?

O: We’ve made a lot of friends at our school, but we haven’t made many friends our age. Our friend Ruth (she’s 23) is an artist and likes the same things as me, and she’s learning Khmer like me. She’s adventurous and fun.

N: Yeah, all our friends are adults. But I like them.

How is learning the language going?

O: Really fun.

N: Good.

O: I like it because we’re working toward something instead of just learning something pointless. At the end of the year, we’ll be able to speak Khmer. I’ll finally be like most of my friends who can speak two languages: Ikra, Ayan, Ridwaan, Salmo, Champa, Ayan Ali, Fthawit, Sam, Nahome, Abel, Sabrina, Rose & all the Asia’s Hope kids...

Has it made you respect people who come to America from other countries and have to learn English?

O: Yeah, but I already respected them.

What are some Cambodian cultural things you’ve had to get used to?

N: Banging on drums.

O: You just mostly do things when you want to or how you feel like it. You can drive however you want to. In America, if you did that, you’d get in big trouble. You can pee on the side of the road against walls (if you’re a guy).

N: You know how people in Cambodia learn English, so even if foreigners don’t learn Khmer, Cambodians can still talk to them? But nobody does that in America. People in America don’t learn Somali (or whatever), so they can communicate with refugees.

Do you remember what life was like before you cared about the poor and wanted to live in another country, etc? 

N: No.

O: I’m guessing it was pretty boring. We probably just went to church and didn’t really know what it meant.

Do you feel like people in America understand your life?

O, N: NO!!

N: But I don’t really understand people in America’s lives either.

O: Yeah, because we’ve always had a goal in our life to move here. Now we have a goal to learn the language and be able to reach out to people more and interact with our friends. And it seems like some people in America don’t have that many goals.

Do you think maybe you’re a little hard on Americans? Do you think you’re being fair?

O: Yeah, it’s not really being fair, but… yeah, I’m probably being hard on them. They don’t really know or understand, so it’s not their fault.

What does it feel like to miss friends and family in the U.S.?

O: Sad, and we want them to come see us, but they won’t. Well, actually, some of them want to, and they’re currently trying to raise the funds, and I’m really excited about that. I feel like I love them so much for doing that.

Has it hit you yet that this is your life now, that you’ll be growing up away from cousins, grandparents, etc?

O: Yeah, but I don’t know if it has hit them yet. When I was trying to get one person to come visit us, she said that she’d just see us when we come back to visit, and we’ll spend a looooot of time together, but I told her that we’ll only be back for 2 months every 2 years, and we have a lot of people to see, so we won’t get to spend that much time with her. I don’t think she gets it.

O: When we go back to America and visit our people, we can tell them about our life in Cambodia, but they won’t fully understand it unless they come here and see it for themselves.

How about you, Nina?

N: I’m thinking.

I hate to break it to you, but a very small percentage of your friends and family are ever going to visit you here in Cambodia. And not because they are heartless and don’t love you. It is verrrrry expensive to come here (especially if you’re buying more than one ticket).  In light of that, how can you communicate your thoughts and feelings to them in a gentle, grace-filled, informative, compelling, convicting way?

O: You can’t.

I beg to differ.

N: I can text them, “I’m adorable! Come visit me!”

Oh dear. What about blog posts? Uploading videos? E-mailing them? Stuff like that.

O: I could write a blog post, but right now it probably wouldn’t be very nice. I feel like nobody understands us. It would be called “Common Misunderstandings.”

O: Wait, can you read my answers to me, so I can make them a little bit nicer?

Sure. (Re-read them their answers. We decide to leave them as is.)

N: I love how Livi uses really big words and gives long answers, and I’m like, “No bacon. No candy corn.”

Yeah, maybe next time you could pipe up a little more instead of letting Livi do all the talking.

N: Well, I’m also sick.

True. This has been a no-fun two days of fever and aching, huh?

N: Yeah. (sad face).


Oops. This is a really long blog post. Not sure how much we accomplished with any of that. Hopefully we’ll get better at interviewing as we go along (i.e., answers that go a little deeper). And, if we get our act together, we might even do a podcast or video interview sometime (no promises).

I think you can probably pick up on the fact that they’re already feeling a little TCK angst, just two months in. Bear with us as we work through our thoughts & feelings out loud and in front of you.

Are there any answers you’d like the girls to elaborate on? And what other questions would you like them to answer in future interviews?

29 thoughts on “third culture kids (part 1)

  1. Pingback: third-culture kids (part 4) | Marla Taviano

  2. Lari


    I’m a grown up TCK. I lived overseas basically from the time I was 2 months old until I graduated from high school. I wouldn’t change it for anything….honestly! It’s made me a stronger person and helps me to have a little more perspective on what it’s like to be an outsider (and not to view everything from an American viewpoint). I’ve been back in the US for over 20 yrs and still have instances where I feel like a “fish out of water”. It’s just the way it is for me. I was privileged to experience and see things most people have only read about. You’re still in the very start of your journey, still easing past the culture shock of your move…hang in there girls!!!

  3. Shelly Pordea

    I have three of those TCK’s… and it’s lovely to hear your girls’ voices in this. You are challenging me to be a better mom of my TCK’s!!!

  4. Pingback: third culture kids (part 2) | Marla Taviano

  5. Sharon

    Marla: Sending my girls to you I want them to grow up like your girls!!!!! And, so agree with the comment that people won’t truly get your life until they visit. I have missionary friends that I’ve supported for decades, but everything changed when I finally went and visited them after having supported them for a number of years. Then I spoke at my Church and tried to make everyone there understand how things had changed for me after I’d visited and seen in person what my friends were doing. My goal: Go see them in the new country they are currently serving in. But, I’m a little scared. They had a pretty nice set up in the first country, not so much in the current one. Yeah, I’m a wimp!

  6. Bethany

    Livi’s comments made me think of 1 Corinthians 12. It is very natural to look at other people’s lives and think they are meaningless because they are so opposite yours. Sometimes it’s hard to see the value of a person’s life that differs so much from your own. God gave us all different passions and convictions and it’s tempting to think our passion is the most (or only) important one. Verses 5 and 6 say, “There are different kinds of service, but we serve the same Lord. God works in different ways, but it is the same God who does the work in all of us.”

    “The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ…Our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part just where he wants it. How strange a body would be if it had only one part! Yes, there are many parts, but only one body. The eye can never say to the hand, “I don’t need you.”
    The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” (vv. 12, 18-21)

    If you are trying to live your life for Christ anywhere in the world, there will be times when you feel like no one understands you and you don’t belong anywhere. I hope your girls will each come to love being a TCK! I think it will serve to make them more effective for Christ, not bound by the customs and way of life of any culture, but with God’s Word as the only true gauge of what is right and wrong and pleasing to Him! I think it is easier to see flaws in thinking when you are removed from the culture and able to look at it objectively through the lens of Scripture alone.

    1. Marla Taviano Post author

      Thanks, Bethy. Yeah, the girls are struggling (especially Livi) with people who appear to care more about money & clothes & celebrities & comfort than about loving & serving Jesus. But they need to 1.) not judge anyone’s heart–we can’t possibly know their whole story or motives. and 2.) like you said, know that we’re all called to different kinds of service. You can stay in America and like clothes & boys and still serve Jesus wholeheartedly. We certainly aren’t all called to go overseas. Holy cow. Pray for us as we work through this together. xoxoxo

      1. Bethany

        I love that your girls love Jesus and have goals and don’t want to waste their lives on earthly things. God can do so many things with people whose hearts are fully devoted to Him! I love you all so much! Praying for you guys!

  7. Stephanie Lobdell

    This blog has moved me in so many ways. I can’t describe what I’m feeling. I know it brought tears and smiles and chuckles. I love this blog though. Olivia, thank you for being honest and true. I am going to read this again and again. Thank you Marla

  8. Nancy

    I love this on so many levels! I am not a great communicator (more like Nina when she’s sick: no bacon) so I won’t even be able to express all I get from this, but wow! I totally agree with what Ruth said. Marla, I know you struggle with guilt over hiring someone to clean your house, etc. I was cleaning my own house at that stage of my life but what else was I doing? Mostly nagging and yelling at my kids for not helping enough. How much purpose was in that? And what did they learn? Nada. Well, only that a clean house mattered to mom and they still didn’t care. Were we thinking about others? Were we aware of the needs of anyone outside our family? Our neighborhood? Our country?? Heavens no. We had a garage to clean, basement to organize, bedrooms to clear out. Because we had so. much. stuff. Nothing that mattered. I’m so ashamed. You might not be doing anything directly at this point in time to change the plight of trafficked children but you are doing a mighty fine job of raising world changers. Kids who are sensitive to the fact that strangers aren’t welcomed by most of us here in the states as the gospel describes. How many kids that age are there who are worried about more than what kind of cereal they’re having or what level they’re up to on Candy Crush (or any other pointless computer game). I don’t even know you guys in real life but I’m so proud of what you’re doing. And Livi is right — we really don’t fully “get it.” But how many people fully “got” Jesus? World changers.

    1. Amy

      This. What Nancy said. YES. 😉

      As someone who has worked with TCKs for over 15 years, this is a delightful post and you are doing an AMAZING job of raising world changers. Thanks for taking the time to include them and their thoughts with us. This is the kind of stuff that will change this side of the world–knowing your girls. It’s because of the MKs that I knew at Grace that I ended up overseas and found my heartbeat. Hugs to you, my little TCK sisters. There are hard parts, but oh, the blessings of the rich childhood you are experiencing! Rock on, sisters, rock on!

  9. Ruth C

    This whole interview – heck, your family’s whole story – challenges me. Especially when Livi was talking about goals & Americans not getting it. It’s true. I wish we could *get it* more. I’m struggling with what to do with the desire to do more but feeling “stuck”. I don’t have a specific “goal”; I just want to do *something*. For those of us who aren’t able to actually come to Cambodia at this point, what are your suggestions for a way to make a difference now? I’m so proud of and thankful for you guys.

  10. Krysten

    I agree with what Amy said! Girls, you challenge me and make me think. I love you all for it. And it may be a longer wait than any of us care for, but I will be seeing your home in the future.

  11. Amy

    This: N: You know how people in Cambodia learn English, so even if foreigners don’t learn Khmer, Cambodians can still talk to them? But nobody does that in America. People in America don’t learn Somali (or whatever), so they can communicate with refugees.


    This: O: Yeah, because we’ve always had a goal in our life to move here. Now we have a goal to learn the language and be able to reach out to people more and interact with our friends. And it seems like some people in America don’t have that many goals.

    Challenging me!

    1. Marla Taviano Post author

      Bless you, friend, for taking Livi’s comment as a challenge and not as an offensive statement (which is what it kind of sounds like to me). Love & hugs!

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