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MK? TCK? It’s All Gonna Be OK!

It was a difficult day at the grocery store. Candy’s normally well-behaved little girl was being anything but. Not only was little Ella being grumpy and demanding. She was thrashing around, screaming, and acting up in ways Candy had never seen before.

She wondered if the long flight was to blame – too many hours in a cramped airplane. But that was over a week ago, and she hadn’t had these problems up to this point. Maybe, she thought, it was all the new people. This was only Ella’s second trip back to her parents’ homeland, and she had no memory of the first, so every face was new.

Candy had hoped their little jaunt to the grocery store would be a nice field trip for Ella. You see, when Candy and her husband John are in the mission field, they do most of their shopping at the local market, and then travel once a month to a larger town, where the one grocer actually has a few western-style foods.

Cereal is Ella’s favorite, and Candy always lets her choose between the three or four varieties on the shelf. It’s usually an easy choice, with Ella almost always going for the rice cereal – a combination of her love of rice and her amusement that the cereal makes a popping sound when you pour milk over it.

This should be fun, right? But here they were, standing in the cereal aisle while Ella seemed preoccupied with embarrassing her mom and generally causing a scene – acting like a dreaded MK (Missionary Kid). Didn’t she understand where they were? Didn’t she realize the options available to her?

Then little Ella, in an emotional burst worthy of an Academy Award, made known the reason for her anxiety. “Mama, there are TOO MANY CEREALS!!!”

Regardless of her frustration with Ella’s actions, Candy couldn’t help but laugh at the expression of shock and disbelief on her little girl’s face. For Candy, finally having choices – what to eat, what to wear, what to wash your hair with – was one of the joys of being back in the U.S., but not for Ella.

Her little girl had spent her entire life in a village where choice consisted of “banana or mango” and the monthly decision between three cereals. Here in the American supermarket, Ella was overwhelmed. Even if she had the wherewithal to decide she wanted rice cereal, there were no less than 8 varieties to choose from. It was all simply too much for little Ella.

Candy grabbed a box of rice cereal, quickly finished her shopping, and got her little girl out of the “too many choices” nightmare.

These kinds of stories are all too common for missionary parents. There is significant cognitive dissonance between the parent’s understanding of culture and the child’s. If “normal” is whatever you’ve grown accustomed to, then these missionary kids have a very different normal than their western parents. What seems like a return to normal for the parents becomes a confusing spiral into chaos for their kids. The familiarity of the parent’s home culture is, for the kids, a completely foreign experience.

Doctors John and Ruth Useem were the first to coin a term for these kids – not only missionary kids, but all expat and immigrant kids – kids growing up in a different culture than their parents’ native home. The Useems called them “Third Culture Kids,” (TCKs) based on the idea that these kids were native to neither their parents’ culture nor the local culture in which they were being raised, but rather, were part of a third culture.

David Polluck and Ruth Van Reken have written an excellent book on the subject called Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. It has become a bit of an owner’s manual for parents raising kids abroad. But more than simply giving advice, the authors seek to help parents embrace their child’s unique cultural mashup, rather than fighting against it.

This is what I seek for my own kids. It thrills my heart to know that my five year old loves playing with her friends who live in a mud house – trekking around and talking to their animals. And I also love that right now, she’s dressed in her leotard and tutu, making her serious face, practicing her dance to be performed next week. She is at home in her African surroundings, and at home in those little bubbles that feel a little more like the western world.

She is native to a blended culture that I will never understand, but it is her culture. My job is to embrace it, encourage her to thrive within it, and to look on with pride as she grows into a young woman who has been inspired and influenced by a diverse group of friends, whose opinions are informed by a unique world-view, and whose actions reflect a life lived differently – the product of growing up as a Third Culture Kid.

One response to MK? TCK? It’s All Gonna Be OK!

  1. Dixie Shewmaker

    Thank you for expressing so well the reality of TCK’s. I will never forget when I learned this truth that my children and I do not share a common culture. TCK’s have many challenges as well as many blessings because of their unique upbringing.

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