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Third Culture Kids, Part 1

Hello, my name is Nozomi Johnston, and I'm a TCK.

TCK is short for "Third Culture Kids." The definition is "anyone who spends a significant amount of their developmental years in a culture other than their parents' culture." That would be me, and that would be Zack and Ellie, along with everyone who attends Christian Academy in Japan (CAJ).

Becca McMartinThis past week held many "Aha" moments for me and a bunch of moms and dads who attended two eye-opening seminars at our school regarding the basic profile of a TCK, and their identity formation. Our speaker, Becca McMartin (pictured) is a TCK herself. Her parents are from America, but Becca grew up in Haiti, went to college in the States, and then worked in Eastern Europe. She was very qualified to come and teach us about how TCK's feel and what can be done to encourage them when they experience identity issues, and fan into flame the wonderful characteristics these children possess.

There were many points that she covered, but I'll share with you some things that struck me the most....

TCK's are "Cultural Chameleons." They learn to be highly adaptable (not by choice, but for survival) to situations that are 180-degrees different from what they were used to. They learn to be cross cultural, and are able to determine instinctively how to "behave" appropriately, depending on who they are talking to in which cultural context. While adults have to take classes on cultural do's and don't, kids are able to do this flawlessly and go "in and out" of cultures beautifully. I've watched Ellie and Zack bow in apology to the Japanese on the street when they bump into them accidentally, while they'll naturally just say "sorry" to Westerners.

TCK's have extremely high observational skills. Again, we watched Ellie do this when she entered Japanese Kindergarten as soon as we moved to Japan. She had no idea how to blend in socially, so her observational skills kicked into high gear. Her eyes were like radar scanners, just soaking everything in from corner to corner. TCK's do this whenever they enter into any room. You could almost hear the gears turning in their brains. "Which culture is this? Which language? What are the social norms in this context? it!" --and they enter the room and are able to blend in enough not to stick out.

Obviously, TCK's have amazing linguistic skills. Zack, who only takes Japanese 3 times a week for about 30 minutes each, knows enough so that he usually figures out what I'm saying to my Japanese friends! I can no longer use Japanese as "code" to keep secrets, because now he'll say, "Mom, don't tell them that!"

One thing that I truly appreciate about my TCK-ness and for our kids is the gift of an expanded worldview. They have seen firsthand how vast this world is. California was not the center of the universe! There are countless variations on how people think, speak, and behave. And to have so many friends from different continents of the world at the international school is an amazing blessing. And to see the HUGE love that Jesus has for all people groups, no matter what color, language, or culture.

Along with the many positives are possible challenges that come with being a TCK. Because of the high mobility of TCK families, the children experience an extreme amount of feelings of loss. When we moved to Japan 2-1/2 years ago, we tried to prepare the kids the best we could. We talked about the wonderful things we'll get to do and see in Japan. We also talked about the many things that we will miss in the States. However, I was not prepared for the DEEP GRIEVING and the intense feeling of LOSS that both Zack and Ellie would feel. For Zack, he grieved for the normal, the routine of everyday life. His school, friends, food, church, apartment, car--his entire life as he knew it was taken away from him. The way he grieved those losses came out in anger in various forms. He would get mad at very small things. He would just melt down when he could not do certain tasks. I often made the mistake of focusing on his surface behavior and said, "Why are you so mad about that? You shouldn't be angry!" However, Jeff was able to take many of those moments to say, "Zack, do you realize that you are not really angry that your pen broke?" Jeff asked Zack many questions to help him voice his deep sense of loss. Zack was allowed to say, "I miss LaVerne Heights Elementary School. I miss my buddies that I hung out with. I miss..." and the list would go on and on.

sammie-ellieFor Ellie, her sense of loss and grieving were all placed on one thing: our cat Samantha whom we had to leave in California with a caring friend. Sam represented everything that was precious to Ellie. The cat was a part of "home" that she remembered, the cat represented California, and her loved ones. Every day, she would say, "I wonder how Sammie is doing? I wonder if she still remembers me? When will I get to see Sam?" She drew pictures of Sam, wrote poems and stories about Sam, asked to look at Sam's photos, and talked about her constantly. That was how she was coping with the loss of moving and becoming a TCK. This is why it was so very devastating when we got the news recently that Sammie had died. It would not be an exaggeration to say that a part of Ellie's heart died that day. That is how closely she had associated herself with Sam the cat = home. It was that day when Jeff and I realized that our children were experiencing, for the very first time, the HIGH COST of being a missionary kid. Some of you may be thinking, "It's just a cat!" Yes, but again, this helps us understand the emotional impact that TCK children go through.

Something that Becca taught was very helpful to me. She said, "For TCK's, the feelings of losses and grief are inevitable. But it's the UNRESOLVED feelings of loss that will cause problems in the future." I am praying that we have allowed Zack and Ellie to talk openly enough about their struggles to the point of resolution. I know we're not "done" with this issue, and will face them head-on once again after we move back to the U.S. Thanks to the seminar, I feel just a little more equipped to help them understand their emotions.

There is a book called "Raising Global Nomads" by Robin Pascoe, which describes ADULTS who are grown-up TCK's:

  • Alert, intelligent and geographically aware
  • Mature, sensitive, skilled at listening
  • Likely to exhibit tolerance and cross cultural understanding
  • Flexible and open to change
  • High achieving
  • Drawn to careers associated with service to the community or world

She encouraged us parents by saying that even though we may not see these characteristics NOW because our children are still young, to know that by God's grace, they are BECOMING the wonderful TCK's that the Lord has blessed them to be. As missionary parents, we sometimes struggle with "what have we done to our kids" type of thoughts, especially when we see them hurting emotionally. As cliche as this may sound, I truly do believe that they will thank us 20 years from now:) Becca reminded us that Redeemed TCK's are the most amazing people you will ever meet!!

I have much more to say about "Identity Formation" of TCK's, so please go take a bathroom break, get another cup of coffee, and read on.  Part 2 coming up..

Jeff's Posts


Jeff's column offers a mix of reflections on leadership and fatherhood, as well as news from Asian Access.


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Nozomi's Posts


Nozomi's column contains reflections on motherhood, Japanese culture, and ministry.


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Zack's Posts


Zack's column provides a variety of glimpses into what makes him tick.


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Ellie's Posts


Ellie's vlog column is coming soon...


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