When No Place Feels Like Home (The Story of Third Culture Kids)

I often feel like I’m being tested when someone asks me, “So, where are you from?”  

I panic a little because there’s clearly more than one reasonable answer to that question. Are they asking where I was born? Where I was raised? Or where I was living the last 10 years prior to my current residence?

This might seem like a non-issue to some folks, but there are large pockets of us spread all over the globe who would refer to ourselves as having had “Mobile-Childhoods.”  Some labels used to describe our dilemma include:

If all our stories were to be collected and made into a book, it would be titled, “Dude, Where’s My Home?” Most commonly, we’re known as Third Culture Kids (TCK). A TCK is someone who has spent a significant portion of their formative years in an ethnically different culture than that of their parents.

Externally, we might appear like we take pride in what’s culturally different about us [while bearing the burden of being the token exotic friend in our non-TCK social circles], but internally, we’re actually restless. And uncomfortable. We’re uncomfortable being ourselves among friends of the same ethnicity, and we’re uncomfortable being ourselves among friends of the predominant ethnicity in the culture we presently live in. Deep down, we struggle with a sense of belonging and never quite feel like we belong to any one particular culture. Coursing through our mind is the ever-present question, “Where is my place in this world and what will my role be?”

This poem, by Whitni Thomas, MK, captures perfectly the dilemma we find ourselves in. 

Though our identities have been shaped by two or more ethnic cultures, sometimes with conflicting values, we’ve actually learned to integrate the best of those worlds into we are. In fact, here are top 10 indicators that I’m talking to YOU:

  1. You flew on a plane before you could walk.
  2. You have at least 2 passports, or your current passport looks like it’s been attacked by the Visa-Stamp-Devil.
  3. To everyone’s confusion, your accent changes depending on who you’re talking to, and you often slip foreign slang into your English by mistake, which makes you unintelligible to most people.
  4. You once haggled with the checkout clerk for a lower price.
  5. You’re really good at calculating time differences, because you have to do it every time you call your parents. (Also, you get birthday wishes several hours before your birthday, from your friends farther east than you.)
  6. You’ve spent an absurd and probably unhealthy amount of time on airplanes, (and airports could possibly be one of your favorite hangout spots.)
  7. You sometimes don’t know whether to write the date as day/month/year, or month/day/year, or some variation thereof.
  8. You’ve gotten out of school because of monsoons, bomb threats, and/or popular demonstrations and riots.
  9. Your circle of friends are racially, politically, and religiously as diverse as the United Nations (and you probably sort them out by continent)
  10. And lastly, no matter how many times you’ve had to say it, good-byes never get easier, but you’re ever thankful to God for the constant flow of new faces and new friends.

Did I get ya? 

Incase that list made you feel homesick (an emotion TCKs know all too well), here are a few awesome people who are also TCKs.

  • Barrack Obama: (President) - He is a Multiracial Third Culture Kid born in Honolulu, Hawaii and grew up in Indonesia and Chicago. (Seeee… you too could someday become president!)
  • John Kerry: (Secretary of State) – Attended boarding school in Switzerland while his father was a US diplomat in Germany. (Seeee… you too can someday be a glorified secretary.)
  • Viggo Mortensen: (Aragorn from “Lord of the Rings) – His family moved to Venezuela, then Denmark, and eventually settled in Argentina in the provinces of Córdoba, Chaco, and Buenos Aires where he attended primary school and acquired a fluent proficiency in Spanish. (He helped Frodo save humanity from the evil dark Lord!)
  • Hugo Weaving: (Agent Smith from “The Matrix” and Elrond from “Lord of the Rings”) was born in Nigeria and has lived in Australia, South Africa, England. (Need I say more?)

Allow me to get Biblical on you for a moment.

  • Did you know that Moses was a TCK too? Born by Hebrew parents in Egypt, he served in political office in the Egyptian government till age 40, but was excommunicated to Midian (Northwest Arabian Peninsula) for 40 years, only to be sent back on assignment by God to Egypt in order to lead 2 millions Jews out to Canaan.
  • Joseph was also a TCK. Born in Canaan by Jewish parents, he was forcefully and violently relocated to Egypt where he served, first in the palace, then in prison. Through a series of providential acts of God, he ends up becoming prime minister of Egypt.
  • I probably should have started with him, but Abraham fits the profile too. Born in Ur of the Chaldeans, his father relocated the family to Haran, then God showed up and said, “Get up and go to a land I will show you….” He turned out pretty awesome, right?
  • My favorite TCK in the Bible however, is Daniel. Also abruptly yanked from his home in Jerusalem and relocated to Babylon, he had to learn to adjust pretty quickly in that culture. The short of it is, he becomes the most trusted man in two empires.

I highlight the stories of these politicians, actors and Biblical characters to let you in on a little secret no one may have shared with you, and it’s this: OUR MULTICULTURAL IDENTITY IS ACTUALLY ONE OF OUR GREATEST STRENGTHS! 

  • For one, we’re conversant in at least two languages and possibly have a heightened interest and ability to pick up a new one easily.
  • Two, we have a high acceptance level of different ethnicities and cultures, and have in fact incorporated the best of those worlds into who we are today.
  • Three, we’re highly flexible and can adapt easily to new situations and environments, a skill that all the leaders described above posses.  
  • Four, because we’re so well traveled and have interacted with a variety of people and ages in different social classes of society, most of us TCKs are socially mature.
  • Five, we not only understand the need to work and struggle for what we want, but we do so respectful of the values of the culture we’re in.
  • Most importantly though is our ability to lead a diverse group of people towards a common vision.  Due to our varied experiences around the globe, we can see life in terms greater than one cultural boundary and can explain and express ourselves in a way that rallies people to their God-given calling.

So if you think about it, the very thing that we sometimes feel uncomfortable about and are running away from is the very thing we should be running towards. The reality is, beneath our multicultural veil is a rich and wonderfully complex gift that God wants to use to bless those He’s called us to do life with. 

I speak from personal experience.

I was raised in two cultures, (Nigeria and in the United States) and never quite fit into either. When I’m asked where “home” is, I find myself fumbling for words to explain myself. In fact, like the first list above suggests, I’m probably happiest when I’m at the airport observing the lives of people traveling between cultures [also, when my little boys start breakdancing]. 

The triumph in my journey however, is that, living in such diverse cultures [and having to figure out where I fit in] has led me, even forced me, to find my true identity in SOMEONE greater, thereby finding my purpose in something greater. 

The ONE I speak of is, Jesus Christ.

If there was ever a multicultural, global-touring, TCK, it was Jesus!

Eternally existing with God the Father in heaven, He entered time and space, and humanity, and was born into a low-income community in Israel. He lived a perfect life as a blue-collar worker and later died for the sins of humanity in that same location. Upon His resurrection, He ascended back to Heaven where He presently reigns as king. The scriptures prophetically state that He is coming back again to set up His throne in the Middle East from where He will rule for a 1000 years [after which, He will hit “RESET” on all of creation so that there’s a new heaven and a new earth]. 

If anyone understands the dilemma of TCKs, IT’S JESUS! 

It also helps that where He presently resides, a place that all His followers will also someday live in, is a multicultural heaven. Literally.  In Revelation 7:9, we’re given a glimpse of a party scene happening in the throne room of heaven, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.”

Can someone say, “It’s bout’ to get Multicultural Up In Herree!”

Okay, here’s the big idea: This world is not our home. The Bible says God has placed eternity in our hearts, meaning, what we TCKs truly long for is a home to which we've actually never been to. Nowhere feels like home because ultimately,  heaven is our home! As followers of Jesus Christ, our true citizenship is not where our parents were born, nor where they gave birth to us, nor where we currently reside, [or have lived in the 10 years prior to where we live]. Our true citizenship is in heaven and we are first and foremost passport-holding citizens of HIS kingdom.

But while we pass through this world, we need to leverage the unique advantages we have as TCKs to make rich investments in HIS kingdom [which will results in huge heavenly dividends for us].  In other words, wherever you find yourself on the globe, use your unique multicultural gifting to rally people, first to Jesus Christ, then to a common vision, and ultimately to their unique role in that plan.

The Bible describes God as the God of the nations, and it says there’s a day coming when all the nations He has made will come and worship Him, bringing glory to His name. You, my TCK friend, have been globally positioned by God in a culture different than the one of your origins, so that THEY might get a glimpse of what God has in store for the nations through YOUR life!

So, despair no longer. Rather, embrace your cultural uniqueness. Embrace being the token exotic friend in your non-TCK social circles. But most of all, embrace the truth that your God-given Multicultural identity is actually one of your greatest strengths!