I apologise. I can’t describe the setting very accurately for you.
It was in the morning, like still morning-morning, when I still shuffle to the fridge for the UHT milk, return to the table and plonk myself down, head-resting-in-hand. All I remember is a fuzzy scene of breakfast and children.
Chatter. Chatter. Mum? Chatter. Spilled milk. Chatter. Argument. Chatter. Mum? , mmmm…. I need more coffee.
Somehow, for some reason, the conversation went in a direction where I needed to state for the record – that the most commonly used cutlery in Australia is actually the knife and fork. My fun-fact was met with 3 little voices muttering in disbelief and Roo’s not-really-sure-what’s-going-on-but-happy-to-be-included chuckle. (here it is commonly a spoon, for all meals.)
What if you are eating pasta?! – hmmm. Fork. I say.
Cue peals of laughter
What if you are eating rice!? – hmmhuh, still a fork.
I mentioned other incredible facts that made jaws drop and heads shake.
– You HAVE to wear a seatbelt. Your own one, you’re not even allowed to share. And you can never ride in the car boot… No Buddy, not even if you promise to sit down the whole time.
– You will most likely travel over 40kms an hour in a vehicle & there are more cars than motorbikes… and there definitely aren’t whole families riding together.
– You could go a whole day without seeing a cat. Or A bat or a rat or a gecko.
– You can wear shoes inside… like people wear them inside their houses.
My 8 year old, Miss E, looks at me with wide eyes & a big grin,
“Aw man! I thought it would be easy in Australia but that (meaning the fork usage) doesn’t sound easy!”
I smile back at her, “you have gotten used to it here and you didn’t even realise”
Her grin fades slightly and she adds, “I was looking forward to being normal. But it won’t be ALL normal after all.”
My foggy brain suddenly registered that this is a moment. This is one of those moments that I have read about, that I have waited for. The kind of conversation I had imagined having deliberately over hot chocolate and prepping for beforehand.
This is the moment for the modern missionary Mum.
But here it was, with my bed-hair, drool still on the side of my face, greedily cupping my mug of coffee & completely taken by surprise. Suddenly wide awake, I realised this is the moment I begin parenting a Third Culture Kid.
Third Culture Kids (TCK) is a descriptive phrase and is a big topic. Books have been written to explain it (I’m going to do my best at simple summary here for you). TCKs are children who grow up in a third and unique culture. They are influenced first by the culture of their parents and passport countries, but do not wholly fit into them. You see, they spend a significant portion of time living outside the first culture and so are influenced significantly by a second culture, (or perhaps more than just one other) and they mix these cultural norms together into a unique and personal blend to create their own third, distinctly individual Culture.
I am not in a Third Culture. I am an Australian; I find the Australian culture to be completely relatable and understandable. Even elements that I disagree on are within my ability to understand. I am an Australian, living in a different culture. I can learn to love the culture I am living in, and understand it. But as immersed as I become, I am living across cultures. I grew into who I am, established and nearly completely soaked in a singular culture. My kids will not be that way.
I sometimes think of it, as if the Australian culture is blue.
So, Hoosband and I are both blue. We have been raised blue, we were married blue & chose to move here as blue people. So, in my house I go about things in a blue way. I speak blue, say blue idioms and lean toward a blue diet (as much as I can find it). I parent in a blue way, explain things to my kids in a blue way. I arrange furniture in a blue way (or buy it for blue reasons to begin with). I am across countries but still distinctly, blue.
The local culture here is red. They have red houses that are set up in a red style. They have red tastes and red language and red phrases. They interact in a red way and tend towards red cultural norms. They parent in a red way, understand relationships and genders reddishly. They interact with my kids as red people. Everything here, from the way they drive and the clothes they wear, right down to the way they show emotions. It is distinctly done in red.
And so, my children live in these two worlds. The red and the blue.
They understand who they are and how they behave with both colours in mind. As they form ideas of who they are and what is normal, they are seeing both red and blue. It becomes part of their perspective, their culture. Their culture is a blended one. They mix the two colours and so find themselves to have their own colour.
They are purple.
I am blue, parenting purple, in a country of red.
Imagine what that is like for them!
Being purple, raised by blue, and surrounded by red. What it feels to go back to their completely blue ‘home land’ but feel just as displaced. This is why there are so many books on this topic! Because I see Australia and see blue, I feel blue and expect blue. I talk about it as a blue and get excited as a blue.
I’m parenting cross cultures here. My kids are anticipating as purples. They talk as purples and they aren’t exclusively excited about even this temporary return to Australia.
My 8year old may be a very blue shade of purple – she lived years in Australia.
Roo, at 2 years old, may be more reddish, having lived here most of his life. He may end up very, very red. He may feel closer to the red, than to the blue of Australia.
He and Miss E may end up very different hues. They may be very similar tones of purple. I don’t know. My two middle not-twins-but-may-as-well-be kids may share some kind of mid-way point, they may surprise me.
Each of my kids may shift in their colours over time, deepening the red tones the longer we stay, or becoming bluer if we go back to Australia.
It is an ebb and flow of colour and I need to have eyes to see it.
I need to let them talk purple. Whatever shade it is.
Or however foreign it sounds to me.
They will have a beautiful purple view of the world, that I don’t want to neglect – or miss out on.
Their Third Culture – their colour – can also be influenced by more than one other culture too. With all the teammates and friends here being American, with our American home school curriculum and so many American resources – my Aussie kids blend American culture into who they are as well.
Say America is white (get it… Red, white and blue?) They mix it in and if effects their sense of culture. It changes the colour of their unique culture colour.
It becomes part of their own Third Culture.
Not the 1st blue colour, or the 2nd red one.
But part of their 3rd and unique colour, purple.
My kids often say American words like, Trash, Candy and Vacation.
They understand to read Mom and Crib and Flip flops….
As they sit in a car boot without seatbelts and eat their chicken with a spoon.
Ah my little purple people.
So. .. on parenting a TCK, I have read books.
I have attended seminars and I have talked and talked and talked about the theory of raising Third Culture Kids. I have educated myself and I know lots of parents serving on the field who are committed to loving and listening to their TCK. We’ve chatted about it, I’ve gotten advice, I’ve gleaned wisdom, I’ve stood with other mums and both just prayed that we do well for the TCK hearts we are holding.
But it never sounded as real as the 8yr old that looked at me in sad shock that morning. My wonderful, beautiful girl who said so casually, that she is not normal. Who, when we talked said that she remembered Australia as everything good. Everything easy and fun.
She has idealized it and longed for it, in the times where being foreign here had felt hard. She never stopped to think that she could also feel foreign there.
She has assumed it will feel exactly like it felt before we left.
And I admit, I thought that too. Despite all the training, I had felt like we were all Aussies heading back for a season in Australia.
I’d not actually noticed how purple they were turning.
My drowsy comments had suddenly shaken her world.
Sure, In Australia she will not be the tallest kid in the room by half, or need to shop for clothes in the adult sizes.
… but she also hasn’t heard of that TV show and she has never made a loom band bracelet.
She wasn’t expecting that.
Sure, you won’t look surprised by her skin colour when she walks into the room, you wont try to touch her hair or flock her for photos.
…but you’ve never seen your sister grabbed by angry monkeys or had your rubbish sifted through by your neighbours right in front of you. You don’t get pineapple cut up for you at the market and you’ve never gone to school in an airport.
She hadn’t counted on that.
Over breakfast, and in one sentence, Miss E realised she will look normal but may not feel normal when we get to Australia. She is not blue.
In just the same way as she feels normal in her life here but doesn’t look normal, because she is not red.
My daughter just realised she is Purple.
that she is a Third Culture Kid
And so did I.
Was there a moment that you realised you were parenting a TCK?
TCKs, was there a moment you realised you were one?
I love talking with my kids about their experiences and their thoughts on life here. That is why I love to think of it as a colour. Being purple doesn’t feel like a diagnosis or a problem to overcome. It feels rich and good. A different perspective. Unique.
I love knowing that God planned this for them.
That they are not merely impacted by my life overseas. They are living overseas. They were chosen for this mission and this land. I love celebrating their journey, their colour and learning to understand their challenges.
I love talking to my kids and saying that just as God planned for them freckles and blonde and a love for books…
When he wrote their name on the palm of his hands, he wrote it in purple.
The term Third Culture Kid or TCK was originally coined by Dr Ruth Hill Useem.
For a fuller (and much better) explanation of the term and the research that has gone into it, please visit her website. Missionary parents and children the world over thank Dr Ruth Hill Useem for her contribution to our families. For helping us recognise, nurture and celebrate our children of a Third culture.