What I learned from my "third culture kid" experience, part 1
Movies can be mirrors of our lives. When I was a kid, my dad used to show clips from My Big Fat Greek Wedding in missionary cross-cultural training. The movie always made us laugh, but it was not until watching it recently that I began to see myself in main character Tula’s immigrant character.
A Third Culture Kid (TCK) by Kay Eakin’s definition, is "someone who, as a child, has spent a significant period of time in one or more culture(s) other than [their] own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture.” TCKS are often called "hidden immigrants" when they return to their parents’ home cultures, since those around them do not realize that they are going through the immigrant experience.
In this movie of an American-born Greek, Tula falls in love with an average, white American and undergoes some cultural identity questions in the process. For fellow TCKs, here are some tips that I gleaned from Tula. If you’re a parent of a TCK, then this can give you some insights into the minds of your kids and their great-but-often-confusing journey.
1. Be Proud of your Cultural Heritage
Ok, TCKs, here is my confession:
I grew up as an American TCK in Scotland and Germany. While I inherited many American-isms from my parents, I did not consider myself to be very American. I also did not feel the need to be patriotic towards America. In my Western European-influenced opinion, Americans were way too patriotic themselves and so they didn’t need one more proud American to add to the mix.
Now, I’m not advocating that TCKs need to become staunch nationalists for their passport country, because I certainly am not, but there is a place for healthy pride.
When I watch the main character, Tula, cringing in My Big Fat Greek Wedding at her family’s Greek-ness, I want to yell out at her, “You’re Greek! Embrace it! It’s so cool!” That is basically what Ian, her fiancé, tells her, and through his appreciation of her culture, she begins to appreciate it more herself.
Why do I find it so hard to say this to myself, then? I feel like I lived most of my growing-up years trying to shy away from the fact that I was American. It did not seem cool to be American. But really, it is no more or less cool than being Greek or being Pakistani, Chinese, Peruvian, you-name-it. They are all cultures with their weaknesses and strengths. You must not embrace all of the weaknesses, but you must embrace that it is a part of you. And it will benefit you to embrace your culture’s strengths, because not everyone in the world gets to experience them first-hand.
As a TCK, you are living in a culture that is different from your parents’ culture(s). That means that, compared to the local culture, your parents’ culture looks different.
At the beginning of the film, you see Tula’s house decked-out with Greek statutes and the Greek flag painted on the garage door. How does she feel about this? Embarrassed. She wishes her family could just blend in.
TCKs will not always feel embarrassed or ashamed about their parents’ culture, but it is an emotion that at some point will probably come up. It may not even have to do with the way the parents’ are living in their host culture, since many missionaries are good at adapting. In my case it was not necessarily that I was embarrassed of the way my parents lived, but just of the culture that we came from. I wasn’t embarrassed because there was anything wrong with it, but because it was just different from the cultures around me.
However, even if your parents’ culture is different from what you like, that culture should not be ignored. It still has a vital influence on you, because your parents have a vital role to play in your life. Growing in understanding of your parents’ culture will help you understand the way you were raised, as well as the worldview of your parents. You can change the places that you live in, but you can’t change your parents’ culture(s) and the impact they had on your childhood. Your cultural heritage is an intrinsic part of you, even though it isn’t all of you.
In the film, I love watching Tula’s attitude change towards her Greek-ness. By the end, especially as she gets to know Ian better, she is able to acknowledge and appreciate certain aspects of her Greek heritage. She does not advocate every Greek mentality, and this is important. Being proud of where you come from does not mean agreeing with it all.
On the flipside of pride is shame. No matter where you come from, it’s not healthy to be ashamed of your culture, because it is a part of yourself that you cannot change. God made you a part of that culture. You may not fully be the culture that your parents are, but it is an indispensable part of you. Accepting that part of your story also means accepting that part of yourself.
Look for the positive aspects of your culture and question the negative ones. Make a list of all the things that you are thankful for in your parents’ culture, that were passed on to you. Don’t ignore the things that you don’t like; think about them.
As a part-insider, part-outsider in your parents’ culture, you have the ability to be critical of things that a true insider may not see. Tula was able to push against her parents’ cultural idea of marriage by going to college and getting a job. You can be a part of the reform of things that need reforming. And, yes, keep laughing at the little things that don’t matter but that make your parents’ culture quirky and funny and sometimes just plain weird.
So can I forgive my parents for coming from this culture with its mixed bag of good and bad? Can I forgive them for imparting it to me? Of course!
This is tongue-in-cheek, but sometimes it’s how we feel. Our parents haven’t done anything wrong; they were just passing on what was passed on to them, as we’ll do to our own kids. I thank God that He made me what I am, not because it is better than anyone else, but because it is the only story I have.
2. Small risks now make things easier in the long run
It took a lot of strength for Tula to finally confront her father about taking computer classes, but when she finally did it, it started a whole chain of positive changes. Often, the first step is the most difficult. It is not easy to go against any of your cultural or societal influences, whether it be from your parents, your peers, or your wider community.
I'm speaking to younger TCKs now, because these are some of the things I wish I’d learned when I was still living in my parents’ home on the mission field:
Do you want to improve in the language around you, but don’t have any local friends? Start by visiting a neighbour who has kids around your age. Or start doing the shopping with your mom, so that you can practice speaking the language. Make a local friend at church and hang out with their friends.
If you are “back” in your parents’ culture, don’t stereotype all local peers and cut off the opportunity for friendships. Make steps towards adaptation, no matter what culture you are in.
Everyone’s situation is different, but these big obstacles will seem smaller if you start taking small risks now.
Maybe you’re living again in your parent’s culture and feel like you can never share your experience with those around you: start telling small stories or showing pictures or asking those around you to share their (“boring”) mono-cultural experiences. Then you will be begin to learn something about this new place you’re living in.
I know, it looks easy in writing, but I also know from experience that it’s not. Pray for the strength to make these steps. Let your family or friends know when you are scared or unsure. It’s natural to be scared in a new environment or even in an old one where you haven’t taken risks before. Ask for their prayers and let them help you make small goals. Don’t just settle if you’re not content with it.