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“I’m Just a Missionary Kid”: Exploring What it Means to be a Child from Another Culture

Interview with Hannah Zimmerman by Lydia Gingerich

Hannah Zimmerman’s parents, Leon and Naomi, worked with RMM in Albania from 2006 to 2011. She now works as the Third Culture Kid (TCK) Mentor for Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM). In this role, she serves the children of EMM workers by leading classes at various trainings, retreats, and conferences, helping them to process their identity, emotions, and cultural transitions. She is also developing a curriculum for TCKs and planning a networking platform for TCKs and their parents.

What is a TCK?

A Third Culture Kid is someone who has spent a significant number of childhood years outside of their parents' passport country. The “third culture” is the hybrid culture created by your parents’ culture with any other host cultures you live in. So it’s not like you would become a fourth culture kid if your parents move to a second host culture. Being a TCK is not something that you lose when you become an adult.

What has your experience been as a Third Culture Kid?

My family first moved to Albania when I was nine. Being a TCK did not come naturally to me. There were different challenges about my parents' assignment like moving within the country, being the only daughter, and my age. All those things combined to create a lot of barriers for me to navigate. It was challenging, but I would not trade it for anything. I would not want to go back to certain times, places, or selves that I was, but I would do it all over again for what I've learned. I definitely see the TCK part of myself as a gift. God has been so gracious and redeeming in my life. I’m grateful for the people he has brought into my life who have walked alongside me and my family during our transitions.“It was challenging, but I would not trade it for anything. I would not want to go back to certain times, places, or selves that I was, but I would do it all over again for what I've learned.”

What are some of the implications of labeling children of overseas workers as TCKs?

I think the misunderstandings or assumptions that come with these titles can be unhelpful or alienating for the TCK and those around him or her. Sometimes it feels like we are put in a box.

A helpful way for me to understand TCKs is that we are a culture without a place to point to on a map. The average TCK appreciates that they are a TCK, but they don't appreciate the amount of explaining they have to do, especially during re-entry into their parents’ culture or a furlough. I think that's when people start to say, "I'm not a TCK, I’m not a missionary kid, I'm just a kid."

If you would have talked to me four years ago I would have said, “I'm not a TCK, I'm a normal person and I lived in Albania, and Rosedale, Ohio, and now I’m living in Pennsylvania. Those places influenced me, but that doesn't make me a TCK.”

When I talk to parents about their children’s transitions, I liken their children to plants. I talk about how each plant requires the same necessities for survival, but, as with plants, they will each adapt to their new environment at a different pace. They will also thrive under different circumstances.

Why did you decide to work with TCKs?

Because I think TCKs should have someone who they can look to when they are going through the challenges of being a TCK, who can empathize with them. Feeling like I was the only one or that I was unique in my TCK-related struggles is something that I wouldn't want another TCK to experience.

Being a TCK can look like so many different things, and it is important for me to communicate that they have unique things to offer, but are not that different from their monocultural peers.

I’ve chosen to do this because I want to be a facilitator of conversation, activities, or times with the Lord where the joys and challenges of being a TCK can be talked about. I want to be a sounding board – the place where they can come and be heard or possibly receive insight, enabling them to then continue on their journey.

I'm really passionate about TCK health, especially during transition. Re-entry would probably be the place where my heart is the most. I think re-entry into a parent’s home culture can be a time when a TCK is most expected to fit in or “move on” from their life overseas.

What are some challenges unique to TCKs?

There's a book that I found recently called I Have to be Perfect, by Timothy L. Sanford, and I think that's definitely a challenge that TCKs feel. At some point they have probably felt like they are behind, insufficient, or even ahead of the game in a way. There is the tendency for TCKs to live in a fishbowl, or experience an increased need for self-introspection compared to their peers. This can especially be the case while on furlough or in the throes of transition (whether that's leaving or coming back).

Another challenge would be unresolved grief or loss of place, people, identity, or belonging. This is harder for TCKs because it can often be unrecognized. For example, if your dog dies, people will say, “Oh, I'm so sorry” but if you move to another country, people might not recognize that you also lost your dog, along with some of your favorite toys, a lot of friends, and a place at your school in the process.

Another challenge is expected repatriation, which is the term for the expectation (or understanding) that you will return to your home country, often your passport country. I experienced this during my time in Albania because I knew I would return to the states for university, and that my parents would, at some point, return to the U.S. as well. Growing up with this reality either in your own family or in that of your expatriate friends is a challenge that is unique to TCKs. This can cause TCKs to keep from putting down roots or making close friendships, from the understanding that a goodbye or change is imminent.

Some other TCK challenges are pride and shame. I think these often co-exist and create a paradox that can be challenging for the TCK to navigate. For example, I am proud of the experiences that I’ve had abroad, but I’m sometimes ashamed to talk about them because they’re simply the result of my parents’ decisions or the generosity of others. I am also sometimes ashamed that I am not “Albanian enough.” I feel such an affinity to the Albanian people and culture, but I’m forgetting the language and certain memories are starting to fade. This is sad and painful to admit.

How do you address those challenges?

I envision myself at age fourteen, as well as my brothers, and I ask, “What would I want to communicate to them?” So it is important for me to facilitate discussion and create activities around certain themes. In my curriculum right now, my five themes are:

Who am I? Everybody asks that question, but there's a lot of confusion faced specifically by TCKs. One activity I do with this is to mix blue clay (representing parents) with yellow clay (representing any number of host cultures), and see that they create a swirl of three colors: blue, yellow, and green, and the more you play with it, it’s just green. Then I facilitate conversation around being green in a blue or yellow context. I talk about how they do not lose the blue or the yellow. A TCK is not this new thing that does not belong anywhere, but I think this can be a tempting mindset for a TCK because we can have a sense of belonging in not belonging anywhere, which is unhealthy.

Culture clash. How do we perceive the different cultures we live in? How can we be a part of numerous cultures at the same time? I talk about the fact that God does not show favoritism to any culture and I help them find ways to connect with other people.

Grief and Loss. Identifying and finding ways to cope with some of the unseen losses. It is important for me to talk about gratitude here. I give out gratitude journals. On the left page I ask them to track things that they miss, are angry about, or are hard. And then on the other side, they write things that they are grateful for – present, past, or future.

Telling my story. After learning a bit about themselves and their cultures, it is important to talk about where we should ultimately base our identities: being the beloved daughter or son of God. This theme is based on Henri Nouwen’s writings. He talks about how our identity in Christ exists beyond the whole world, before time, after time, and is not a result of what others say, what I do, or what I have.

Goodbyes. I think if TCKs honor their grief and goodbyes, then they're more likely to do well in their next context. These activities include writing letters, creating memory lanterns, and naming things that have been or will be left behind during transition.

Is it important to use physical activities rather than just telling them the information?

If they're feeling an emotion and if they're doing something with their hands (especially if it's facilitated for healing or for connection), they are more likely to have a positive reframe of that memory or a positive coping mechanism. Simply going for a walk or completing a STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics] challenge with Legos can create memories that remind the TCK that they are not alone. I try to give language and visual or kinesthetic context for the emotions they’re experiencing as we discuss memories or events they’ve experienced. This way they are equipped to revisit those emotions or experiences in positive ways. I love the connections that TCKs create with one another and I believe that one of the most comforting experiences is hearing “me too” from someone else, especially a peer.

Have you learned anything about your own experience through working with other TCKs?

Absolutely. I have gained a lot of healing and new insights into God's love for the world. I remember the first re-entry conference that I facilitated where there were a couple of girls who were close to the same age I was when I went through re-entry. I remember driving home from the conference and thinking, “Hannah, you have so much grace and empathy for these girls, and you don't have that for yourself. Why?" And so I am coming to a place of peace with my story and with some of the challenges of being a TCK.

The challenges that I experienced as a TCK brought a lot of questions about myself, missions, and God. Working with other TCKs has not necessarily answered those questions, but has brought a lot of peace. I see more of the gifts that can come from being a TCK. I see ways that God can redeem the hard experiences in my life as I am open about those things and offer them to him by serving others. I’m honored to have opportunities to engage the TCK part of me because, through that work, I feel like I’m able to revisit memories and honor people and events along the way.

What are some of the best parts about being a TCK?

I think TCKs gain a broader perspective of the world and of God. They often have the ability to adapt to and appreciate other cultures, or take on a variety of perspectives. Also wonder. Wonder is such a beautiful gift that children have and I think TCKs especially can have the privilege of experiencing a bigger picture of creation. Some of the other gifts that come with being a TCK include having friends around the world and having experiences in different countries or with people from different cultures. I’m currently enjoying the process of creating a TCK curriculum from an Anabaptist perspective, which has beautiful ties to our theologies of two-kingdoms, peace, and the Beatitudes.

What advice would you give to those working with or interacting with TCKs?

Ask them to tell you stories. They have stories that they would love to tell, but maybe because of the ways that questions are asked it feels like they have to say the same things over and over again. Children of missionaries who are raising support will hear a narrative about their lives or host cultures from their parents' perspective. Asking them to tell their own stories can be a beautiful way of honoring their unique experiences.

And then listen. For kids who are leaving soon, or who are on furlough, ask if there's something that they would like to see, experience, or eat before they move. And then follow through with that if you can. Listening is so important.

I think parents are often at a vulnerable place. Provide support for the parents because global transition really is a whole new world for both the parent and the kid. I see the parent as the main discipler or leader of their children, and the one who is best able to work with the TCK. So as much as I can support and pray for the parents, that is how I can best impact the kids in the long run.

Take time to treat the TCKs as normal people. That's the paradox, right? When do we engage all of this stuff, and when do we just say "Hey, let’s go outside and play soccer"? I try to remember Maya Angelou’s quote as I work with kids: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you’ve said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget the way you made them feel.”

Especially during times of transition, a TCK’s desire to engage with the TCK part of their identity comes in waves. So there will be times when they're less receptive to your attempts at talking about their life overseas. But keep being available. I moved to Lancaster County when I was seventeen and I was angry and sad. I didn't want to belong here. But now I'm grateful to the people who kept inviting me to things. I eventually got over that and I'm glad they weren't offended by my angst and anger. They were not afraid of me. That is a really validating thing.

Pray for TCKs. Pray for their friends, that they will have good people who can walk alongside them. Ask God to show you how you can walk alongside them. Each TCK is unique, but if you are close to them, I believe the Holy Spirit can show you unique ways to interact with that TCK.

This interview has been edited and condensed.