For the first 14 years of my life, I lived in India, the daughter of missionaries. My three sisters were born in India, while I was born in America during a furlough. My parents took me to India when I was nine months old.
Researchers have come up with a name for children like me — third culture kids (TCKs).
According to David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken’s book on the subject, a TCK has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture.
A TCK is not entirely a product of the parents’ culture nor of the culture he or she is living in, but a different entity. Many are children of missionaries, while others have parents in the military, in international business or in the diplomatic corps.
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The experiences of TCKs are reflective of the increasing connectivity America is now developing with the rest of the world. We are intertwined through military alliances, multinational corporations, trade and student exchanges, just to name a few.
It is no accident that America has been called a “melting pot,” a place where people can reach safety, improve their standard of living or make a completely fresh start.
It is increasingly necessary for us to develop a worldview that goes beyond an “us versus them” mentality. My experiences have given me a head start for living in such a global community.
TCKs have several characteristics in common, regardless of which country they grew up in. Growing up bilingual is one especially helpful trait because an affinity for languages, which we had to develop at an early age, continues on into adulthood.
I lived in the town of Belgaum, in what is now known as Karnataka State. While the official language is Kannada, many of the citizens also spoke Marathi. My ayah (nursemaid) didn’t speak any English, so I spoke Kannada with her and her children. I learned Marathi from one of our cooks.
My mother told me that at the age of four, I was translating for her whenever a Marathi speaker came to the door of the mission house. I can still carry on a simple conversation in Kannada more than 50 years later, though I never learned to read or write it.
In my high school and college years in the U.S., Spanish and French came easier to me than to some of my schoolmates, probably because I was used to thinking in another language.
TCKs are also found to have an expanded worldview, which results in being able to look at situations or experiences in more than one way and to be more tolerant of different cultures.
Being a TCK also has its disadvantages. A common trait is a feeling of rootlessness, of not being able to truly belong anywhere. Because of my occasional feelings of standing outside my own American culture, looking in, I think I am better able to empathize with foreigners, whether they are just visiting or are here to stay.
I noticed this especially when my husband and I welcomed visiting youth from Japan, France and Peru, who stayed with us for successive summers through the Lions Club Youth Exchange Program. Their differing points of view helped me analyze my own homeland in a different light.
If we make the effort to learn about the world beyond our shores, to talk to people of different ethnicities, to try to understand why they think and react the way they do, we would come away with a stronger appreciation of our own country.
It would also encourage the realization that, deep down, the great majority of us all want the same things — a chance to make a life for ourselves and our children and to make the world a better place for our having been in it.
Sheila Lovell, who has lived in Wilmore for 35 years, works for Asbury Theological Seminary.