I was twelve. An American pre-teen recently transported from my Indiana comfort zone to a village in Ukraine.
In 1995, my first impressions of the village were dirt roads, no running water, and outhouses behind every family home. Farmland was predominant, and chickens roamed free, while cows were herded down the road by their owners.
The transportation of choice was horse-drawn wagon or your own feet. One prosperous villager had recently bought a car. The only car in the village.
I’d come with a group of Ukrainian youth from the city where we lived. We were staying the weekend to help with work in the village. And now I sat among friends I’d met just months ago, understanding none of the conversation around me, and partaking of a feast held for us by all the local women.
They brought out course after course – traditional Ukrainian food, prepared like only babushka could make it. Each smell was new, the tastes unfamiliar. I thought most of the food was delicious. A few dishes would take me some time to appreciate – cabbage, beets, and pork fat were not my norm – but I’d grow to love them.
Eventually, our host presented us with one dish I had not anticipated. My stomach churned, and I looked away from the table.
Ten centimeters from me, a whole fish head lay on a community plate.
I don’t remember how he was cooked, but his scales were intact. The catfish I’d eaten “back home” had always been cleaned before they graced our table.
His head was whole. The rest of this poor fellow had been severed and placed at other sections of the long table.
But his eyes. I’d never looked into the eyes of an animal I was about to eat.
Four or five of my table-mates grabbed forks and dug into the community fish head. I gulped and wondered if I could escape the offense I’d surely give my host if I declined. I knew to decline was practically an unforgivable sin in this hospitable culture.
Before I could decide, a friend must have asked, “Everyone done?” When others answered in the affirmative, he pulled the plate closer and began cleaning the bones more meticulously than I’d thought possible.
Finally, the eyes.
He popped them into his mouth, and I’m sure our hosts were gleaming with pride as their food was so thoroughly enjoyed.
I politely excused myself for a trip to the outhouse.
I cried a little and wondered for the 200th time why my family had moved away from home, to a culture we did not know or understand. I thought of friends left behind and experiences I was missing. I remembered what it was like to feel comfortable, to recognize people and places around me, and to understand every word people spoke.
I will never love this life, I thought.
A Third Culture Kid Raising Third Culture Kids
It’s 2018. Not only did I survive my cross-cultural childhood, but my husband and I are now raising two kids in L’viv, Ukraine. Our son was born here, and both kids have spent more of their lives in Ukraine than America.
They are truly third culture kids, even more than I was as a child. They’re spending their earliest formative years in a culture other than the one on their passports. It’s a culture not fully their own and yet uniquely theirs.
Occasionally I ask myself why. Why are we raising our kids in this lifestyle?
In some ways, my childhood would have been easier if my family had never left America. I might have felt more “normal” and fit in with my peers. I would have said fewer goodbyes and probably experienced less of people’s suffering and hardships.
So, why do we now expose our children to these challenges and so many more?
I believe my childhood as a third culture kid shaped me for the better. Yes, it was hard, but now I recognize the many privileges and benefits I gained as a result of growing up cross-culturally. My husband and I hope our kids will be impacted similarly.
1. Expanding our Worldview
Third culture kids (TCKs) tend to travel frequently. We experience various cultures, languages, landscapes, and histories. From an early age, we see how differently people live, work, rest, and love throughout the world. We learn to respect people and admire their traditions and faith, even when they differ from our own.
We also experience world history firsthand. I remember when I was thirteen, standing on the site of a Jewish burial ground from World War II, the depraved reality of those events sinking in. A few years later, I would visit a Nazi concentration camp in Poland. These memories impacted my view of war and my belief in the value of being changed by our history.
2. Creating our own Culture
One of the greatest lessons I learned as a TCK was that no one culture has it all figured out. As I travelled and met new people, I recognized strengths in every culture, and I determined to incorporate them into my life.
I respect American independence, but I’ve tried to develop a greater appreciation for community, which is vital in Ukrainian culture. As an American, I value efficiency and saving time, but growing up in Ukraine, I’ve learned to put people before my to-do list.
In this way, a TCK’s culture can become the best of many worlds.
3. Becoming Adaptable
Another advantage from third culture living is born out of our greatest challenges. We move around, changing houses, cities, and even countries. We leave friends and have to make new ones. We either learn new languages or face being cut off socially to some extent. Even our long term plans can change, subject to visa and registration laws in our host country.
Those challenges tend to make TCKs adaptable people. I’ve seen this in my kids already. In one summer, when we stayed in sixteen different places, our little troopers, both under four at the time, slept and adjusted well in almost every place. I believe this adaptability will serve them well as they grow into adulthood.
4. Learning New Languages
Many third culture kids are bi-lingual, or even multi-lingual. We have the benefit of total immersion at a young age, when it’s much easier to absorb a foreign language. Language skills serve us well when we travel and sometimes open work or educational opportunities we would not otherwise have.
Learning a language also gives us insight into the people where we live. So much of who they are and how they think is wrapped up in their words. Becoming fluent is a bridge to cultural adaptation and expanding our way of thinking.
5. Developing Critical Thinking
Every nationality has unique beliefs and practices. Third culture kids learn to consider carefully before passing judgment when we encounter something strange and unfamiliar.
I try not to dismiss a practice or belief – no matter which culture it’s from, including American – before doing my research. Just because Great-Grandma passed this wisdom down to Grandma, who passed it to Mama, and no one has any idea why – that doesn’t automatically make it unfounded.
I’ve also learned to view these practices through a country’s unique value system. What makes sense in Ukraine might not in America, but perhaps that’s related to what people consider most important.
6. Growing in Empathy
I saw a lot of poverty in my childhood. I also wasn’t shocked when men passed out on the ground in public, probably after trying to drink away their hardships. Other TCKs observe or even experience health crises, natural disasters, persecution and other suffering.
We observe how hard life is for people. And as any parent knows, kids like to ask questions. Questions about suffering are an open door for parents to teach their kids the importance of compassion and serving others.
7. Cultivating Gratitude
This is a dual benefit for parents and TCKs. When life gets hard, it’s easy to complain and focus on the negative. But cultivating gratitude is a critical survival skill for living in another culture. I don’t believe in denying the hardships, but they should not consume our thoughts or attitudes. Instead, we learn to recognize what’s difficult and look for the benefits gained. We choose to be thankful for the privileges in our lives.
8. Building a Tight-Knit Family
Families often build strong connections when they move around and say frequent goodbyes. During my childhood, my parents were my support group, and my siblings my best friends. We loved spending time together and understood one another when no one else could.
My husband and I hope our kids will bond in the same ways, with each other and with us. And more importantly, we hope those bonds will comfort them in hard times and strengthen them as they grow older.
A Parent’s Hope
Growing up a third culture kid is not always romantic or an exciting adventure, though it certainly has those moments. It’s not an ideal life and not the only way a child can obtain the benefits I’ve shared here.
But these are some of the pluses I recognize from growing up as a third culture kid. And I hope our children are now reaping the same through their unusual childhood.