Third Culture Shock

Just another site


I arrived in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in the middle of June 1989 and was greeted by aunts, uncles and cousins who had driven from Indiana to pick us up and take us to a little motel in somewhere Midwest US.  They were so excited to see my parents and my brother and I.  My first thought?  “oh my god I have such a headache!”  I remember feeling a totally overwhelming desire to turn and run to the next departure gate…or throw up.  I did NOT want to be here in Chicago.  And why were these people so happy?

Less than two weeks before our trip “home for good” I had graduated from high school in Malaysia (which is another subject entirely) .  That event took place two days after the Tiananmen Square Massacre which was pretty close to home for me since I lived in Hong Kong when I wasn’t in school.  My parents stayed at a hotel near the school during our graduation week and the three of us watched the events in Beijing unfold while I was putting on my cap and gown.  Grief and disbelief were on the top of the emotional food chain for me that week for many reasons.  So when I walked into O’Hare that day and saw all the wealth and oppulance of an American airport and heard people telling us how excited they were that we were “home”…my head said “Do you guys not “GET WHAT’s GOING ON!!!”  How could these very shallow American people be so happy when this horrible thing had happened in China?

I read somewhere that ATCK people see the world in a 3D worldview.  That means that the world is real to us in a way that it is not to a monocultural person.  I can be watching the news but I don’t see the story.  Instead I see the people.  For example, during the tsunami crisis that hit Indonesia I could smell, taste, hear and touch the story.  I could visualize the devestation and the emotional impact of that tragedy in a way that my husband couldn’t.  It wasn’t a story.  It was real.  It affected people I know and love.  I was scared.

The first television commercial I heard when I was settling in that motel room in the middle of the midwest was from Domino’s Pizza.  “Delivered to your door in thirty minutes or less or your money back!”


My first impression of Midwest America was that.  Full of impatient people wishing to have their food delivered cause they’re too lazy to make it themselves and if it’s not on time…they won’t pay for it!?  Shocked.

I still hold true to the idea that the United States is not the model that the rest of the world should follow.  I feel LUCKY to have been born here because as a citizen I am entitled to some advantages that others would not.  It’s the attitude of superiority that bothers me.  Maybe I’d feel that way without my trans-cultural upbringing, but I doubt it.  Patriotism to any certain country or allegience to a political ideal just has never sat well with me. (I know my Mennonite readers will say it has to do with the teaching of anabaptism I learned but I’ll argue you on that). 

September 11, 2001 is a day that impacted all of us living in North America.  Loss of life and invasion of peace are very hard things to ever come to grips with.  I watched and grieved along with the nation that day.  I had met one of the pilots at a nice Christmas dinner a few years before.  Very close to “home”.  But…and at the risk of angering some people…my initial thought upon hearing the surprise and confusion in the TV commentater’s voices was this:  “Why did we think something like this would never happen to us?  It’s happening to people I love all over the world.”

In a nutshell…I came into this United States at the age of 17 with independance and street smarts.  I could take care of myself and I wasn’t afraid of the shadow on the corner.  I grew up in a big city…made many of my own decisions and knew how to handle any situation thrust at me.  I just couldn’t understand the “me-centeredness” of the world I was now being asked to live in.  I still can’t.

My 3D worldview has changed the way I raise my children and talk to my friends. I find myself guarding that sometimes because it might not be politically correct or it might deem me un-patriotic.  Well…it’s who I am.  Like it or lump it.


September 20, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments


One common theme among TCKs is an intense restlessness or wanderlust that occurs when they’ve been repatriated to their country of origin.  Most people who grew up away from their first culture spent a good deal of time traveling.  One beautiful side effect of being a TCK is that international travel is a normal part of life. How cool is that!

When I moved to Pennsylvania at the age of 17 (somewhere I’d only visited before) I felt this intense need to hop on a plane about every four months.  During my time at boarding school, I would fly from Malaysia to Hong Kong every four or five months for school break. (Mostly on Singapore Airlines which is why I chose to use their picture to illustrate this post).  So…naturally my brain was wired to get up and go somewhere.

Oh the places I’ve been! Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Kenya, Finland, Norway, India (the airport anyway), Luxembourg, Amsterdam (or so I’m told…I was an infant), Russia…at the age of 12 my journey took me on the Trans Siberian Railway from Hong Kong to Finland with stops all along the way.

And then…bam! It all stopped.  Between the ages of 21 and 35 I took ONE trip requiring me to hop on a plane. ONE!  And it was only across the United States to California.  Nothing fancy. 

When I sat down and thought about the reality of that…I felt very stuck.  I felt pretty lonely.  I felt like somehow I’d failed to accomplish the things I always wanted to do.  I couldn’t believe I hadn’t taken my kids out of the country to see the world.  I almost started to itch. 

I am so very blessed to have been giving the experience of travel in the way that I was.  When I tell my children that I got to go to Thailand for family vacations, they look at me with such expressions of confusion…their best trip was Ocean City, New Jersey for crying out loud!  In no way can I complain about the wonderfulness of the chance to be a world traveller.  Except for the fact that I didn’t see much of the country I’m now supposed to call “Home” and that sets me down square in the middle of odd-man-out among my neighbors.

The ingrained restlessness of TCKs manifests itself in a few ways.  Among the people I know intimately or that grew up in a similar situation as mine, I have seen the following situations rise up as a result of that wanderlust. (And we’ll be delving deeper into this in the months to come I’m sure).

  • Many of my friends have found careers that require extensive travel abroad.  Perhaps they didn’t seek that consciously but it happened nonetheless.
  • Many have married someone from another country which enabled them to either relocate permanently or do a fair amount of travel.
  • Quite a number of my MK/boarding school friends have returned to the scene of the crime, so to speak, and are working at that same school or one similar. 
  • Others have followed in the footsteps of their parents and become missionaries to other countries.
  • Some struggle with profound depression because their life track has not allowed them to explore the world.
  • A few people have abandoned marriages and families and just “taken off” for whirlwind trips to get the wanderlust out of their system.

In my own life I’ve experienced an intense sadness at not being able to travel.  So, instead of jet-setting all over the globe,  I moved to a new home at least once a year during the first 7 years I lived independent of my parents.  My reasons were usually financial, at least that’s what I said out loud.  The reality is that I was bored and needed a new view.  And to this day I constantly re-arrange furniture or try to change how my surroundings look.

The frequency of this restlessness has diminished for me but when it rears up it is often so intense I just want to get in the car and drive and drive and drive and drive for endless hours.  Not to escape anything…rather to see something different through the window.  It is impossible to explain that to my husband and children because they just don’t “get it.”  Their first thought naturally is that I’m trying to get away from them.  While sometimes that’s true (and what honest mother hasn’t felt that huh?!) the fact is that more often I just need a little trip.

Now my goal is to see as much of North America as possible.  I’d like to be able to at least show my children a bit more of their culture.

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” -Robert Louis Stevenson

September 19, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Where Are You From?

That question is probably the single hardest one for me to answer.  Why?  Because it’s an incredibly complicated question and there is no short reply.  Over the past year or so as I began to tackle the issue of my own TCKness, I heard from dozens of other people who grew up away from their “home country” and all of them…all of them…said the same thing. 

If you are a guy in the Starbucks on the turnpike and ask me “Where are you from?” my answer will be “Pennsylvania” since I’m pretty sure you’re only making small talk.  If you are actually trying to start a relationship with me and really are interested in where I’m from, I’ll probably just look at you with a blank stare on my face for a minute while my brain zips through the list of possible answers trying to find the one you’ll understand.

I was born in Richmond, Virginia and immediately placed for adoption. Several months later I went to live with my adoptive parents who whisked me off to Hong Kong where they were living as missionaries with the Mennonite church.  While living there, I attended a British primary school full of kids from all over the world.

When I was 13 years old, I went off to a Christian boarding school in Malaysia and would come home to my parents in Hong Kong for Christmas and Summer breaks. Within a few weeks of high school graduation my family left Hong Kong and permanently moved to Pennsylvania, which is where I now live. 

During the years between 1972 and 1989 my parents were given a furlough to return to the United States. This happened every four (and once it was five) years. Since those trips were usually just a few months long, that time was spent traveling between relatives in Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania.  We lived in Indiana long enough for me to attend preschool and then half of 3rd grade. I think I spent a grand total of two-and-a-half years in the United States during the most formative part of my life.

Where am I from?  I have no flipping idea!

September 19, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments