TCK Stories

The Odyssey and the Third Culture Kid

The ‘Ship of Theseus’ thought experiment is one you are probably familiar with, at least in one of its many forms. This is the question of whether a ship that leaves home and has had all of its component parts replaced during the journey will return to its home port as the same ship. Can we call it the same ship? Or can we not? One of its corollary forms is the modern scientific ‘myth’ that the human body replaces every one of its cells every five or so years. I’m not sure if this has been refuted yet, but my guess is it probably will soon. It is my firm and unshakeable belief, however, that no one on earth is more attuned to the terror of this scientific possibility than the Third Culture Kid. 

A memory of poignant immediacy to me from my late childhood is watching the movie Cast Away. It is the story of Chuck Noland—a bit of an obvious play on ‘no land.’ He becomes adrift, cast away from the mad whir of modern life and happiness and into the slow, violent slog of life on an island in the Pacific after surviving a plane crash. His job before the crash was delivering packages; he was the means by which the world stayed connected and whole. All that he has now to get him through are the memories of his fiancé Kelly and a mysteriously winged package that comes in with the tide one morning and is addressed to somewhere very near where he lived back in the real world. He is determined to return the package some day. 

It was either my sister or someone else who first pointed out to me how the movie contains absolutely no orchestral music before the moment when Chuck has finally, after four long years, fashioned a raft and left the island. It’s only after he has cleared the worst of surf and climbed the worst of the waves, as he’s rowing out to sea, as the thrill of making it off the island begins to suddenly fade, and he looks back towards his home of the last four years, that the music comes in strong. The movie’s first moment of truly crippling pathos is not when his plane goes down, nor even when he returns home; it’s only when he has to say goodbye to his adoptive home, his second, alternate home, that the movie watcher is struck by the emotional complexity of his situation and the depth of the alienation the castaway feels and is about to feel. 

The moment of most impressive relevance to TCKs in the movie, however, is when he arrives back home. Chuck’s first encounter with human life after his four years on the island is the jarring blast of a massive cargo ship’s horn. This is our first sign of trouble. The rest of the movie—and it’s quite a hearty chunk of time—slowly, brutally details all of the important changes since the beginning of Chuck’s alienation. His beloved Kelly, after years of searching and mourning, has remarried their dentist and, even though she loves him still and seeing him again is traumatizing and wonderful, cannot just simply abandon her family for Chuck. So, all that’s left is the anonymous, winged package. 

The Odyssey tells the same story. 

‘Nostos’ is the term scholars use to identify the motif of heroic return to home by sea. The Odyssey is an epic poem participating in that genre as well. Odysseus’ heroism is defined entirely by his desire and ability to return to Ithaca and retake his place as King, husband of Penelope, and father of Telemachus.

It’s entirely about a man trying to return home and being crushed by the change when he does. Odysseus’s Penelope is true to him, but his son has become a man, the suitors have all but exhausted his material possessions and food supply, and Ithaca is in a state of political unrest. The saddest moment in the very long poem, however, is when Odysseus returns to his father’s house after killing the suitors and in lieu of a warm, tear-filled, heart-felt reunion, refers to himself for a second time as simply “Nobody.” What was before a simple trick to make his way out of the cyclops’ cave has now become his identity, which is exactly the lack of an identity. 

Is he the same man he was before?

There seems to be something that has changed within him as well. When he visits the Underworld, Tiresias prophesies over him that he will never find true rest in his life, that his return to Ithaca will not be permanent. Not only has Ithaca changed entirely, but so has he. He cannot come home because he is not himself and home is no longer itself either. Though there is hope, both at the end of Cast Away and The Odyssey, the hope is no longer for a return to what once was. The hope is for something else, something new, to become desirable, not for the desire of something old to be fulfilled. 

As an overwhelmingly emotional 13-year-old boy who had just himself moved across the Pacific Ocean (from the Philippines to the States), Cast Away hit far too close to home. What was supposed to have been my home, my place of nationality, the location of my blood-family, turned out to be something entirely foreign and terrifying to me. And leaving the island in the Pacific inspired in me feelings I had certainly never felt before, like hearing a song that made you sadder than you ever could have thought possible. 

Now, as an adult, studying English literature, in the security of a home, The Odyssey only really speaks to me in faint whispers. It only really evokes a shadow of the emotions I felt as a young teenager. But I’m haunted by the impermanence inherent in the message: that the only hope we can have is for something we have not had before. And moreover, in the Christian cosmology, there is a theological truth to that. We should not hope for the happiness of this life, and there will be no remembrance of things past in the world to come. 

But I do not think the emotion is less important, theologically or otherwise. Of what purpose are feelings for lost things? Why would God give us such stark nostalgia for the lost things of the world if heaven was not in part interested in the restoration of lost things, namely the innocence of the world that was the Garden? We are all spiritually adrift, and what is the resurrection but the restoration of a lost life?

And for the TCK, these ‘stark nostalgias’ are only stronger reminders of this. We are given, like Chuck and Odysseus, the gift of understanding the poignancy of lost things and, consequently, a more personal understanding of the need for restoration and return. 

Flip the Script

Will I ever settle down some place?

Will I ever choose a nationality?

While looking at my life and the consistent struggles that come my way, I can’t help but laugh at how much of a TCK I am. I grew up in a country and a culture that are completely foreign to those of my parents. My parents are of Puerto Rican and Colombian descent, first-generation Latinos that grew up American. Then there’s me: I grew up in Central America, in Costa Rica. I’m your classic TCK who is used to traveling and trying out new things, a language learner who can’t help but not be still. And for some reason, I cannot choose a country to be from.

What is nationality? What is culture? What is identity? These are questions that could take forever to discuss and figure out, or spark a constant outflow of new questions with each answer that arises. While writing this and reflecting on the many times I’ve researched TCKs or sought anything to grasp that could explain or encourage me on this path of discovery in the realm of identity, I realize that we often tend to focus on our struggles and not so much on our strengths. 

I take myself out of the box that these questions build and take a look at my life experience. I can shout with full confidence that it is a blessing in disguise. It prepared me with a deep compassion for people and a great understanding of human action and intention. I am a citizen of the nations, and I can embrace this fact. 

Will I ever settle down some place? Will I ever choose a nationality? Those are questions that limit and box people like me from flourishing into who they have been born and molded to be. Why not ask, what is the next country you envision living in and exploring? Who are people groups that catch your attention? Why not flip the questions? Why limit the human heart from venturing into the foreign or the unknown?

 As a TCK desiring to encourage the TCK community, all I can say is, don’t put yourself in a box. Embrace the fullness of cultures you carry, and show off the beauty in each and every one of them. Don’t avoid the uncomfortable feelings in this voyage of belonging. There will definitely be grace for you as you’re humble and open with yourself about where you are in the journey.  

We are wired to explore, to venture into the unknown, into the uncomfortable, to understand and adapt a little faster than others, and to be wild at heart. Show it off. Don’t be afraid to be you. Deal with the consequences and make it a part of a beautiful story. Embrace God’s gift to you. Take a deep breath, look around you, and take on the adventure of living between worlds.

Photo by  Yoann Boyer  on  Unsplash

Photo by Yoann Boyer on Unsplash

Seeking Vs Staying

Wrapping my head around the idea that some experiences aren’t meant to last is quite hard to come to grips with, especially when my entire existence is often found in and around community. I have found this to be similar for most third culture kids. Community is supposed to be something that binds people together, but for TCKs, the concept can be a little harder to pin down, especially when you find that you are on the move most of the time.

I recently returned from a trip to Africa—my first time in the continent, where I was speaking at a conference in Nairobi, Kenya. Many of my pre-conceived notions of Africa up to this point had been centered around what I had seen and heard from others; either personal stories of missional encounters, adventures on safari, or even spending time checking out the sights and sounds of the villages. But learning by observation in person can have farther-reaching effects when seeing how others live their lives in the day-to-day.

As much as I wanted to stay in Kenya longer than the week or so I was there, the vibrancy of life that I encountered from seeing friends, and even strangers, get along so well was almost unfathomable to me; the raw blend of culture and community was something I realized I had been seeking my whole life.

Yet the TCK’s dilemma is often found in the void between seeking the community we long for, and having the sense that there is a community we can stay and be part of. So far as there are points of connectivity that we can make – whether making a new friend, being welcomed into a family, understanding the culture to the extent we can appropriate it to our own existence; there is a viable way to understand what being part of a community feels like. But can we ever get to that point where we feel comfortable within any given community? That is the question.

I like to think of the TCK as the perpetual traveler—always finding new ways to find pockets of community along life’s travels, but finding a balance between staying long enough to find it, and seeking new places to find it elsewhere. Perhaps there is no comfortable ‘in-between,’ where it is possible to find an idealistic place that feels like home; but it is the hope that somehow, someway, it may be out there. 

Striking the balance between seeking this community elsewhere, and staying in the community you find yourself in is a hard struggle. I like to think of the example of Abram—a character in the Bible who was told by God to go to a distant land for no apparent reason. Yet he literally packed up everything he had overnight and went on a journey to an unknown land, an unknown people, and an unknown destination. When he got there, it was everything he didn’t expect, but also, in a way, it was everything he needed. 

Maybe that’s a journey that most TCKs find themselves on, even though they don’t really understand the main reason or purpose behind their struggles. It’s tough to leave everything you’ve known behind and be uprooted, perhaps literally overnight, and transplanted to a place you never thought you’d end up in. Let yourself discover that it’s not everything you expected, but maybe everything you needed: that’s the definition of a community worth sticking with. 

Coffee In Every Country

Coffee in every country has a different meaning—if it is drunk there at all. In some places, it's used to initiate a business transaction, in others to host someone, in others to comfort, in others to bond over conversation, in others to finish a meal on a lazy afternoon. Here at Kaleidoscope, where we admittedly do most things with a cup of coffee in our hand, we can tell you a thing or two about coffee around the world, and what to expect wherever you find yourself.

Here is what we've learned about coffee from some of our favorite destinations. 

  • Turkey: Turkish coffee is often prepared in an "ibrik," a small copper stove-top pitcher with a long wooden handle that's made specifically for preparing coffee. The grounds are added directly into the water and then boiled. Turkish coffee is generally super thick and as black as my soul. Sometimes it's prepared with cardamom and sugar for a really exciting and sweet treat. The bottom line is: if you're on a layover in the Istanbul airport, you really do not need to order a Venti drip coffee at Starbucks. You can take my word for it.

  • Thailand: Thailand is really known for its tea, so our number one piece of advice is to just probably order that. It's red, it's rich, it's delicious, it has this other-worldly flavor like all of the best culinary specialties. The biggest takeaway from Thai tea is this little secret: sweetened condensed milk in your coffee. It's thicker and more delicious than regular-old coffee creamer. You'll never take it any other way.

  • Tunisia: As a French-colonized country, Tunisia reflects this influence in its coffee culture. A friend of mine once saw a barista in France re-use Nestle espresso grounds for two different drinks. Long story short, if you go to Tunisia, it might be hit or miss, but you can hopefully expect to get some good, cheap, strong, dark run-of-the-mill espresso that will keep you going strong on your Kaleidoscope trip.

  • Italy: I only know how to do two things in Italian: say "I would like to go bungee-jumping" and order any kind of coffee. Probably my number one most favorite thing about going to Italy in general is being able to order a "cappuccino" with an unabashed accent. Coffee here is the mother of all of the most popular drinks that we love to order at Starbucks, and it's a super fun place to explore the world of espresso.

  • United States: You can guarantee that at any diner or hotel breakfast bar, you're going to be able to find some watery, brownish liquid that, with some heavily-flavored CoffeeMate, will become palatable enough to fuel your road trip. Plus, it's probably more hydrating than other, stronger forms of coffee, and we Americans do love drinking water. Craft roasts here also tend to be really acidic and fruity. Basically, I don't harbor much love for coffee in this country.

  • Korea: Korea coffee culture is dope. There are more brightly-lit, adorably-decorated places to pop into for a cup than you could ever hope to get to. And might we recommend going to one that hosts sheep, cats, or dogs? (0/10 would recommend the raccoon cafe.)

Photo by  Mike Marquez  on  Unsplash

One place where we don't know much about the coffee is South America—we've never been! We know that in Guatemala they sometimes put a little bit in a baby's bottle, and some of our favorite roasts come from there, but that's about it! What can you tell us about coffee culture there?


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Navigating Life As A TCK

Ever since I was young, I knew I didn’t fit in. Growing up in school, I was always considered the shy, quiet kid who looked different, acted different, and, on the few occasions when I did open my mouth to speak, seemed to have nothing much to say.

However, all this changed when I got to university. It seemed like independence was something that was actually appreciated, and being different was considered more interesting. I began to embrace my identity as a South Asian, born and raised in Australia, to parents who were expats and weren’t citizens of the country I called home. It became apparent to me that my unique ability to bridge the gap between the culture of my ethnic homeland and the reality of the place I called home could somehow coalesce into a more adventurous beginning of my journey in life.

Somehow, though, the thought remained that I still couldn’t quite fit in. As I travelled to California for the first time at the tender age of 21, I realized that I had to start all over again—a new country I had never been to, my first time living alone, not knowing anyone I could call a friend. Yet this reality was fast becoming a norm for me, an indication of life’s unpredictability and uncertainty. It certainly wasn’t the first time I was thrown into the deep end, and it surely wouldn’t be the last.

I somehow survived my two-year stint overseas, but nowadays, I have grown accustomed to the fact that living a life as a third-culture-kid, where neither your upbringing overseas, nor your life as a citizen of a different country, can really encapsulate who you are as a person. Mine is still a story in the making. I realized I had to make the conscious decision to make my existence matter to other people, more than just myself; I wanted to use my story as a springboard to make a difference in the lives of others.

So it was with great trepidation—and might I add, excitement—that I recently returned to the land of my father and mother, and spent the last year or so reconnecting with my roots. Sure, I have been able to find a way to use my business background to work with an IT company in India, but I have also been able to culturally, relationally, and spiritually grow and mature as a person whose outlook on life is far from the shy kid in high school with little to say.

Now, when I come across a fellow TCK, I learn to speak their “language,” in a way, by recognizing who they are, and who they aren’t, all while finding similarities and unique differences, too. In this way, we benefit from our shared story, though our paths often seem to converge in a fascinating and uniquely special way. I hope you, too, as a traveler on this journey called life, find a way to navigate your pathway to touch a person’s life for the better, and hopefully you are a better TCK because of it.

On God, My Friends, and People Like Me

     Hi, I’m  Caleb, and I am a TCK. I grew up in Singapore and China for nine years. I worked with Kaleidoscope for the first time in the summer of 2016. The ministry Kaleidoscope provides is very important, because it gives TCKs a safe place to open their hearts up to each other and to learn how to transition back to the United States or to another country.

     For me, growing up overseas was  definitely  a highlight of my life and always will be. My experience was also really hard at times. Growing up overseas, you have people come in and out of your life very quickly, and I often felt really lonely. When we moved back to the States for the last time, I felt like no one knew where I was coming from or really knew me. I think TCKs sometimes tend to have really personal conversations about life after only knowing each other for as little as an hour. With people who don’t share this background, it seems that there has to be a trust built up in order for those conversations to take place. I would try to get into a deep conversation early in the  relationship,  and it scared people away. I remember feeling like that for a while, and eventually it got to the point where I was having very dark thoughts. Several things saved me from that time, and I want to share two with you.

     1. God. God was so faithful to me that looking back on it now, moving was probably one of the best things that could have happened to me. Without this part of my story in my life, I don’t think that I would have  ever learned God's character. I believe that God reveals himself most prominently  when we are in our darkest hours.  

      2. My friends and people like me. One of my best friends told me something very powerful when she found out what I was going through. She said, "Put your hand over your heart. Do you feel that?" "Um... a  heartbeat?" "No, try to feel beyond that." "Honestly, I don’t know." "That’s  what is  called purpose! Caleb, God put you here on this earth for a reason and a purpose, and that is to live for Him and to bring Him glory through your life." That struck me and tore down walls in my life. From then on, I started to change my outlook on life. A year later, my family went to a program similar to the one that Kaleidoscope runs, and they showed me that there are a bunch of people who have stories like mine. That gave me hope to continue forward.

     Being a Kaleider has opened my eyes to others' stories, and I know if I can be there for people who  desperately  need it, then I'm not doing work that is in vain. People took the time to listen to my story, and I can say for certain that I wouldn’t be here if that weren't the case.  

A note from Kaleidoscope: we are not licensed counselors, although we care a lot about you. If you need to talk to someone, we have access to an extensive network of resources and can put you in touch with someone. Please tell us if you need the help!  


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I Am From: a poem

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I am from

I am from Manila, where oceans of people meet oceans of cars.

I am from Taiwan, where the scents of my childhood fill my belly.

I am from Hong Kong, where the buildings smile coldly and the streets tell a story.

I am from the seaside, where what I don’t know and do know crash together.

I am from the hilltop, where ants heard our secrets and ate our lunches.

I am from the jungle, where trees spied on us and birds laughed with us.

I am from my father, where emotions fly and pride stands still.

I am from my mother, where wisdom has eyes and a heart has ears.

I am from my brother, where mistakes are stubborn and a song is always giving.

I am from my sister, where blame never points a finger and kindness always lends a hand.


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Buddy the Elf, TCK

     It’s the most wonderful time of the year, which generally includes a mandatory viewing of the movie Elf. If you also have the pleasure of knowing Deanne Boesel, you may have had the opportunity of viewing it not only once, but twice every year; once during Christmas, once over the summer at the PEP program. Why would you watch Elf in June? You might ask. That would be because you are learning about the lives of TCKs, and Buddy the Elf happens to be a TCK.

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     Let’s start out by saying that Buddy is also adopted. This brings a lot of interesting details and insights to the story, but since we are not experts on adoption, we will leave that blog post to more qualified set of writers. 

     What makes Buddy a TCK? Buddy spent all of his developmental years in the North Pole, which is neither his culture (he’s a human and not really an elf) nor his parents’ (who are humans, raised by humans). Buddy grows up looking like a foreigner and thinking like a native. This explains his clothes, his way of speaking, his general outlook on life, and his sugar intake. Let's take a look at the challenges Buddy faces as a TCK, and whether he has any advantages, as well.

     First, Buddy experiences major delayed adolescence. We know because he has culture shock like a child, rather than an adult. Adults notice things that are strange, or they feel awkward doing something from another culture. Kids might just do things because they feel normal or like they're OK to do. Buddy eats gum off the sidewalk, plays in the revolving door until he throws up, builds a rocking chair out of the TV stand, and pours syrup on his spaghetti without a thought as to whether these may or may not be appropriate. 

     Buddy also faces unresolved grief, which can happen to TCKs when they lose something or someone and never get the chance to address that sadness. This is why Buddy runs away when he realizes that his dad doesn’t want him. He lost his former home, Papa Elf, Santa Claus, and now his new family, also. These goodbyes result from making major moves and saying difficult goodbyes. 

     Buddy has confused allegiances. When he runs away, he doesn’t go anywhere specific. He knows he doesn’t belong in the North Pole, because he doesn’t look or feel just like an elf. He also doesn’t feel like he belongs in New York, because people have said hurtful things that point out his differences. He’s not sure where he fits in, and he doesn’t know where to go. 

     Does Buddy’s TCK-ness ever benefit him? Yes! TCKs tend to be good at adapting and have a broad worldview. This is why Buddy is able to help Jovie raise Christmas spirit in New York so that Santa makes it through the night delivering his presents. He tells her that “the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.” This is a piece of elf culture that he spreads to New York, which ultimately saves Christmas. 

     This year, remember that being a TCK can be hard, but good things can come out if it, as well. Happy Holidays, everyone! 

     Families, if you want a Christmas/TCK-themed discussion this weekend, you can try some of these questions to get you and your kids sharing your experiences with one another.

1. What is a problem that you have helped someone else solve?

2. What is a time that you felt different than everyone around you?

3. What is your favorite way to spread Christmas cheer?

4. In what ways do you feel the same as Buddy? In what ways do you feel different? 

5. What has someone done or said to make you feel like you belong?