If you count global workers, missionaries, military members, or any other cross-cultural situations among your family or friends, you’re probably already familiar with the term “TCK.” If not, Merriam-Webster defines Third Culture Kid as “a child who grows up in a culture different from the one in which his or her parents grew up.”
While TCK issues have interested me ever since I came to Peru in 1998 to teach the Wycliffe MKs (missionary kids) whose parents were involved in Bible translation, I’m not planning to use this post to share a lot of information about TCKs. (But I will share a few of my favorite pictures!) However, for those of you who are interested in learning a bit more, I’ll list a few good websites at the end of this post where you can begin your research.
The kids in the pictures above are my "original" favorite TCKs - the reasons why I came to Peru in 1998... I taught these kids so their parents could work on Bible translations.
The point of this post is… even though our sons are MKs, I thought that they would somehow manage to avoid falling into the TCK category. After all, they were both Peruvian before they gained their U.S. citizenship. They look like everyone else around here. They’re growing up in the same city where their Papi has lived all of his life. In fact, one of our boys was born in the very same hospital where Ade was born, which is quite a feat, since Ade and his youngest brother are the only two out of nine siblings who were actually born in the hospital.
So I assumed that Danny and Luis would somehow miss out on the angst that being a TCK often causes.
But they haven’t. Not here in Peru, and not when we spend time in Ohio, either.
I suppose it’s mostly my fault that they’re Third Culture Kids here in the land of their birth. I’ve made a point of speaking to them only in English from the time that they each joined our family. I also pulled them out of Peruvian school in kindergarten and 2nd grade and began teaching them at home… for a lot of different reasons that I might touch on in another post. But it’s fair to say that they’ve basically had a U.S. style education ever since.
I assumed that homeschooling in English and having an American mom would allow our kids to avoid being TCKs in the United States, but it hasn’t quite worked out that way there, either. For starters, they DO look quite a bit different than everyone else in my family, as one cousin pointed out when he and Danny were three years old and taking a bath together. “Hmmm… he’s a little bit darker than we are.”
Skin color has never been a problem for our kids in the U.S., however, but I do have to say that it’s next to impossible to find a barber in small-town Ohio who can do the amazing Latino haircuts that our boys loved when they were a bit younger! (Now when we’re on furloughs, Ade either cuts their hair himself or takes them to Columbus to a Mexican barber.)
Our boys speak English almost as perfectly as if it were their first language, but whenever we spend a bit of time in the U.S. I notice the jokes that they don’t understand, the conversations that are above their heads. Some things you simply don’t learn if your mom is your main source for learning English. They struggle with the same thing in Spanish here in Peru, too, even though they speak Spanish almost as perfectly as if it were their first language.
All of this became painfully obvious to me in August when I signed the boys up for a public speaking class. Peruvian kids were on their mid-year school break and my boys were at the very end of their summer vacation when I discovered the month-long “oratoria” class for teens that was being offered at the Centro Cultural downtown. I thought this would be the perfect solution to fill up the final two weeks of vacation… those incredibly uncomfortable final days of summer when homeschooling moms aren’t ready to start classes yet, but the kids are restless and desperately needing more structure in their lives. (And let’s be honest… when they’re also driving their moms crazy!)
Even though I enlisted Ade to tell the boys they would be taking the speech class they figured out I was behind it, and somehow I was even blamed for the fact that they think they don’t speak Spanish that well. I told them to go ahead and tell their classmates that their mom is a “gringa” and that we speak English at home; it seemed like a perfect explanation for why they might not be quite as quick on their feet in Spanish. The prospect of having the other students know this little tidbit about their mom, however, incited more fear in Danny and Luis that the fear of public speaking in Spanish.
I realized that they did not want to be seen as different from the other kids…
…they ARE different.
Thus is the life of the TCK.
But at just the right time, our good God stepped into this moment of TCK angst with unusual encouragement from a well-known Old Testament character.
It was on a Thursday morning, the school day I had chosen to be our weekly “Spanish Day,” when we would do as many of our classes as possible in Spanish with the goal of helping the boys sharpen their skills and also earn a high school foreign language credit. Our daily Bible reading had brought us to Exodus 4, and we opened our Spanish Bibles to read the story of God appointing Moses to return to Egypt.
I’ve heard this piece of biblical history countless times since I was a child, and I remember asking my Sunday School teachers what this verse meant:
Moses said to the Lord, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” (Ex. 4:10)
As I recall, their answers were always that Moses stuttered or had some sort of speech difficulty. Those answers made complete sense to my (very American) 5 year old, monolingual English mind.
But as the boys and I read those words in Spanish, a new idea formed in my 51 year old bilingual (and now American-Peruvian) mind. Maybe Moses’ fear was not that he would stutter in front of Pharoah. Maybe he was nervous about “assembling the elders of Israel” (Ex. 3:16) and telling them that their God had appeared in a burning bush and had spoken to him, a man who shared their blood, but who wasn’t really one of them. Their language had perhaps been his first language, but he would have only spoken toddler words when he was taken away to live in Pharoah’s home, learning a foreign language, growing up in a very different culture.
So maybe Moses was afraid that his limited knowledge of Hebrew language and culture would make him seem “slow of speech and tongue” when he met with the elders of Israel.
Or maybe Moses felt like he would be an imposter appearing with his Hebrew brothers before Pharaoh… perhaps in the very palace where he had played as a child. He was raised as an Egyptian, but now he would walk back into that palace as a Hebrew, speaking their language, albeit a bit imperfectly. Would Pharoah laugh at him? Would the Hebrew elders be embarrassed of him?
Was Moses afraid because he felt like he was being pulled between two very different cultures, knowing that he didn’t completely fit into either one of them?
Was Moses the very first Third Culture Kid?
I see a lot of similarities between our boys and Moses as I read this passage. He’s obviously living between two cultures and languages, just like our sons, and he’s nervous about speaking in front of crowds. I like the fact that God tells Moses that he can take his brother Aaron with him when he visits Pharoah … there’s strength in the bond of brothers, and I’m glad my boys have that. But I LOVE the fact that even before God tells Moses to take Aaron along, he promises Moses that “I will help you speak and teach you what to say.” (Ex. 4:11)
There’s POWER in that promise, and I’m glad that my boys have that, too!
Now here’s the truth about this passage in Exodus…
I really don’t know why Moses was afraid to go back to Egypt, assemble the Hebrew elders and go speak in front of Pharoah. I don’t know if he had a physical speech disorder or if it was something psychological. I don’t know if Moses could legitimately be classified as “the original Third Culture Kid.”
But I do know that God ordered our daily Bible reading so that we would come to this story of Moses and his fear of speaking on the very same day when the boys were both discouraged about not speaking Spanish quite as well as the other kids in their speech class. And I know that God allowed us to reach this chapter on our very first “Spanish Day” so that the boys would read the story out loud in Spanish, realizing that they really are doing OK as bilingual TCKs in the country of their birth.
Moses said to the Lord, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” The Lord said to him, “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.” Exodus 4: 10-12
Here are a few good TCK resources, along with a link to a very interesting paper I discovered that could support the possibility of Moses being a TCK:
Blogs for TCKs & their parents – Marilyn R. Gardner
Taking Better Care of Teen TCKs – Mission Resource Network
Moses’s Slow Speech: Hybrid Identity, Language Acquisition, and the Meaning of Exodus 4:10 – Dr. Kristine Henriksen Garroway, Hebrew Union College