Up until recently, I hadn’t been aware of the concept of a third culture.
Those who fall into this category are individuals who are (or were as children) raised in a culture other than their parents’ primary formative culture, or the culture of their country of nationality, and live in such an environment during a significant part of their early development years.
As a family, we were shaped by western culture, but then 12 years ago my wife and I, and then 6 kids moved to a completely foreign culture in Ukraine. We brought over our western culture, but slowly learned to adapt within our surroundings. Our kids adapted much more easily, taking on the host culture inwardly, the sense of being, relatedness socially, and the many other cultural values reflected through verbal and non verbal means.
To a westerner that’s never traveled for more than a few weeks outside their primary culture, it’s impossible for you to truly understand the nature, power, and distinct elements of culture. Quickly visiting another culture doesn’t allow for the shaping process to begin – for short term travelers you get a little taste of the outward difference (economic, quality of life, language), and might think that’s all there is. You can read about it, appreciate it, but the inculturation process is a deeply shaping and challenging experience.
Moving to a new culture is like a giant mirror, reflecting your peculiar primary shape.
Our older kids are now back in the US at college and getting their feet under them. They have each been experiencing various degrees of culture shock as they look the part outwardly, but do not feel inwardly that they fit it. To this extent, their brief time in the US has revealed their inward culture (sets of values, reflected norms, perspective of all that is meaningful) reflects more their parents mixture of Ukrainian + Canadian + American + Jesus culture.
Sorry guys. But there’s some good news!
In writing about third culture children, Soong-Chan Rah in his book The Next Evangelicalism writes, “When they return to the States they experience a sense of anomie (lack of social & ethical norms) based on their ongoing crosscultural experience. They may look like they belong (i.e. white faces) but culturally they are still connected to the world they left behind” (185). Professor Soong-Chang goes on to suggest that because our world has been changing so rapidly over the past 50 year with immigration, every culture is now within every culture, and mixed cultures producing an ever increasing “cosmic race”, the sense of being displaced is also increasingly common.
“Third culture kids are raised in a neither/nor world. It is neither their parents’ culture (or cultures) nor fully the world of the other cultures in which they were raised.” This provides many challenges for the TCK, but Soong-Chan highlights some very cool benefits.
Leadership as the capacity to engage, understand, listen and influence, is all the more essential to respect this reality among the millions of transplanted cultures.
“TCK creates a dual identity that can strengthen their crosscultural skills.” In other words, in our multicultural world, being inwardly capable of straddling different cultures is an invaluable asset to build bridges, help the captive homogeneous white American see the very different world emerging around us and meaningfully engage with those from different perspectives with greater sensitivity.
Soon-Chan calls this capacity to move in and around cultures more easily, “liminal’ leadership, the ‘place of in-betweenness’. “It is at once the world of isolation and intimacy, desolation and creativity.. reflecting in the soul the discords and harmonies, repulsions and attractions.” My kids know what this means.
Being a third culture kid is a blessing and a curse. It’s to never really fit in, but it’s to come alongside a shifting, transitioning world and have the capacity to shine more brightly than those assuming there is only one superior culture and worldview.
The Gospel in the church’s infancy quickly moved from the cultural captivity of Jewish history by necessity and providence. It has been mired in western cultural captivity for a very long time. It is breaking free and the world is changing rapidly. I’m excited to see how the Spirit will guide our children as they enter a mobile, inter-cultural world and learn to form and live into Jesus primary kingdom culture, in whatever secondary culture they find themselves in.
Western culture is losing its primacy, and will need intelligent, humble souls to mediate the transitions of power. Evangelical Christianity of the west is losing steam and numbers, especially among the white population. “American evangelicalism has more accurately reflected the values, culture, and ethos of Western, white American than the values of Scripture.” We are not consumers, we are differentiated individuals but should flee the isolated trappings of individualism which in no way reflect the eternal communing Godhead from which we are made!
The world will need more Martin Luthers; those who assert the current state of things hold little resemblance of the community of God in scripture. Christianity is not in decline globally, only among the western cultural power which controls the narrative and supposed perspective on things.
My prayer is that God will raise up more multi-cultural voices in the body of Christ that represent not only those in power, but those oppressed, all nations, all tribes, all cultures reflected in a new glorious anthem of Jesus as the Constantinian captivity of Christianity gives birth to new servant leaders who divest from cultural superiority. Third culture kids can champion this.