Raising Third-Culture Kids, Part 1

Our family in our traditional embroidered Ukrainian blouses

This post first appeared on Assist News Service in March 2016.

Ukrainian borsch and pampushky

My husband, four sons, and I live in Ukraine. We are all American citizens, but three of our children were born here in Ukraine, and this country is the only home any of them has ever known. Their favorite foods include local dishes like borsch with pampushky (beet stew with garlic rolls), varenyky (boiled dumplings with a variety of sweet or savory fillings), and holubtsi (stuffed cabbage rolls). Each of us has a hand-embroidered traditional Ukrainian blouse that we wear for special occasions, and the last time I gave him a haircut, my eldest asked me to cut his hair in the style of a kozak, the historical defenders of the Ukrainian homeland. Although we do own a vehicle in a country where many people do not, our kids are equally comfortable taking public transport, and our 9-year-old even rides the bus and subway by himself.

Our three oldest boys are attending Ukrainian public school and kindergarten, and each has a level of fluency in the Ukrainian language based on how many years he has been in the system. We speak English in the home, but our sentences are often sprinkled with Ukrainian words and phrases, especially academic ones, because our kids are not comfortable with school-related vocabulary in English. I try to make sure to teach them the English counterparts, but they continue to use the Ukrainian because it feels more natural to them. I also find myself constantly correcting awkward English grammatical constructions that I realize they’ve created by translating word-for-word from Ukrainian.

They are learning to read and write in both languages, thanks to the advanced English program at their school, and the other day they were amusing each other by pronouncing English words with heavy Ukrainian accents. They were doing it by first transliterating the English word into the Cyrillic alphabet in their heads and then “reading” it according to Ukrainian phonetic rules. From their hysterical belly laughing, you would have thought they were watching the season highlights from America’s Funniest Home Videos, except they’ve never even heard of that show.

Someday we hope to have our kids experience a 4th of July in the United States (Photo: Infrogmation of New Orleans)

Our family culture is an interesting blend of East and West. We celebrate the major American holidays, but I don’t think any of our kids even know about Labor Day or St. Patrick’s Day, and since we haven’t been in the U.S. during the summer months for many years, they have yet to experience a real 4th of July celebration. On the other hand, they know all about International Women’s Day and St. Nicholas Day, and they expect to have two Christmases each winter, one on the Western date, which we call “American Christmas,” and another on the Eastern date, which we call “Ukrainian Christmas.” The boys know about basketball and American football and even stayed up late to watch part of the Super Bowl with us live last season, but they are far more likely to organize a game of “real” football (a.k.a. soccer) when playing outside. They know to stand at attention and place their right hands over their hearts when the Ukrainian national anthem is played, but occasionally they also ask me to give an impromptu performance of The Star-Spangled Banner.

Children who grow up in a culture different than that of their parents’ culture are called third-culture kids. Missionary kids and the children of military families, foreign diplomats, and international businesspeople are prime examples. The idea is that the culture they internalize is a blend of both their parents’ home culture and the culture of the country where they live. This results in a “third culture” that is unique but shares many commonalities with the third cultures of other people who grew up under similar circumstances. These people have an interesting perspective on the world that is the product of not really fitting in anywhere. They are true global citizens.

People have written humorous lists under the heading of, “You know you’re a missionary kid when . . .” I was recently reading one and found that many of the points already applied to my children, even though they are still relatively young.

“You know you’re a missionary kid when:

• You flew before you could walk.

• You speak with authority on the quality of airline travel.

• ‘Where are you from?’ has more than one reasonable answer.

The kind of visa a third-culture kid would recognize (Photo: Mark Hillary)

• You think VISA is a document stamped in your passport, and not a plastic card you carry in your wallet.

• You speak two languages, but can’t spell in either.

• The best word for something is the word you learned first, regardless of the language.

• You still use those words, even if you know what they are in English.

• There are times when only your family knows what you’re saying.”

Lists like this put a humorous spin on the experience of third-culture kids, but sometimes that reality is anything but funny. Third-culture kids often feel estranged, because no one can really relate to them, except for other third-culture kids. This estrangement is compounded when the missionary lifestyle involves frequent moves, causing repeated separation from friends and the need to form new friendships in a different location. While they are young, missionary kids may have trouble seeing the many advantages to their unusual upbringing, becoming depressed, withdrawn, and even bitter because of their frequent losses and the perceived unfairness of their life. The fact that their parents can’t really understand what they are going through only adds to the problem. However, once they reach adulthood, former missionary kids often express gratitude that their parents were willing to take the risk of raising them overseas, involving them in something much larger than themselves and enriching their lives in countless ways.

Our kids recently went through their first major move, and we’re now facing some of these challenges. Our 7-year-old is especially sad and frequently talks about what we left behind in our last city and how it was better than where we live now. And sometimes when he talks about his two cousins whom we had to leave, he cries. I’ve been trying to help him see the positives and to model gratitude for all the wonderful things God has given us in our new home, but I’m realizing that I also need simply to let him grieve and know that grief is okay. And fear of encouraging a mindset of self-pity should not keep me from grieving beside him to let him know he’s not alone.

When it comes to understanding our third-culture kids, my husband and I have a huge advantage. My husband is a missionary kid himself, having moved to Ukraine with his parents as a teenager. He has now spent over half his life here and feels neither fully American nor fully Ukrainian. And while my first taste of the mission field was when I moved overseas to join him after we married, I had an unusual childhood that resulted in my experiencing many of the same challenges of identity and fitting in that third-culture kids face.

My parents and I were born in Hawaii, but we moved to Southern California when I was young, and I grew up between those two extremely different worlds, attending school in California but returning to Hawaii to live with my grandparents most summers. I never could relate to my peers in Southern California, but when I returned “home” to Hawaii, I wasn’t perceived as a local; I was a visitor from the Mainland. As I neared adulthood, I wondered how I would ever find someone to marry, because I had never met anyone whom I felt truly understood me—I didn’t even know where home was! I had never heard the expression “third-culture kid,” but when I met my husband, I felt an immediate and deep connection that I later understood was at least partly the result of this shared cultural ambiguity.

My mother-in-law was a missionary kid also, and I wonder how much her ability to relate to her children’s third-culture struggles contributed to the success she and her late husband had raising nine children on the mission field. While there were major challenges, the fruits of that family adventure have been long-lasting and far-reaching. Today six of their children are missionaries themselves, serving in four different countries, and two more are currently preparing to transition to the mission field. The youngest is still living with her mother, who is a missionary in a fifth country.

I often reflect on my father- and mother-in-law’s bold decision to raise a large family overseas for God’s glory, and I am inspired. My husband and I are expecting our fifth child right now, and I sometimes I question whether it is wise or responsible to have so many kids when our life as missionaries is so uncertain. But then I remember the heritage and example we have from my husband’s parents and his grandparents. The latter raised four kids in Africa, all of whom went into full-time ministry, three of them serving overseas. As I reflect on their stories, I am reassured that God has amazing plans for this new generation of third-culture kids.

(Read Part 2 here.)

If you’re interested in learning more about how God has used the Markey family in Ukraine and beyond, read Distant Fields, the biography of my late father-in-law.

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