Need a new search?

If you didn't find what you were looking for, try a new search!

Painting Pictures: Wrapping Up the Third Culture Kid Series

By |January 14th, 2014|Categories: Third Culture Kids|Tags: , |

painting picturesEvery Tuesday since June Djibouti Jones has hosted a post and discussion on Third Culture Kids.

I had a few goals with the series. First, I hoped to hear from a wide variety of TCK experiences – adult TCKs, younger TCKs, people married to or raising TCKs. I hoped to hear from people who are TCKs for a variety of reasons – faith, business, military, education. And from people who were living a TCK experience in all parts of the world (we heard from people in Asia, Africa, South America, Europe, and North America). And, I hoped to promote community, to stir up conversations, to learn, to be encouraged, to be a blessing.

I think this happened.

Brave, honest, inspiring words moved me to tears and laughter. I learned some things about parenting Third Culture Kids, had the opportunity to express my own fears and questions and ideas. I met amazing people and felt both challenged and uplifted, surrounded by a community of people who understand this life either through personal experience or through an empathetic spirit.

third culture kid

I plan to continue writing about Third Culture Kids and our expatriate experience, I don’t think I could stop. And I’m also willing to continue hosting blog posts about Third Culture Kids, just drop me an email in the future if you’re looking for a place to share your voice and experience.

I am grateful to everyone who contributed. I feel like these pages bear your hearts. I won’t mention all the writers here but please visit the Painting Pictures page under the Quick Links tab to find their excellent pieces.

Thanks to everyone who stopped by during this series and to everyone who wrote, every aspect of it exceeded my expectations.

Third Culture Kids. I’m not one. I’m raising three and I love many.

Painting Pictures: The Third Culture Kid’s Struggle to Fit In

By |December 11th, 2013|Categories: Third Culture Kids|Tags: , , |

painting picturesToday’s Painting Pictures post is by Paige Porter-Livesay, a TCK who is still (barely) a kid. How fitting that the first guest post in this series (Who Are Third Culture Kids) was by Ruth Van Reken, co-author of the book Third Culture Kids and that the last guest post expresses the words of a TCK. I am so grateful for Paige’s willingness to contribute and for her honesty and courage in writing, her words and bravery brought me to tears. At 19, Paige is able to articulate things that I suspect my own children are grappling with but are, as yet, unable to fully express. I feel something tender and sacred in her words.


Growing up in Haiti, we had a countless number of visitors in and out of our house, ministry, school, and really, in our lives as a whole. I wish I knew how many people I’ve met in my life, I bet it beats the average 19 year old by a lot.

Some people left more of an impact than others. At times I didn’t even take the time to remember their names, others I thought I would be close with forever. Both extremes were wrong of me. There were many goodbyes. I didn’t realize it until this summer when I left the country that I grew up in to start college, how much those goodbyes affected me.

Meeting all these people growing up, I bet you might guess I have no problem making friends.

As I have been adjusting to life in the states I have realized how hard it is to “fit in” and stay true to myself. Making friends has been difficult, to say the least.

In some situations it can be easy making friends. Growing up as a missionary-kid, being a chameleon is a skill most MKs possess. Living outside of the USA, many different types of people come and go throughout an MKs life. Meeting people on your own turf, on the “mission field” is much easier.


We, as MKs, have needed to find our place in countless situations, and circumstances. Whether that is in a school where we were the only non-natives, or at a church where our parents were speaking. I generally found that it was easy to find some sort of place for myself during those moments. People knew a little bit about us and I didn’t have the work of explaining who I was.

Since moving back to my passport country, I have found it to be so difficult to fit in and make friends. I’m not quite sure how to stay true to myself while making new friends.

Now that I am going to an average community college, with other average people like me, it’s significantly harder to fit in (the way that MK’s fit in-which isn’t really fitting in at all.) When I enter a classroom no one knows that I’m different than him or her. (I don’t mean that in a snobby way.)  Nobody knows that I grew up in a insanely poor county, and this isn’t really home to me.  I look like I belong here, after all.

It’s harder to make friends than I ever expected it to be. In fact, I haven’t yet found a way to make a real, genuine American friend.

I’ve found that I have two choices. One: Be honest about who I am, and that this country is not my home. I would need to explain to them that I don’t quite know how to do life here just yet and that I don’t really enjoy life yet either. I would want to explain that poverty is something that isn’t a shock to me and that not everyone can even begin to imagine walking into a community college class. I would need to explain that rape and abandonment are tragedies I know well.

Or Two: To simply go along with what my fellow American “friends” are talking about, and pretend like I know what they’re talking about. I would need to play along like music and football are important to me too. I would need to pretend I care about the things they care about and stay quiet when ignorant or hurtful things are said about the poor about the minority or about the hurting. I would not be free to explain my heart and the things I’ve learned to love because of my beloved third-world country that raised me. The thing is, it feels to me like nobody understands or cares to know the real you when the real you isn’t the norm. They are afraid to try and don’t know how to talk about the odd life you have had so instead they choose not to talk at all.

TRL_0485I realize how downer this sounds; I’m not denying that. Although, as a fresh college student who just entered back into the US, I’m not yet at a place where I can be super extremely positive about this new phase of life. I know I’ll get there, through the prayers and help of others, and each time that I give the struggle of this transition over to God. I do believe I’ll make other friends that will understand my heart, but right now, I’m not yet there.

 Thank you Paige, it is an honor I do not take lightly, that you have entrusted your heart to Djibouti Jones.

Paige is the daughter of Troy and Tara Livesay who blog at Livesay Haiti.

*image credit

Painting Pictures: Third Culture Kids and Re-Entry Questions

By |December 3rd, 2013|Categories: Expat Thoughts, Third Culture Kids|Tags: , , |

painting pictures

This week two of my three Third Culture Kids re-entered the United States. My third TCK is coming in a few days. This isn’t long-term re-entry so maybe a more appropriate term would be re-visiting? I don’t know what to call it but I do know there are emotions involved. Not the same emotions as are part of an actual move back to the passport country, but still.

Here are a few of the things we have already discussed, in the three short days since arriving.

1. Who do I want to see during this quick trip back?

2. Who will be able and willing to understand my current life experiences?

3. How will I handle the cold?

4. I’m nervous about calling so-and-so. Is it worth the risk?

5. How much snow needs to fall before you can build a snowman?

6. It is stressful to learn how to navigate a new city.

7. What if I don’t remember someone’s name?

8. What will I wear?

9. I’m just so tired.

My older kids have been through major transitions since last being in the US. They became teenagers. They started boarding school. The family moved to a new house. Some of their closest Djiboutian friends moved to Europe.

Their friends in the US have gone through major transitions as well.

All of this means that my kids have changed, their friends in Minnesota have changed. Who will I be able to relate to, who will be able to enter into my story of boarding school, who will graciously handle my cultural ignorance so that I can be vulnerable, myself, comfortable with them? These seemed to be some of the underlying questions, along with their inverses.

Here are a few things I already noticed that help ease the transition.

djiboutians in minnesota

1. Grandparents who greeted us at the airport with signs, flowers, candy, and winter coats. As well as a few stylish, current outfits for the kids. This helped the kids feel physically warm but even more importantly, loved and welcomed.

2. Friends at church who initiated conversations, offered hugs, asked questions, and even opened conversations with their names. “So good to see you, I’m Susan.” Of course we remembered these friends but in the culture shocked and jet lagged fog, names were a blur and the offering of a name was a quick, easy gesture that stripped away so much of our worry.

3. Board games and a movie, slippers and thick blankets, the same beds the kids slept in a couple of years ago. Familiarity and low pressure.

4. Old school friends who jumped right into life, made clear effort and sacrifice to come to where my kids were, who squealed with delight on the phone and erased that nervous: is it worth the risk to call?

5. People who not only asked about boarding school, but knew this particular one. Had been there, had worked there, could ask about specific people and places. This erased the question: will anyone understand me?

6. Long conversations between the kids and I about friendships, life changes, transitions. This helped me know where they are at, how they are responding, and allowed me to share my own experiences, to show that they aren’t going through the transition alone.

eating snow

Of course not every conversation will be as smooth and of course not every friendship will be renewed, but these gestures are like balm to an anxious heart.

What are some questions your TCKs face as they re-enter? Any tips on how people in that home country can help smooth the transition?

Here are two other resources on re-entry:

Seven Stages of Re-Entry Grief

9 Ways to Help Your Children Re-Enter America

Painting Pictures: The Third Way

By |November 26th, 2013|Categories: Third Culture Kids|Tags: , , , |

risingToday’s Painting Pictures post is by Idelette McVicker. One year ago this month I wrote a post for SheLoves Magazine and then I received an email inviting me to join a community of stunning writers I knew almost nothing about. But when Idelette writes and invites you to something, you say yes because she is inviting you to joy and community and deep waters. My writing and thinking have been challenged, strengthened, and grown less isolating since that email exchange and all I can think of is ‘gift.’ SheLoves and Idelette have been gifts. I am thankful and honored to host her words, always brave and strong, here.


Glimpses of a Third Way

I have a favorite laundry detergent on three different continents.

Growing up in South Africa, my mom used Skip. She stood in the laundry room and mended and ironed and listened to SABC radio on both warm and winter evenings. I learned to buy Tide in Taiwan from the Wellcome supermarket (with two l’s) and now I shop for earth-friendly Ecos at the Costco on King George Highway.

When I lived in Taipei, I stocked up on my favorite toothpaste (Mentadent P), my favorite roll-on and Freshpak rooibos tea whenever I visited Cape Town.

I’ve had bank accounts in Africa, Asia and N. America.

I learned to eat pancakes for breakfast at Jake’s Country Kitchen on Chung Shan North Rd. in Taipei and learned there. in that city to shop for tealights at Ikea. It’s where I had my first American Thanksgiving, celebrated Diwali and spent Christmas eating vegetarian food with Ananda Marga monks, while on assignment.

I’ve celebrated the national days of Turkey, Jordan, Honduras, Guatemala, Indonesia, Thailand, South Africa, Haiti and more at elaborate banquets, while my scooter was parked on the sidewalk outside the hotel.

I wore Chinese silk for my wedding dress, created by a kind tailor in Taipei, on a freezing November day in Vancouver.

When I first learned about Third Culture Kids, so much of it resonated. This concept—of somehow being part of a third and unique culture outside of the dominant culture we live in–helped give me understanding for my way of seeing the world. I may not have grown up in a third culture, but I’ve spent half my life finding my way on the other side of getting off that plane at Chiang Kai-shek International Airport in 1995.

I can never go back. Nor do I want to.

I am a Third Culture Adult, an immigrant, a global citizen, an outsider.

Now, not only am I a proponent of a global way of embracing the world, I also think those of us who have done so, get to see glimpses of a Third Way.

This Third Way—a Way where power shifts to the margins and becomes Love and understanding—come to us through different experiences, I believe. Mine just happened to come by walking through the door of a global life.

I also believe it can come through experiences like deep pain, or loss, or struggle or grief.

Scott, my hubby, lost his mother as a young teenager. She’d filled his life—had been the wind beneath his wings—and when he lost her, he wandered out to the wilderness to grieve and mourn and find himself in a different way towards the future.

His life was broken open by this grief and loss and he tasted this other way, so when I came from worlds away, we could meet each other here.

That’s why, even though he’s lived all his life in a 50-kilometer radius, our home is a home for many. This is why our door is open, to let the sunshine in, the sounds of neighbourhood and friends and virtual strangers from around the world.

Maybe this is why the Sermon on the Mount calls us blessed when we are mourning; blessed when we are humble.

Blessed when we eat last; blessed when we understand our shortcomings.

We come to this Third Way by being broken open and it becomes blessing.

We come to this Third Way whenever our story shifts and we suddenly find it doesn’t quite run according to our expectations.

This Third Way comes when we find ourselves on the outside of the dominant story.

Becoming an immigrant broke me open for this other Way. It splattered me and poured me out, so my old container no longer worked.

Here on the outskirts, pioneering a new life in Canada, no previous degree or family line or achievement or friend could speak on my behalf.

I learned that our essence, without the trimmings and the branches and the shade or even the fruit our lives may offer, is enough.

Once we are broken open like this, we inevitably spread out and set up camp outside of the center. This is where we find our hearts open and exposed, our lives vulnerable without the re-enforcements of the city wall.

We learn that we need each other, like daily bread and a little wine.

This Third Way is not hierarchical.

It’s a movement outside of the center.

Often it’s finding each other through conversation and food.

Memories of bi bim bap are mixed in with memories of a family braai on a Sunday afternoon.

Sharing stories over a steamy bowl of noodles or while sipping a Fanta under a thatched roof in Burundi, unite us.

We, the mish-mashed participants in a Third Way, know that we can’t survive without connection.

We know that, essentially, we are the same. And it’s not strange when the woman in the Costco aisle, both of us leaning over our carts, tells me my Gabrielle has a twin walking about in Afghanistan.

We see this essence in each other.

Our world only makes sense because of the people.

I tried so hard to find my place in this world. I yearned so long and hard for home and then one day, I realized there had to be a different way. That’s when I stopped looking for home and became home.

I stopped looking for Peace to appear from outside of myself and I am owning—slowly and humbly—my part in making Peace. I have a part in picking up the pieces and mending the broken pieces and finding the missing pieces. We are all part of shaping this different world.

I’ve come to understand that how my daughters treat each other—how they become peacemakers in their little messy room with the bunkbed and the Ikea rug in the suburbs—is important work of Peace. I’ve begun to get a glimpse that how they are with each other, is also how they learn to be with the world.

I don’t always get it right. (Just ask my girls!) But I want to do it better.

I imagine that if we could all meet the girls in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or in Moldova, we’d hate for anything bad to happen to them. When we shift to friendship and a closeness—when the world is no longer big, but small—then standing up for justice, is no longer something we should do, but something we want to do, because these are our friends, our sisters, our daughters.

When these stories of bombs and fear and poverty are no longer far away, but when they become close, because of the people we’ve connected with or the experiences we’ve lived, how can we not believe in a different Way?

We’ve tasted and we’ve seen.

idelette mcvickerI love cinnamon buns, vanilla Rooibos tea and sweet chai. I drink my lattes plain, but most days I think animal print is the new black. I would like to go to every spot on the map of the earth to meet our world’s women.

I have three children and–is my fourth baby. I am African, although my skin colour doesn’t tell you that story. I am also a little bit Chinese, because my heart lives there amongst the tall skyscrapers of Taipei and the mountains of Chiufen.

I dream of a world where no women or girls are for sale. I dream of a world where women and men are partners in doing the work that brings down a new Heaven on earth.

I live in Vancouver, Canada and I pledged my heart to Scott 14 years ago. I believe in kindness and calling out the song in each other’s hearts. I also believe that Love covers–my gaps, my mistakes and the distances between us.

I blog at and tweet @idelette.

Painting Pictures: Living With The Empty Spaces

By |October 29th, 2013|Categories: Third Culture Kids|Tags: , , , |


*lots of goodies today: go read this post by Marilyn Gardner at Communicating Across Boundaries: Thoughts on Reentry from a Third Culture Kid. Good stuff. You’ll probably need to bookmark it. It is long but worth storing up for later.

*especially relevant to readers and writers of this series: check out The Worlds Within site and read their guidelines for submissions by ATCKs and TCKs for an upcoming anthology. Looks like an amazing opportunity! Deadline for submissions is March 2014.

Today’s Painting Pictures post is by Heather Caliri, another SheLoves writing friend who encourages me to say ‘yes,’ to take risks, to expose my soul on the page. I can testify that the warmth, insight, and courage in these words are a true reflection of the creative and talented woman I am coming to know. As a long-term expatriate reading the words of a 6-month perspective, I appreciate the way she is able to humbly illuminate many of my own struggles and processes.

 Living with the Empty Spaces

Before we left for a six-month sabbatical in Buenos Aires, everyone agreed on one thing.

“Kids are resilient,” everyone said. “Throw them with Argentine kids for five minutes and they’ll playing together. Your kids will be fine.”

And my kids were fine, and they are resilient. But did my kids dive into a new culture without any hesitation, just because they are kids?

Um, not so much.

Our apartment in Buenos Aires was a few blocks from two great parks, each complete with swing sets, sand to dig in, and kids of all sizes.

“No,” they’d say.

I’d bribe them with promises of riding the carousel.

But once we were there, one or the other would stare, angrily, at kids who tried to speak to them.

Sometimes one would stomp over to me. “Mama, that girl tried to speak to me in Spanish.”

I’d sigh.

They would perk up immediately if they heard anyone speaking in English, going over and chatting, making friends. And then go back to silence if the other expats left.

And after six months abroad, our grand experiment in growing semi-third-culture kids was not the success I’d hoped for.

They’d gotten used to staying up until ten, drinking sweetened yerba mate, and scrambling aboard fast-moving buses. But they learned approximately four Spanish words, and have no desire to learn more.

I wanted immersion, and instead we’d dipped in our toes.

bs as playground

Looking back on the experience, I think all my sunny overconfidence came down to this: I forgot that deeply entering into another culture requires facing a loss of the same magnitude. You must strip away old cultural assumptions. You must experience alienation from friends and family back home. You must live for a while with the empty space that’s left.

And you must wait, aching, for that emptiness to be filled with new things.

I lived in Buenos Aires for a year in college, and in that short time, I felt loss and experienced filling. I know, at least a little, what a blessing it is.

And how extraordinarily hard it is before you start getting filled.

I am not sorry to have gone through the grief, alienation, and pain that brought me to a place of connection and love.

But I found it hard to ask my children to do the same.

I homeschooled them instead of enrolling them in local schools. I didn’t force them to go to the park when they didn’t want to. I found them friends that understood some English. I found English-language TV for their downtime. I created a little haven of the US in our apartment. I did all this even knowing the prize that waited on the other end. I hesitated to require them to experience the loss.

I still wonder if I did the right thing.

We chose to go for a short period of time; I wasn’t sure if we’d reach the richness in only six months, no matter how deeply we immersed ourselves. And coming to a new country embedded in your family means you’re shielded more from grief and sadness, isolation and frustration. Perhaps no matter what I required of my kids, six months wouldn’t have left them anywhere closer to immersion.

And yet–

I returned home with a sense of loss myself. Because honestly, our family may not attempt to live abroad together again. And I wish, very much, that my kids could have experienced the loss and the gain, all mixed up together.

I’m realizing that as hard as it is experience pain myself, it is harder to watch someone else go through it. It is hard to allow the grieving and bewilderment that comes when bedrocks of your kids’ identity—culture, language, place—are shaken.

It required a resolve and strength of character that I wasn’t prepared for.

Knowing that, and being surrounded by my home culture again, I am trying to cultivate that resolve on a smaller scale. I’m trying to look into any of the doors to other cultures open to us here, and continue trying to usher my kids through them, even if it’s not always comfortable.

To have friends that don’t share our faith, so that phrases like, “The one true God,” have to be taken out and examined.

To attend events not in our native tongue, so that we know what it is to sing a song where the very cadence of syllables feels exhilarating and strange.

To model creating relationships across cultures, even if my kids complain that they feel left out when I speak Spanish.

I’m seeing that encountering other cultures as a family still requires us all to be shaken, resolute, and awake, in the way of any spiritual practice. It requires awareness. It takes time. And no matter how rewarding and right it is, it doesn’t come naturally.

h bio picHeather Caliri is a writer and mom from San Diego. Two years ago, she started saying little yeses to faith, art and life. The results were life-changing. Get her free e-book, Dancing Back to Jesus: Post-pefectionist Faith in Five Easy Verbs ( on her blog, A Little Yes (

Painting Pictures: Trauma and the Third Culture Kid Experience

By |October 22nd, 2013|Categories: Third Culture Kids|Tags: , , |

risingToday’s Painting Pictures post is by Sezin Koehler and it is one of the bravest things I have read on-line in a long while. I am, through tears, grateful for her willingness to share her story, her journey, her steps toward healing. And I’m in awe of how beautifully she finds hope. It is so important to address issues of trauma and to look at how the unique experiences of third culture kids affect their responses and their healing. Murders and bombs and terror attacks in shopping malls remind me of how crucial Sezin’s courageous words are.

Under the Surface

Just six days from today marks the 13-year memorial of a night that drew a big, bloody line down the middle of my life: witnessing my dear friend Wendy’s murder in a random and senseless act of gun violence on October 28, 2000. We were celebrating Halloween weekend when we were held up at gunpoint and the woman shot Wendy before giving us time to hand over our wallets. It was a night the sky opened up and I had a glimpse into hell. And worse, my soul sister, a fabulous creative force in the universe, was gone from this plane.

Steamy window sunset

Anyone with post-traumatic stress disorder knows how the incident fragments the way you experience your own life into a Before and After, and is often accompanied by a variety of personality changes in the process.

For me, adventurous and bold became timid and fearful, a virtual about-face from the openness and adaptability that once were a part of my Third Culture Kid repertoire.

At the time of the incident I was going to university in Los Angeles, and my family was living in Switzerland. Instead of coming to my graduation, my mum came to LA for the pre-trial hearing — the one that would determine whether there was enough evidence for an actual jury trial. These were the days before budget travel, and it felt more important to have my mom’s support in the first of three trials to put Wendy’s murderers away than have her at my graduation.

After the two-year process of testifying against Wendy’s killer and her accomplice, a series of events nothing at all like what we see in television crime procedurals, I went into an emotional freefall.

The American method for dealing with trauma or psychological issues is by medicating the person, even if the patient doesn’t want the meds. Anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications made me numb in a way that felt nothing but wrong — I knew I should feel sad, I should feel scared, these were my mind and body’s way of processing not only the loss of my amazing friend, but actually witnessing her death. A short stay in the hospital later, on account of the medications, and I was across the ocean from Los Angeles to my family in a city I’d never lived in before. I couldn’t deal with myself, my job, my relationship or living in the country that took my friend and ruined my life.

My mom was still living in Switzerland, and because of the high number of UN and other aid offices headquartered in Geneva she found me an amazing trauma counsellor whose specialty was cross-cultural psychology and psychiatry, and one who also used art and drama in his sessions.

Dr Arpin tailored every meeting to the specific cultural background of the patient. My childhood spent in Sri Lanka, Zambia, Thailand, Pakistan and India as well as my time in Los Angeles became the cornerstone for my treatment. He also took into account my conservative Sri Lankan father and radical American mother, a dynamic in my family that was fraught with unease that had spilled over onto me since I was a child. He also noted the tension of my having lived abroad and experiencing my passport country of the USA through a deceptive media machine that hardly prepared me for the reality of the experience, one that took on new levels after surviving a gun crime.

India has been one of my favorite places I’d lived, and I often pray to Hindu deities among Buddhist, Greek, Roman, and even Celtic ones — a measure of pantheism marks my personal brand of Third Culture Kid-ness. Noting this, Dr Arpin would bring stories I’d never heard of Ganesh and Lakshmi into our sessions, which would help me focus on my writing, drawing and dancing as healing practices — the first time I’d ever done that in my life. He also brought my love of cinema, and especially horror films, into the mix, helping me find ways to empower myself and reclaim the things I loved but hadn’t been able to enjoy for years because of the “trigger” factors.

The most powerful exercise, and the one that demonstrated just how traumatized I was not only by Wendy’s murder but also by my Third Culture Kid childhood, took place in the small theatre below his office. He sat in the audience, put the spotlight on me, and asked me to describe my home.

“My desk here, by the window. Kitchen here. Bed here. Door here.” As I mapped out the space with my hands.

“Where are the walls?”

“No walls.” I said.

“No walls?”


“And who can come in?”

“Anyone.” I replied, in a ‘no duh’ kind of way.


His puzzlement at my response of “Anyone” bothered me. The next week I asked him what other people say when asked the same question. He told me that most people have their rooms separated by walls, and people need to be invited to come in, the door isn’t just open.

I remembered reading in Ruth Van Reken’s seminal study on Third Culture Kids that often times because TCKs are constantly shuttling through various cultures, peoples, situations, we have difficulty setting boundaries unless actively taught how to do so.

The room exercise showed me that I had no personal filters, a trait common among Third Culture Kids, but one that becomes problematic when trauma and PTSD enter the mix. And I realized that the dramatic loss of Wendy, my first friend at that time to have passed away, was reminiscent on other levels of all the friends I’d lost in so many years of moving around. Back then there was no social media, no mobile phones, no Skype. Friends would often move to places with semi-functional mail service, or telephone lines that worked once a week if you’re lucky.

During the first Iraq war my family and I were on Christmas home leave in Milwaukee, my mom’s hometown. We were already on our way back to Islamabad when we found out that all UN personnel and consulate employees had been evacuated. It was a nightmare for my mum to re-route our tickets after we landed in Amsterdam to my dad’s hometown of Colombo since it worked out cheaper to go to Sri Lanka than back to the US or stay in Europe. On my return to school months later, my best friend had been evacuated and nobody could tell me where she’d gone or how to contact her. I didn’t find her again for 15 years.

When I was growing up a Third Culture Kid, goodbye could be pretty darn final.

Reflecting more and more deeply on Dr Arpin’s room exercise, so many memories from my childhood arose. The not-so-nice things of growing up between worlds, the tense and often frightening culture in my homelife between parents with polar opposite worldviews, being bullied at school, the assorted cultural difficulties place to place that amount to small traumas, but when put together become major.

We Third Culture Kids have a charmed life on the surface, but underneath, in the hurt and still-scarred places nobody really wants to talk about, there can be a great deal of hidden trauma that may only surface in the wake of a violent trauma as mine did.

The trauma of Wendy’s murder had opened up a floodgate of issues I’d never properly dealt with — all the goodbyes I never knew were the last time I’d see someone or someplace, the innate sense of rootlessness and never feeling I belonged anywhere not even in my own family, the toxic and abusive relationships that had wounded me because of my “Anyone” policy — the grief was overwhelming. Twenty-four years of it, all coming through at once.

Thankfully, I had Dr Arpin’s help and in the year and a half we worked together he helped me build some necessary walls and begin to put the mess of all the traumas into their own places. He showed me how to mindfully channel all the emotional mines littering my past into writing and creativity. All of this without even the offer of medication, unlike his American counterparts who told me that they couldn’t treat my PTSD without pharmaceuticals.

Fragmented Heart

*Fragmented Heart by Sezin Koehler

And thankfully, I was a Third Culture Kid blessed to be able to leave my passport country and receive the treatment that helped heal at least the most acute symptoms of PTSD. Sadly, there’s no cure for post-traumatic stress disorder; one must learn how to manage it and ride its waves as they ebb and flow, perilous though that may be at times.

Next week marks 13 years since the night that changed my life and broke it into a Before and After. Being a Third Culture Kid indeed heightened my experience of PTSD; yet, at the same time, my unique situation as a Third Culture Kid was what afforded me a powerful path towards healing.

Trauma and Third Culture Kid-ness are forever linked, two of many heads on the  hybrid monster Hydra that symbolize my After-trauma life. I’m now a fragmented being constantly in motion, fighting — sometimes myself, sometimes the past, sometimes change — and united in only one goal: storytelling.

*image credit Adam Kerfoot Roberts via flickr

After living all over Europe for the past ten years, Sezin Koehler recently repatriated to her passport country of the US and now lives in a tiny Florida beach town of ten thousand, hands down the strangest place she’s ever lived. When Sezin isn’t enjoying perpetual summer and coming to terms with life as a thirty-something in a retirement community, she’s also an informal anthropologist and novelist. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter

Painting Pictures: What I Learned from My TCK Husband

By |October 16th, 2013|Categories: Third Culture Kids|Tags: , |

risingToday’s Painting Pictures post comes from MaDonna Maurer (who can only be amazing because I have Maurer in-laws and Maurer writing friends, its a solid name). This is a beautiful look at the realities of being married to a TCK and I think her last line might be one of the most important sentences in this entire series. Because it is all about relationship: being a TCK or raising one or loving one.

(here is a fun, related link at Denizen: So you think you’ve met (married?) a TCK)

What I Learned from My Third Culture Kid Husband

I’m a monoculture kid married to a third-culture kid.

I met Uwe while working in China. His name and passport were German, but his English accent was very American. He was sort of German, but not really. His idea of personal space was more like the Chinese. I remember before we dated, a packed 10-hour train ride, where I was thinking,This guy is way too close.” I couldn’t figure out why he seemed to be oblivious to this personal space dilemma I was having. I soon discovered that he grew up in Taiwan and attended an American school for most of his childhood. That little information explained some, but not everything. At that time I was fairly new to the TCK world.china1

After a few months of dating seriously I had the opportunity to attend a few TCK seminars led by the late David Pollock. I decided to attend them all when Uwe informed me that through David’s stories I’d really “get him.” I took notes like a serious student preparing for a final. I knew our differences were different and that could affect our relationship, but I wasn’t worried until David shared examples of relationships and marriages between monoculture and third-culture people.


His examples seemed to never really have a “happy-ever-after” ending. One person was always unhappy, miserable, or wanted out. This terrified me because we had just begun to discuss marriage. The question boomed in my head, “Is this relationship doomed?”

Fortunately, David came to our school and I had the opportunity to meet with him personally. I asked David if he thought this relationship had any chance of success. I loved his answer. It wasn’t magical, or inspiring – just truthful. He smiled and said, Any marriage takes work from both sides. If you work at your relationship, then your marriage will be successful. I remember sighing with relief because I really liked this guy I was dating. I really wanted to spend the rest of my life with him.

We’ve been married now for 14 years and I can attest that David’s words are true. Marriage is work. I’ll just add that it is sometimes hard work, but worth every effort that is put into it. I’ve learned that our differences are sometimes due to our background and sometimes it simply is because I’m a woman and he is a man. Though we think differently, I have learned SO much from him regarding living overseas, teaching TCKs and raising our own TCKs.

family photoI’ve learned that TCKs are tight. What I mean is they connect really fast. Once a TCK finds out the other person is a TCK, they immediately see if they know any of the same people. They freely talk of where they grew up and where they went to school. It’s not a competition or making an impression – it’s a connection. And I’ve found that being married to one, I get the same treatment, sort of like a VIP card. I’ve come to realize that this “club” isn’t selective, it’s just that they understand each other at a level that most mono-cultural people can’t.

I’ve learned that TCKs are individuals. I’ve learned that you can’t put a TCK in a box and neatly label them. Uwe has many of the characteristics of a TCK, but he doesn’t possess them all. Though his siblings have experienced many of the same circumstances, they don’t possess the same characteristics. This is true for most families, whether monoculture or third-culture. People just don’t react exactly the same because personalities are different. Conferences, books, and articles about TCKs are all good, but one must remember that a TCK is an individual. And to really get to know the individual, one must spend time with that person.

I’ve learned that TCKs are adaptable. I think this is the most important thing I’ve learned, that I can’t file his personality, character qualities and habits into cultural files. I can’t say he does a certain thing because that part of him is German, or Chinese, or even American. He does have a bit of all three cultures that make up his personality, but I can’t put them into files. It is like taking three colors of clay and kneading them together until a new color has been made. This new color can’t be unmixed. It’s very much like the poem by Ruth Goring called, “I Am Green”

“one life is navy blue

one life is sunshine yellow

I am green.”

I still read about TCKs because we are now raising three of our own. My husband has experiential wisdom about leaving, grieving, arriving and TCK life in general, but he will agree with me on this: that we all need to continue to study and learn from each other; that the most important part is to remember that the TCK is an individual. Each life, whether monoculture or third culture, is like a beautiful painting that can only be truly appreciated by taking time to get to know the individual.

MaDonna Maurer is currently living in Taiwan with what she calls her “fusion family.” When she’s not teaching, taking her daughter with special needs to therapy class, or writing she helps her husband with Taiwan Sunshine, a nonprofit for families of children with special needs. She has become a firm believer that cold Wulong Green tea is the best afternoon drink. You can find her writing at and follow on twitter.

Painting Pictures: Reflections from a Father and His TCK Daughter

By |October 8th, 2013|Categories: Third Culture Kids|Tags: , , |

painting pictures2Today’s Painting Pictures post comes from Trey Morrison, our first dad to post in the series. I am excited to offer you his words, experiences, and also the words of his 11-year old daughter. What a sweet idea, to interview her and present her own thoughts on the experience of living in Panama. Together they cover a lot of TCK territory and the conclusion is one of peace and transformation and an expanded worldview. My words to Trey though are that he is indeed raising TCKs, just TCKS that have now returned to their home country. He says he failed but from what I can see, he is succeeding, is a great dad, and I’m glad there are good fathers like him, giving their children the best that they can of the whole wide world.

Reflections from a Father and His TCK Daughter

I tried to raise two third-culture kids.  I failed, but I think this is a good thing.

When I grew up my family did a lot of traveling.   My father worked for Delta, so flying was normal life.   By seven, I was allowed to travel solo to visit relatives.  By the time I reached double digits I had memorized the security codes for the “Authorized Personal Only” airport doors in Dallas, Denver, Cincinnati, and Atlanta.  I knew where I could get cheap food and a nap while waiting for a flight under the normal airport.  I had been to all 50 states by the time I was a teenager and I had been to Europe numerous times.  My father constantly pushed us out of our comfort zones and I was equally comfortable building a log cabin in the North Georgia mountains with a toothless 70 year-old mountain man as I was choosing the proper fork at a the Cincinnati country club.  Okay, maybe I was a little more comfortable in the mountains.

Despite this upbringing, I found myself married and working as a realtor raising two children in a small town with a white picket fence.  Ughhh!  I saw my kids growing up in complete homogeny and it drove me crazy.

Something had to change.

So I convinced my wife to move the family to Panamá for 9 months to stir things up a little bit.  I needed the kids to get more exposure than a little mountain town had to offer.

After much arranging, we moved to Panamá with nothing more than eight checked bags and a dog.  When we got there, the home we were supposed to live in was not ready.  There was no power and the pool was green.  It took us months just to get basic furniture and essentials into the house.   All the while trying to raise two small children.

After we settled in, we found schools for the kids.  My daughter Sydney went to a small school with a mix of local and expat children.  She had classmates from China, Russia, Peru, Argentina, England, South Africa, Chile, Australia, Panama, the US and Canada.   My son Michael went to a Panamanian preschool, where he had to wear a uniform and there was no English spoken at all.

classSchool Picture

After the nine-month “gestation” period was over we went back to the States for a few months and then came back to Panamá with another eight checked bags.  We ended up moving back and forth between the US and Panamá for three years.

In order to paint a picture of my daughter’s TCK experience, I interviewed her.    She is now eleven years old and I wanted to know what her memories were, and what struggles and joys she could remember.


Me:  What is your favorite memory about living in Panamá?

Syd:  Everything

Me:  Come on, give me more than that.

Syd:  I loved going on the beach and playing in the pool, just everything, everything, everything.

Me:  OK, what is your worst memory?

Syd:  Um, well, getting stung by a bee on that swing.  But then it was cool how we put mud on it.

Me:   What was good about moving back and forth between Panamá and the U.S.?

Syd:  I had friends in both places I was always glad to move back and forth and see friends I had not seen in a while.

Me:  What was the hardest part of constantly moving between countries?

Syd: When you leave toys behind and you want to play with them you then remember they are in another country.  Also, when we stopped [moving back and forth] I lost touch with my old friends.

Me:  Did you ever feel isolated from other kids because you were not around all the time?

Syd:  I was too young to feel isolation, I just didn’t think about that.

Me:  Tell me some more stories about what you remember.

Syd:  I remember Halloween when both houses and the pool house and the caretaker’s house had candy for us.  And for Christmas we found a real tree, which was hard, and we made ornaments from seashells.  And Easter we had an Easter egg hunt and it was fun and we swam.  I remember hermit crab hill and Shiva Time.

Me:  What was Shiva time?

Syd:  When the sun was setting and you could do whatever you want with your shadow on the wall, and 2, 3 or 4 people could get together so it looked like a four-armed or eight-armed person.  It was especially cool because everything looked pinkish.

Me:  What about food?

Syd:  I loved Tamarindo candies, pineapples, coconuts, maracuyá, and those things with the meat and raisins, what were those called?

Me:  Empanadas?

Syd:  Yeah, empanadas.  I love those.  You should learn to make those!

Me:  What would your friends here think about Panamá if they went there?  What would they think was crazy and different?

Syd:  There are so many less cars there and everyone bikes and walks everywhere.  But there are barely any sidewalks and people wear black and walk in the road at night.  I remember that.  The houses are smaller and shabbier and the roads have more potholes.  There is a lot of trash there, like litter.   It is just third worldy.

Me:  What did you think about living in a Third world country?

Syd:   I always felt a little, not rich, but like I had more money than everyone else.  And half of the nights I was there I couldn’t get to sleep because the music was very loud.  Like loud, loud, loud.

Me:  So was the whole experience worth it?

Syd:  It was a bit stressful but it was worth it.

Me:  What was stressful?

Syd:  Traveling.  Traveling is always a little bit stressful.


After these three years my wife had had enough of the transitions and decided we needed to stay put.  I wanted to continue to live in Panama, but I was willing to see her point, after a few weeks of pouting.  We were always either preparing to move or settling in after a move and that was stressful.

So now I guess my children are no longer TCKs.  For me, the transition to not living abroad has been more difficult than the transition to living abroad.   I miss the chaos, but I know that not everyone thrives on chaos the way I do, especially not children.  They need routine.  When interviewing Sydney I noticed that many of her memories were of the things we tried to do to keep continuity with her life in the U.S.

We created Halloween for them by giving candy to the caretaker and getting friends wait in all the buildings, and out buildings, on the property.  We did an Easter egg hunt and had a Christmas tree.  None of these things were local traditions.

We participated in many local celebrations too.  We went to two Carnival celebrations and one was in a river.  We burned life size effigies on New Years Eve.   We immersed ourselves in numerous Independence Day parades.  There are two independence days in Panamá, one from Columbia and one from Spain.  We celebrated with the Panamanians in all the local holidays we could.  But it is interesting to note that the ones my kids remember are the U.S. ones.

I am grateful the kids had the experience they did and I think it has made them better people.

They are truly colorblind when it comes to race.  They are open to new ideas and new people and they have something in common with me as a child.  They are excellent travelers.

They are patient and great at entertaining themselves without electronic devices.   That is a rare commodity here in the U.S., and is certainly due to their experiences living in other cultures.

Don’t tell anyone, but I secretly hope to do another stint overseas someday, but for now our roots are growing deeper in the mountain soil. 

Trey has written a book: Panama with Kids and you can connect with him at The Resilient Family or Moving Abroad with Children. You can also find links on those pages for contacting Trey, or following on Facebook and Twitter.

Painting Pictures: You Are Either a TCK or in the Movie Mean Girls If…

By |October 1st, 2013|Categories: Third Culture Kids|Tags: , , |

painting pictures2Today’s Painting Pictures post is a fill-in by yours truly about my favorite Third Culture Kid movie, Mean Girls. I can’t think of many TCK movies, so it wasn’t a tough choice to make. As you read the following list replace all things ‘America’ with your own passport country. There is nothing earth-shattering in this list, there are much more comprehensive and hilarious ones out there. Like this on Buzzfeed: 31 Signs You’re a Third Culture Kid and this on Denizen: 10 Ways to Know You are Dining with a Global Nomad. Side note – if you don’t follow Denizen, you need to.

Mean Girls and Third Culture Kids

Cady is an America raised by zoologist parents somewhere in Africa. She returns to the US for high school when her mother accepts a university position there. She transitions from flannel shirt to over-sized pink polo to ultra-sexy miniskirt and over the course of the clothing transition, she learns how to navigate the hallways, gossip, and convoluted relationships of an American high school. She also learns how to embrace her uniqueness and her own gifts, settling into a middle place between math geek and ultra-clique.

You Are Either a Third Culture Kid or in the Movie Mean Girls If:

  1. You think Ashton Kutchner is a band
  2. You greet the African American students with a cheery, “Jambo!”
  3. You compare the behavior of American high school students to animals in heat
  4. You love math because it is the same in every country
  5. You can fool your frenemies into eating super-caloric bars by pretending everyone in Africa reads Swedish
  6. You relate abnormally well with adults
  7. Your parents treat your first day of high school like the first day of Kindergarten – photos, hugs, tears and all
  8. Your parents’ jobs dictate what continent you live on
  9. You don’t know anything about American fashion
  10. You don’t know American slang
  11. You have to handle questions like “So, if you’re from Africa, why are you white?”

Mearn Girls Poster
*image credit Yoko via Flickr

I first watched it on an airplane, flying from Djibouti to Minnesota in 2004, which I find fantastically appropriate. Of course there are a few obnoxious bits and traditional stereotypes. I’m not saying this is deep, quality, life-changing film here. Like the fact that the main character Cady lived in the ever-generic “Africa” complete with tall, traditionally clothed and equally generic African men and the ubiquitous safari animals. But I do like to see a movie character represent (to some degree) my own cultural, fashion, and social confusion.

What TCK movies would you recommend?

Painting Pictures: An Orchid Or a Dandelion?

By |September 24th, 2013|Categories: Third Culture Kids|Tags: , |

painting pictures2Today’s Painting Pictures post is brought to you by Joy L. Salmon. Joy is in the middle of a busy week, called up to work in Colorado helping flood victims. This is a beautiful, sad, brave thing for her to enter into and I’m grateful she was still willing and able to share her story. Not only is Joy a TCK herself but she wrote her PhD dissertation focused on Third Culture Kids. Her perspective is a unique one of research and personal experience combined. Her final question is deeply important and challenging.

An Orchid Or a Dandelion?

I have often wished I were a dandelion – hardy and adaptable, able to plant myself anywhere and thrive.  But, in truth, I’m more like an orchid – sensitive to the world around me, blooming only when properly planted and nourished.


Lately, I’ve been thinking about how we frame our TCK experiences and what we expect from them.

It led to thoughts of the placebo and nocebo effects:  How our experiences are often based on what we expect.  We’re all familiar with placebos – where positive expectations influence our experiences in positive ways.   Nocebos are the flipside of placebos – where negative expectations create negative outcomes.

The medical field is beginning to view placebos as a legitimate form of treatment, and beginning to question practices that create the nocebo effect.  For example, what impact does it have when our doctors tell us all the possible negative consequences of a particular treatment, what we call “informed consent?”  Research suggests that it can create a nocebo response.  As a result, medical ethicists are debating whether doctors should instead create a positive expectancy by describing the percentage of people who benefitted in particular ways from a particular treatment.

I think it’s very important for people to know that words can powerfully affect their brains in ways that are beneficial or harmful.  ~Howard Fields

Take a minute, if you would, to watch the following video:

As you watched this video, you may have experienced first-hand how expectations influence what we discover.  Often, what we expect to see is all we see, despite what else is present.  It’s easy to be blind to the totality of an experience.

This tendency to see only what we expect to see is also found in science.  Recent research suggests that those of us who have genes that lend to our being emotionally vulnerable, i.e. those of us who are “orchids,” also have greater potential when nurtured appropriately – even surpassing the potential of those of us who are born to be hardy “dandelions.”  Prior to this, studies focused only on the developmental risks posed by emotional vulnerability.  When the data from these risk studies were re-examined within a risk and potential frame, it was found that the “old” data supported the “new” frame of risk-and-potential.  Yet the original researchers were blind to this because they were not looking for it.

How does this apply to TCKs?  Our expectations of our TCK experience will influence our lives.  As TCKs, we lose our bearings and feel the ache of missing family and friends.  We also value our travels and revel in the diversity of cultures.  How might we create an expectancy frame from which a positive outcome can emerge despite moments of distress?  How can we heighten our awareness to see the totality of our world?


The orchid vs. dandelion study did this for me.  It expanded my frame of reference and gave me hope.  While some of us are lucky enough to be dandelions and adapt more easily, others of us – I among them – are orchids.  I am in need of a nurturing environment to flourish.  Despite my vulnerabilities – whether from nature or nurture, I am reminded that I am not destined to live a humdrum life, even when devoid of international connections.  Nor a life filled with suffering, even when difficult events come my way.  I can, with the right supports, be elevated by my TCK experiences, and create something valuable from them.

The conclusion that we can alter experience by what we believe about it is a hopeful one.  Because, indeed, it is empowering.  Because it means that we’re not at the whim of forces outside of ourselves as much as we might have thought we were.  ~Irving Kirsh

Borrowing from David Dobbs, as a young adult, I wish I had expected my TCK experience to be “less like a trapdoor through which I might fall than a springboard, slippery and somewhat fragile, perhaps, but a springboard all the same.”

How do you frame your TCK experiences?  What do you expect from them?


image credit Dandelions

image credit Orchids


Joy L. Salmon is a former TCK who lived in Pakistan for most of her youth. Her dissertation research was on the early-adult experiences of third-culture kids (TCKs) who returned to the USA upon graduation from high school overseas. She is a licensed psychologist, with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology & Human Systems, and the founder of

Go to Top