Our Tribal Elders: Legacy, The Circle of Life

Today is the final post in the essay Our Tribal Elders by Paul Asbury Seaman. This final post is a bit long but I urge you to read all the way through, it is well worth the time. In total, the series is 24 pages long, not including Paul’s extensive end notes. Breaking it into a series of 6 posts has helped me, and readers, to digest his thoughts and reflections. Our Tribal Elders is a thoughtful combination of tribute, memoir, history, and hope.

Paul attended Murree Christian School in Pakistan. He currently lives in the Bay Area, California with his wife Catherine. He has published several articles about the impact of growing up overseas as well as a memoir, Paper Airplanes in the Himalayas: The Unfinished Path Home (West and the Wider World)


The Heart of Ruth Van Reken

Identity with Ruth Useem

The Wisdom of David Pollock

The Integration of Norma McCaig


Legacy… The circle of life

Those we view as sacred elders—the giants in whatever field—become so not only for what they have done but what they inspire others to do. As with scientific discoveries, it is the interconnected nature and cumulative impact of their work that has made these people significant. Ruth Useem’s research led to David Pollock’s TCK Profile; his articles on that topic led Ruth Van Reken to write Letters Never Sent. The larger issues of loss, grief, and multiple transitions so poignantly illustrated by Van Reken’s book helped clarify to Norma McCaig the striking commonalities among the offspring of widely different sponsoring cultures. Ruth Useem allowed us to see for the first time what was distinct about our heritage; Norma McCaig enabled us to celebrate it. Dr. Useem gave us a name; Norma gave us an address. Just two months after Norma died, a global nomad took up residence in the White House. It’s too bad she didn’t get to see it.

Van Reken first met the other Ruth in Liberia in 1984. At that time Van Reken was a missionary and Useem was there doing research on TCKs. After the interview, Van Reken drove Dr. Useem back into town and, as she tells it, almost got her killed. Unbeknownst to her a new Israeli embassy had been built directly across from the guest house where Useem was staying. As they turned the corner onto that street, suddenly the car was swarmed by soldiers with guns drawn. (Ruth Van Reken is a tall woman with a forthright, almost nonchalant demeanor; Dr. Useem was slightly built and maybe even shorter than Norma McCaig. Picturing the two Ruths together brings to mind images of Laurel and Hardy.) The women’s actual destination was quickly clarified and they went on, but Useem always kidded the other Ruth about it.

Through subsequent conversations with Useem and others, Van Reken realized that all the research on TCKs was focused on teenagers and college students—in part because they were a readily identifiable cohort. In 1986 Van Reken conducted the first survey of adult TCKs. In turn, Useem, working with Ann Baker Cottrell, produced a more extensive and academically rigorous study of ATCKs. Their analysis confirmed Van Reken’s emphasis on the lifelong impact of a cross-cultural childhood and helped broaden the way David Pollock and other researchers looked at the issue. It is also part of why Norma McCaig wanted to use the more inclusive term, “global nomads.”

Like most revolutionaries, McCaig was more visionary than legislator; she could rally the troops, but when it came to building an institution, the devil was in the details. Norma herself contended that attempting to organize global nomads was like trying to herd cats. I believed strongly, in support of Norma’s efforts, that any lasting enterprise cannot be dependent on the founder’s charisma. It must develop some kind of structure to objectify the vision. As both a board member of GNI and the first president of Global Nomads Washington Area, I felt conflicted about the degree of central authority that should be relegated to the larger organization—for the sake of consistency and in support of the wider mission—given the more informal nature of local groups. Membership, finances (including member dues), and how much legal specificity to incorporate into by-laws, especially for an organization run entirely by volunteers—these issues were never satisfactorily resolved and by the mid-1990s a great deal of the early momentum had been lost.

However, it was around this same time that Ruth Van Reken and David Pollock began writing Third Culture Kids, the book that remains, according to many, the bible of TCK literature. Actually, Ruth had been after Dave for years to write “his” book—to get it out before so many of his ideas got borrowed and adapted by other authors that he’d have to end up quoting them. Pollock kept saying, “I just don’t have time, Ruth.” Finally she said, “Well, I’ll help you then.” That was in 1992. Van Reken spent the next seven years at a computer in her basement. Periodically she’d get on a plane, fly up to Houghton, New York, and physically map things out with Pollock, spreading notes and draft pages over the dining room table and the living room couch like some kind of Rube Goldberg diagram. “It got longer,” she explains, “because I figured I would just help him write up his TCK Profile, but David Hoopes, then editor-in-chief at Intercultural Press, took a look at my first attempt and said, ‘You can’t just describe it, you have to explain it.’ So that is really what took so long and where I think our partnership was so special. I love the why questions of life and David [Pollock] was always a great place to bounce ideas off of; but as a non-TCK himself he could observe the characteristics maybe each of us thought were either normal or what made us personally weird, but some of the reasons could only be understood from the inside out.”[i]

In 1998, not wanting her good missionary mind to idle, Ruth Van Reken sat around her kitchen table drinking coffee with three other women with international backgrounds—and founded Families in Global Transition. Van Reken realized that she was traveling all over the world while the same dynamics arising from globally mobile employment were happening right where she lived, in Indianapolis, Indiana. As its name implies, Families in Global Transition (FIGT), has given special attention to “trailing spouses.” You can’t just talk about the kids, Ruth’s friends told her. If you don’t talk about the moms, your kids won’t be happy, either. FIGT began as a one-day event aimed at addressing the issues of the international families, spouses, and corporate employers in her hometown—with David Pollock as the keynote speaker. Thanks to early sponsorship by the Eli Lilly Company and others, it quickly developed into an organization that was global in scope. After being hosted in Dallas and Houston, as well as Indianapolis, drawing speakers and attendees from over thirty countries, FIGT’s annual conference have lately been held mostly in the Washington, D.C. area. The FIGT website (www.figt.org) describes its signature event as “the only US-based conference where representatives of the corporate, diplomatic, academic, military and mission sectors come to share cross-cultural coping strategies. . . . FIGT has been referred to as the grassroots ‘think tank’ for families transitioning globally.” In 2002 the U.S. Air Force designated FIGT as its official conference of choice for all family support personnel. Parents attend the conference from many places in the world, to learn how to better parent their children in other cultures and to successfully adjust marriages in response to the special stresses brought on by transitions to an unfamiliar environment.

In many ways FIGT has successfully combined Norma McCaig’s vision of cross-sector dialogue (among the various sponsoring agencies) with David Pollock’s emphasis on proactive policies at every step before, during, and after a trans-national posting. Attendees have represented Prudential, Coca Cola, The World Bank, U.S. Department of State, various universities, international schools, oil companies, missionary agencies, and press organizations; they have included spouses, counselors, corporate coaches, entrepreneurs, health professionals, and global mobility managers. At its 10th Anniversary Conference in 2008 FIGT recognized three visionaries that had made formative contributions to the organization’s goals and concerns: Norma McCaig, David Pollock, and Ruth Van Reken. It was one of the last public events Norma attended, just months before her death. Accepting Pollock’s honor on his behalf, Dave’s widow, Betty Lou, was acknowledged in her own right as one of the many unsung heroes known as spouses.

In the largely-secular, and inherently international environment of TCK issues, people like David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken often left their religious beliefs understated. Yet clearly, Pollock and Van Reken’s vision and commitment were motivated and nourished by a living faith. Indeed, the missions community—the institutions and associations that employ, organize, and care for missionaries and Christian service workers around the world—has been at the forefront of developing TCK awareness and being proactive about systemic changes to support children raised in trans-cultural environments. Speaking of her late husband, Betty Lou Pollock likes to say, “David had the heart of a pastor, the mind of a theologian and philosopher, and the whole world became his parish.” This man who described himself as a “TCK-wanabee” did, in fact, profoundly model the ecumenical embrace of diversity that characterizes global nomads at their best.[ii]

If Van Reken’s early focus was on healing, Pollock’s was about prevention. He spent more time speaking to and working with sponsoring agencies than he did with adult TCKs themselves. His presentations always included a section about what parents and their employers could do to lessen the impact of transitions on their children, to help reduce some of the pain caused from lack of awareness or by misguided attitudes. The first version of Third Culture Kids was finally published in 1999. [iii] Until then most literature on TCKs and global nomads was either memoirs or academic work. Together with the revised editions, Third Culture Kids has become an international bestseller (at least among its target audience), translated into German, Korean, Japanese, and Norwegian.[iv]

For global nomads, our stories are the symbols of our culture. Our heroes are the researchers, organizers, true believers, and poets who describe us—but like the blind men describing an elephant, we each touch and “see” the part that most concerns us. The best cultural and religious symbols evoke both self-reflection and a sense of reverence; they tell us not only who we are but what we are capable of becoming. While “the movement” may still seem somewhat nebulous, the scholarship, social connections, and professional associations are certainly real. David Pollock’s organization, Interaction,[v] had a significant impact on changing attitudes of mission boards to make family mental health a larger priority, while also providing a variety of services in support of returning TCKs. The continuing research on the various permutations of global nomads owes much of its impetus to the original studies conducted by Dr. Ruth Hill Useem. Finally, many of us met each other at one of the conferences of Global Nomads International and would not have the treasure of those personal friendships and professional connections if not for the vision and incredible work of Norma McCaig.

These were not just good people at the right place at the right time; they were people who knew who they were, saw what needed to be done, and took the time to do it. In the archetypal sense, they were warriors. Yet the tapestry of inspiration is woven by the twine of ordinary life. In the midst of all their accomplishments, three of these heroes raised children and lived to enjoy several grandchildren (and two great-grandchildren, in Ruth Useem’s case). Two of the women endured repeated bouts with cancer. Nothing in the background of these four individuals—whether homemaker, feminist scholar, pastor, or hospitality coordinator—presumed the direction that their lives would take. Yet their unique combination of character, perspective, and emphasis has made the global nomad community what it is today.

All of the founders exhibited a humility that belied their stature. They had a clear sense of purpose but also simply a zest for life that was palpable to anyone in their presence. The discrete characteristics described in this essay overlap, of course, and apply to all of them. In Four Quartets T. S. Eliot uses the symbolic framework of the four elements (earth, air, water, fire) as aspects of spiritual purification. This book-length poem, written amidst the trauma of World War II, emphasizes the unity of past, present, and future as essential to wholeness. The oft-quoted lines from the final section take on new layers in a global nomad context and with the principles of the medicine wheel in mind:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

A healthy, balanced life is measured in the cumulative impact of our experiences, passions, and focus. The beauty of the medicine wheel is the way it represents the seasons of our lives but also the cycles of growth—a spiral moving us toward grace and contentment. The various gifts given to us by the founders offer us opportunities to integrate and expand upon our special legacy: with a stronger sense of identity, rooted in elder wisdom, connecting from the heart.


[i] Personal correspondence with the author.

[ii] Historically, Christianity has been slow to accept psychology as a legitimate tool rather than a competing ideology. It has also too often been insensitive or simplistic in its view of international issues. With so many failings and misdirected priorities over the centuries, many of the caricatures of religion are well-founded. It is only fair, however, to acknowledge when an institution takes steps to address its inadequacies. With the influence of feminism, and the Liberation Theologies coming out of Latin America and Africa in the 1970s and 1980s mainstream churches have made significant changes in both attitude and policy. Even many traditionally conservative evangelical churches now reflect society’s greater embrace of the arts, social justice concerns, mental health, and other quality-of-life issues.

[iii] Pollock and Van Reken, The Third Culture Kid Experience (1999). Revised and republished as Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds (Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2001; rev. 2009).

[iv] As of summer 2010, Third Culture Kids has sold approximately 25,000 copies in its various editions.

[v] Interaction International, the organization founded by David Pollock (see www.interactionintl.org), should not be confused with InterAction, a coalition of international aid and disaster relief organizations. See also the growing number of global nomad websites, including www.tckid.com and www.tckworld.com.

Our Tribal Elders, the Integration of Norma McCaig

Where did the term Global Nomad come from and what inspired the woman who coined it? I never knew, until reading this lovely tribute to Norma McCaig.

Continuing today with part 5 in Our Tribal Elders by Paul Asbury Seaman. Paul attended Murree Christian School in Pakistan. He currently lives in the Bay Area, California with his wife Catherine. He has published several articles about the impact of growing up overseas as well as a memoir, Paper Airplanes in the Himalayas: The Unfinished Path Home (West and the Wider World)

Integration with Norma McCaig1

Integration… Norma McCaig (1945-2008)

The North, at the top of the medicine wheel, represents the Elder stage of life, coming fully into our own in both responsibility and self-expression. It is the embodiment of mindful stewardship: having the ability to effectively apply our knowledge and resources for the greater good. It is also the place where we come to terms with death—the ultimate form of self-acceptance.

Norma Marie McCaig was born in Teaneck, New Jersey. Her father was an executive with an international pharmaceutical company and when she was two years old the family moved to the Philippines, where Norma attended the American School in Manila. When she was fourteen her parents moved to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Norma spent a year and a half at Kodaikanal International School, a missionary boarding school in South India; she then went back to the Philippines to graduate from high school in 1963. Her brother Doug, several years older than Norma, had already returned to the United States and her parents were now living in Hong Kong.

McCaig’s first significant job after college was with the Florence Crittenton Home for Unwed Mothers in Washington, D.C. But it was the Meridian International Center, also in Washington, that became the foundation for Norma’s life mission. The Meridian Center is a private not-for-profit institution dedicated to international collaboration and cultural understanding. Among other activities, it manages the U.S. State Department’s professional exchange programs. At the Meridian House McCaig worked as Home Hospitality Coordinator, providing part of the orientation for foreign students and government employees coming to live in the United States.

The time at “Kodi,” the boarding school she attended in India, had a lasting impact on Norma. Perhaps it was being in her early teens, that pivotal identity-establishing period, but I never heard her wax nostalgic about any other place from childhood. She loved Indian food and with the slightest coaxing would lapse into her Indian alter-ego, “Rani,” who spoke English with an affectionate parody of an Indian accent. (Think of the Dalai Lama’s distinctive lilt, or J. Z. Knight’s channeled entity “Ramtha” on steroids.)

In 1984 Norma McCaig went to a reunion of Kodaikanal International School. Initially wary, she found herself struck by an incredible sense of homecoming, far beyond what nostalgia might warrant. Not satisfied with the colloquial connotations of “third culture kids,” she wanted something more inclusive, something that would describe how wide this experience truly was—a phrase that alluded to our continuing journey as well as our upbringing. Thus was born “global nomads.” When Norma gave her first presentation on the subject a few months later, David Pollock was in the audience.

In 1987 McCaig attended the Second International Conference on Missionary Kids in Quito, Ecuador, where she met Ruth Van Reken. Norma stayed up all night reading Letters Never Sent and, like me, wept throughout. Ruth remembers vividly how she and Norma stayed up until the wee hours the following night discussing the commonalities between her upbringing as a missionary kid and that of Norma who grew up in the international business community. Along with those from volunteer agencies, foreign service, and military backgrounds, it is where these experiences overlap—and what we carry into adulthood—that offers the most insight. Norma McCaig was the first to see this so clearly.

McCaig borrowed heavily from her own retirement accounts to pull it off, but in December 1988 representatives from all these communities came together in Washington for the first conference of Global Nomads International. Norma never married or had children of her own; while this was not necessarily her preference, it did give her the freedom to pursue her vision. McCaig’s decades-long association with Meridian International Center made for an easy transition to more and more consulting work, lecturing at the Foreign Service Institute and writing articles for its Journal, leading cross-cultural workshops for the Foreign Service Youth Foundation, for Berlitz Language Centers, and at conferences sponsored by SIETAR (Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research) and NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

McCaig went through Georgetown University’s Training Specialist Program and used those skills to work with educators, counselors, and mental health professionals to increase their awareness and ability to better serve the globally mobile population. In 1990 she persuaded George Mason University (located in Northern Virginia, just outside Washington) to provide her with office space, even though she had no official position there. Along with David Pollock, Norma was among the first researchers and advocates to emphasize the importance of re-entry—and having an organized structure to support TCKs coming “home” for college.

At George Mason she started the first collegiate global nomads club, soon followed by one at American University and George Washington University (both in Washington) and at Duke University in North Carolina. Meanwhile, global nomad discussion groups had sprung up in Boston, New York, Atlanta, San Diego, and Seattle. In 1993 a Danish global nomad, inspired by a talk on the subject her Argentine fiancé had heard in France, started the first European group—in Geneva, Switzerland.


Norma McCaig’s life was about making connections—between individuals, groups, and ideas. She could muster an impressive turnout for a meeting, a project, or a social event better than anyone I’ve known. Global Nomads International (GNI) never became the institution McCaig worked so hard to establish, with formal chapters across the country and around the world; but her vision of a vibrant, interactive global nomad community has certainly become a reality—in no small part because of her early efforts.[i] Norma’s slogan for GNI was “Affirmation, Exploration, Action.” For those of us in leadership roles, our mandate was “to create an environment for global nomads to affirm their experience, explore it, and discover ways to use it.” We were to be “catalysts for the healthy integration of this special experience into the lives of global nomads, but also for effecting positive change—locally, nationally and globally.”[ii]

When Norma learned she had bone cancer in 2004, at first it only slowed her down a little. Her professional and personal lives had always overlapped, and in recent years she worked more and more out of her home in Reston, Virginia. Norma was known for her annual pumpkin-carving parties in the fall, and her summer birthday (July 25) was a major affair—bringing together people from many different walks of life. Norma was the networking queen, constantly putting friends and associates in touch with someone else who shared the same background or concerns. And this gift for connecting with people is perhaps our greatest loss with her passing.

Norma McCaig died in November 2008, after an unexpected relapse of the cancer she had successfully fought three years earlier. To me, it felt like the end of an era. In a few short years the global nomads community lost three of its guiding lights. (Ruth Useem died in 2003, David Pollock in 2004.) When I shared with Ruth Van Reken the huge loss I felt at Norma’s passing, she told me to think of the thousands of lives Norma has touched, just as Ruth had reminded herself when David Pollock died. (She and Pollock had worked closely on TCK issues for more than fifteen years.) Those many lives, Ruth said, are like seeds floating through the air, dispersed around the world, now blooming with the same generosity of spirit; continuing the vision.[iii] In a tribute letter read at McCaig’s memorial service, Van Reken recalled her as “this tiny red-headed marvel who packed so much energy and joy and brilliance into her little frame. . . . Norma is an example for all of us of how one person with a vision, a dream, a heart, and courage can, in fact, change the world.”[iv]

There used to be a life-size self-portrait of McCaig hanging in the hallway of her home, just inside the front door. She created this painting in celebration and gratitude after her first bout with cancer in 2004. A typewritten note taped beside the picture offered this description—one that is also a remarkable summary of Norma’s character and the strength and grace of her spirit:

“From the darkness of facing the end of this life to the deep blue of spiritual intention and constant loving support of countless people to the vibrant green of growth that comes when moving beyond adversity to the sense of being enveloped in bright, healing, life-giving Light, I feel the joy expressed in the face of the woman, Norma, who meets you eye-to-eye.”

Always connecting from the heart; pursuing a vision of service, supported by her creativity and respect for the sacred—Norma was an Elder, a leader who used all her resources to benefit others. Because of Norma McCaig, many of us have found reconciliation with our past and a new perspective on our future. We have found fellowship, friendship, and a sense of family. Norma helped us discover and create a community we can call home. A place to stand. We can now more confidently face the world because we better understand who we are and where we came from.

More than anyone, Norma McCaig worked hardest to make us a culture, not just an identity or a researchable “population.” The various local seminars, workshops, dessert-and-discussion evenings in someone’s home, the annual winter holiday potluck, and the national conferences—all of them expressed that holy trinity of connection, meaning, and nourishment. Norma’s life, and how she taught us to embrace the whole of our experience as global nomads, brings to mind the attitude of the Lebanese American poet, Kahlil Gibran: “I would not exchange the laughter of my heart for the fortunes of the multitudes; nor would I be content with converting my tears, invited by my agonized self, into calm.”[v] Norma McCaig helped us embrace the rich mosaic of our lives—a mosaic created by both accident and intent, from all the broken-tea-cup moments of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.


[i] Whether coincidence or synchronicity, it’s interesting that a spate of memoirs and other books on TCKs came out in the 1990s, just a few years after the first Global Nomads International conference.

[ii] Global Nomads DC (August 1991), 4.

[iii] I’m reminded of the quip made about Lou Reed’s proto-punk group, the Velvet Underground: Only 700 people bought their first record, but all of them founded a band.

[iv] From letter read at McCaig’s memorial service in Reston, VA, November 16, 2008.

[v] Kahlil Gibran, Tears and Laughter (New York: Wisdom Library, 1949), 7.


Website: Paul Asbury Seaman and you can contact him at pasburyseaman@gmail.com


The Heart of Ruth Van Reken

Identity with Ruth Useem

The Wisdom of David Pollock

Our Tribal Elders, the Wisdom of David Pollock

Part Four today in the essay series by Paul Asbury Seaman. Both Paul and I are encouraged by the response to this series. For me, it is the first time I’ve posted someone’s work over the course of weeks and for Paul it has been a wonderful opportunity to share his heart with new readers.

In this part, you’ll find Paul’s own story of discovery – hey, I’m a TCK! It is a powerful moment. You’ll also find out what Pollock, Castro, Arafat, and Papa Smurf have in common.

Paul attended Murree Christian School in Pakistan. He currently lives in the Bay Area, California with his wife Catherine. He has published several articles about the impact of growing up overseas as well as a memoir, Paper Airplanes in the Himalayas: The Unfinished Path Home (West and the Wider World)

Website: Paul Asbury Seaman and you can contact him at pasburyseaman@gmail.com

Thank you for sticking with us!

Part 1 Introduction

Part 2 The Heart of Ruth Van Reken

Part 3 Identity, with Ruth Useem

Wisdom of David Pollock

Wisdom… David Pollock (1939–2004)

The West represents the Magician archetype; it is the territory of shamans and priests, the place where we confront the unknown and learn to work with it.[i] If wisdom can be defined as the combination of knowledge, experience, and insight, David Pollock was the embodiment of those qualities. Prematurely gray, with a neatly trimmed beard, he resembled both Sigmund Freud and Ernest Hemingway, tempered by the casual sincerity of a college professor or career foreign service officer. Pollock combined heart and intellect and packaged them into his “TCK Profile” traveling medicine show. He was almost always on the road speaking to sponsoring agencies, teachers, parents, and adult TCKs around the world; and it’s what he was doing when he died unexpectedly in Vienna on Easter Sunday 2004.[ii]

Pollock understood the power of myth—in the truest sense of that word: to impart guidance about life through universal stories with sympathetic particulars that resonates with the individual. When the accumulated wisdom sparks in the immediacy of the present moment, magic happens. Pollock was an alchemist, a master at using anecdotes to illustrate a principle or make the research personal; and the result was gold. Pollock always described himself as a “TCK wanabee”—a way, I think, to emphasize the enviable positive attributes of our special background.

While still in his teens, Pollock worked as a youth camp counselor in the Adirondacks mountains (a wilderness resort area in upstate New York) where he came in contact with both children from other countries and MKs­—American missionary kids who had been raised overseas. Already at this time he began asking, “who’s going to take care of these people?” In 1959, at age nineteen, he spent a summer with missionaries in Yucatan, Mexico. Shortly before he left, a fellow camp counselor introduced David to his sister, Betty Lou, and while Pollock was in Mexico they corresponded regularly. The week he arrived back in the States he asked her to marry him. Betty Lou recalls seeing David on her front lawn, deeply tanned and with a new curly brown beard; she thought he looked just like Fidel Castro. She agreed to marry him, anyway. (Many years later Dave and Betty Lou were in Jerusalem for one of his speaking engagements about third culture kids. He was wearing a tan leather jacket and a keffiyeh, the checkered scarf common among Arab men. It began to rain and Dave placed the keffiyeh on his head, using the traditional braided band to hold it in place. A passing American tourist—carrying a big fat Bible, as Betty Lou recalled the event—said: “Look, there goes Yaser Arafat!”)

After graduating from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Pollock attended Houghton College, a small Christian liberal arts college in western New York, as a pre-med student. Although raised in Presbyterian and Methodist churches, he was ordained a Conservative Baptist and pastored an independent “Bible church” in New Jersey for seven years. From 1977 to 1980 Pollock worked at a Bible college in Kijabe, Kenya. With a young daughter and three sons of their own, Dave and Betty Lou also served as home boarding parents for high school boys attending Rift Valley Academy, a school for missionaries’ children. Pollock had become, in the language of anthropologists, a “participant-observer”—in effect doing the same kind of field research the Useems had done in India twenty-five years earlier.

When they returned to the States, Pollock took an organization he had co-founded in the 1960s, Manhattan Youth Services, and turned it into Interaction, now focusing exclusively on the needs of internationally mobile families. He developed the “TCK Profile” and a flow-of-care model that together would form the basis of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, Revised Edition, written with Ruth Van Reken. Many people could see the need for such a “manual,” not for scholars but for a general audience, primarily TCKs themselves, their parents, and caregivers. But with Pollock’s relentless speaking schedule and involvement in a number of organizations, the book didn’t get written for another two decades.

In 1983, Houghton College asked David Pollock to come back and help internationalize their curriculum. He worked as a consultant and recruiter—never as a fulltime professor—but Houghton became the Pollocks’ home for the rest of his life. He served as a part-time adjunct faculty with the imposing title of “Director of International Affairs.” In fact, it took the combined credentials of two other women and guest lecturers, and Pollock’s overseas experience in Kenya, to create an academically-justifiable course in cultural anthropology. In 2000 Houghton College awarded Pollock an honorary doctorate in pedagogy.

In 1984 Interaction co-sponsored the first International Conference on Missionary Kids in Manila, Philippines. This was followed by two more—in Quito, Ecuador (1987) and Nairobi, Kenya (1989).[iii] Dave was co-director of all three and on the board of many of the growing number of organizations related to TCK issues, including Association of Christian Schools International, MuKappa (aimed at college-age MKs), Families in Global Transition (co-founded by Ruth Van Reken in 1998), and Global Nomads International, created by Norma McCaig in 1984. Along with his demanding workshop schedule that took him all over the world in various settings, Pollock continued to speak regularly in local churches. Van Reken recalls that when she first visited Pollock at Houghton College, “I was shocked to see that all this worldwide operation happened in a little office with a copy machine and one volunteer secretary.”

In later years, with his mischievous eyes, shiny cheeks, and full white beard rounding out his face, the character David most resembled was Papa Smurf—from the Saturday morning television cartoon popular in the 1980s.[iv] I use these various visual analogies deliberately, in keeping with Pollock’s multi-facetted character. He could, as Saint Paul put it, become all things to all people, using every means possible to win over whomever he could (1 Corinthians 9:22). As his widow Betty Lou noted, “David was equally at home behind a lectern in a Singaporean suit or running his chain saw in jeans frayed at the cuffs.”[v] He had the passion of a political activist, but also the easy good-humor of someone who has learned not to take life too seriously. (One of Pollock’s memorable gems, poking fun at stereotypes, was the comment, “All Indians walk single file; at least the one I saw did.”) When the world caught up with him, or seemed to turn his world into knots, witnessing his anger was more sad than scary—coming from such a grace-filled man. And with all the bureaucracies he had to navigate behind the curtains of his lecture platform, I’m sure he sometimes wondered what rabbit hole he had fallen into this time.

In a personal preface to Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, Revised Edition the book Van Reken co-authored with Pollock, she writes, “Sometimes there is a specific moment in a specific day that creeps up so unannounced, it is hardly recognized for its significance, but ever afterward it marks the point when everything changed. Life is never quite the same again. I, and countless others who have grown up in countries and cultures outside that of our parents, have known such a moment. It is that first instant we learn that we have a name…”[vi]

Even today, more than twenty years after my own TCK epiphany, my eyes become moist when I read those words. In her Foreword to the same book, Norma McCaig makes a similar point, that “for many who have grown up globally, having their past validated and placed in the clear context of a shared heritage brings with it a stunning sense of safe homecoming.” For spouses, the effect of watching this unfold at one of Pollock’s workshops is both poignant and amusing: “They sit, wide-eyed and incredulous, listening intently as their beloved’s peculiarities are described in detail by a total stranger.”[vii]

I first attended one of David Pollock’s seminars in 1990, at American University in Washington, D.C. Indeed, I had the sensation of listening to a clairvoyant or fortune teller. It may have been a little spooky, but there was nothing vague in the patterns and illustrations Dave presented. Their power was in their indisputable accuracy—at an emotional level, even if the stories were not the same. That night, I went back with Pollock to the dorm room where he was staying and continued pouring out my heart on the issues that had been torn open during the seminar. Despite his rigorous travel schedule and the exhaustion of leading an all-day event, Pollock was an engaged listener. In those few short hours together Dave came to seem like an old friend. I look back on my earnest imposition with a mixture of gratitude, embarrassment, and wonder. For him, I was just one of thousands of such encounters, but for me it was the beginning of a life-changing catharsis.[viii]

Pollock’s workshop helped me realize there is a reason I was who I am (the different perspective, the trouble fitting in); it wasn’t all my quirky/rebellious/artistic “self-absorbed” personality. But more than an explanation, my “TCKness” gave me the community I had never really had. Focusing on the life-long impact of a globally mobile childhood, the stereotypes we had about each other’s sponsoring agencies quickly became irrelevant. And my own “uprooted” childhood—our family going to Pakistan when I was five years old, then back and forth to boarding school every spring and fall, then returning to the United States for high school—suddenly felt positively mono-cultural after meeting people who had lived in eight different countries in the same number of years while growing up. Norma McCaig used to say that we were not rootless—we are rooted horizontally rather than vertically. Despite our widely different experiences, parents’ professions, and host countries, we often feel more at home with other global nomads than with our peers in the society of our citizenship.


[i] Various color combinations are used for the four quarters, but in every indigenous culture where the medicine wheel is found the West is represented by black. It symbolizes the cave of introspection and is a reminder of what we don’t know, the vastness of the cosmos, the mystery of life itself. At the same time, it is the place (the season, the part of ourselves) where we grapple with these things and gain understanding, a place of knowledge, creativity—and reverence.

[ii] Pollock, who even as a teenager had been preaching as a guest speaker at local churches in his hometown of Troy, New York, literally collapsed at the podium while giving a TCK seminar in Vienna, Austria. It was determined that he had severe pancreatitis as a result of a gall bladder operation the previous year. Emergency surgery was performed, but the next morning he had a cardiac arrest. Pollock held on for nine more days—time enough that all his family was able to be with him when he died on April 11, 2004.

[iii] Subsequent conferences have continued to be held on a more regional basis. See Pam Echerd and Alice Arathoon, eds., Understanding and Nurturing the Missionary Family: Compendium of the International Conference on Missionary Kids Quito Ecuador January 4-8, 1987 (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1989).

[iv] The Smurfs was originally a comic strip created by the Belgian cartoonist Peyo (Pierre Culliford) in 1958.

[v] In David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, rev. ed. (Boston/London: Nicholas Brealey, 2009), 287.

[vi] David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, The Third Culture Kid Experience: Growing Up Among Worlds (Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1999), xxiii. Revised and republished as Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds (Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2001; rev. 2009).

[vii] Pollock and Van Reken, The Third Culture Kid Experience (1999), x.

[viii] Thank you, Gary Wright, Director of International/Intercultural Student Services at American University during the 1990s, for putting an intriguing flyer on a bulletin board at Wesley Theological Seminary, where I worked at the time.

Our Tribal Elders, Identity with Ruth Useem

Today it is Part 3 in this series by Paul Asbury Seaman. Read part 1 here (Introduction) and part 2 here (The Heart of Ruth Van Reken). I gleaned a lot of information from part 3 that I hadn’t known about how this term Third Culture Kid came into existence. I appreciate especially Paul’s discussion in the last paragraphs of how this is not a descriptor of characteristics of a community but rather of how that community interacts with the broader world.

Paul attended Murree Christian School in Pakistan. He currently lives in the Bay Area, California with his wife Catherine. He has published several articles about the impact of growing up overseas as well as a memoir, Paper Airplanes in the Himalayas: The Unfinished Path Home (West and the Wider World)

Website: Paul Asbury Seaman and you can contact him at pasburyseaman@gmail.com


our tribal elders ruth useem

Anyone who has read Letters Never Sent, or one of the many other TCK memoirs and anthologies, understands the power of naming things. It is one of the most potent aspects of religion. Naming something puts a border around it; makes it less scary, easier to manage. And it tells us who we are. Ruth Hill Useem was the first one to name us. Moving clockwise around the medicine wheel, the second quadrant is the South, where we grow into and affirm our individuality, a place of clarity and a sense of purpose—where we begin to recognize our potential.

Dr. Useem was a sociologist at Michigan State University. From 1952 to 1985 she studied expatriate communities, overseas schools, and the discrete subcultures of organizations working abroad, including the military, religious missions, diplomatic services, private businesses, and nonprofit agencies. Her later work focused on the impact of living abroad on minor dependents and eventually took her to seventy-six countries.

The first cross-cultural research conducted by Useem, and her husband John, had been on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota.[i] They wanted to explore the psycho-social dynamics of people (such as health care workers, educators, and government officials) who move temporarily across cultural borders for organizational reasons. Ten years later (in 1952), now with three children in tow, the Useems went to India with similar questions about people who had gone to a Western country for their higher education.

The Useems made a second, year-long trip to India in 1958, this time to study American expatriates working there. What they discovered was that these families, businesses, embassies, international schools, military commissaries, and mission compounds all developed patterns of interaction with their host country that were distinct, patterns that incorporated elements of both the home culture and the host culture into what the Useems called a “Third Culture.” While compiling their observations over the next few years, Ruth coined the term “Third Culture Kids” to refer to the children who grow up in such an environment. Her findings have been confirmed and elaborated on by many others and do not need to be summarized again here.[ii]

Glancing through Ruth Useem’s eight-page single-spaced curriculum vitae, what is most striking is how her academic career prefigured the trend toward interdisciplinary studies that would not take hold on university campuses for another three decades. Even her B.A. degree (in 1936, from Miami University in Ohio) is listed as “Sociology, Geology, English.” Introducing a long list of teaching credits, Useem writes, in that same résumé, that her central emphasis “has been combining sociological, cultural anthropological and social psychological perspectives for understanding individuals in their social/cultural/economic settings, particularly when those settings are undergoing rapid change and conflict. Over the life course, how do individuals construct and reconstruct their complex self-identities . . . ?”

Ruth Useem was recipient of numerous national awards for her contributions in sociology, international studies, and the advancement of women in academic professions. She was listed in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who of American Women, and World Who’s Who of Women. In many ways, however, her greatest influence came, not from her accomplishments but from her personality. Ann Baker Cottrell, one of Useem’s doctoral students and later co‑director of the major ongoing study of adult TCKs, writes, “she was a mother and mentor to almost everyone she met—especially professional women, students and TCKs. . . . I think I was one of many women who were the daughters she did not have.”[iii]

In the 1940s Useem was the only female in her graduate program at the University of Wisconsin. In 1951, she accompanied her husband to Michigan State University in East Lansing. Despite her own Ph.D., and full collaboration in all her husband’s research and many of his seminars, it took seven years for her to obtain an assistant professorship. Because of the anti-nepotism rules of the time, she was not allowed to hold a position in the same department as her husband. Thus, she worked out of the graduate student Quonset hut for $1.00 a year—so the university could get credit when she published. Many women would later remember how seeing Ruth Useem “pregnant and professional at national meetings empowered them to pursue advanced degrees.”[iv]

In the late-1960s Useem actively recruited graduate students with third culture experience. The effort resulted in nine Ph.D. dissertations on TCK issues.[v] When Ruth Useem died in 2003, at age eighty-eight, many of her friends and former colleagues recalled the famous gatherings at the Useems’ house, where amongst all the intellectual discourse was also a sense of family. Two dark wood tables came to symbolize Ruth’s provocatively seamless world: a coffee table in the living room, always stacked with books and the latest academic journals,[vi] and a large dining room table that was the scene of other kinds of feasting and fellowship.

In trying to describe Ruth Useem I am reminded of another diminutive Ruth: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Both were early feminists and pioneers in their male-dominated professions. The historic contributions both of them made in their respective fields was influenced by being female in a sexist society, but also by their experience as mothers. (Commenting on a particular case, Ginsberg once said that she didn’t think some of her colleagues understood what it was like to be a thirteen-year-old girl.[vii]) Likewise, it is doubtful that Ruth Useem could have come to understand so clearly the concept of TCKs if she had not accompanied her husband to India, not only as a colleague but as a wife and mother—with three third culture kids of her own.

John Useem’s focus tended to be much more cerebral and academic, looking at institutional structures and broad sociological principles. It was Ruth’s interest in the personal impact of these cross-cultural dynamics, particularly on children, that led her to pursue this as a research priority. A combination of circumstances and her interdisciplinary approach to scholarship made Ruth Useem uniquely qualified to identify and champion this distinct population—and become both midwife and mother to a movement.

Whether her subject was American Indians or Asian Indians educated in America, whether it was Americans working overseas or their offspring, in each case the purpose of Useem’s research was not foremost to identify the characteristics of a particular population, but to gain insights into how its members interacted with the majority culture around them. Whenever I tell people about TCKs I’m always quick to qualify that it really has nothing to do with “Third World.” Actually, in a way it does—and Dr. Useem saw the parallels with that anachronism of the Cold War. Originally it described those nations that were neither aligned with the West nor with the Communist Bloc dominated by the Soviet Union. We, too, are “neither-nors” who don’t want to choose sides and refuse to be categorized. We like our independence, but we still want to be involved. The southern quadrant on the medicine wheel represents the season not only of establishing our personal identity but finding where we fit in relation to others and what we have to contribute.


[i] There is a nice—and unintended—symmetry between the primary motif of this article and the origins of Ruth Useem’s intercultural/TCK research. Also interesting: the Rosebud (Lakota) Sioux Reservation is less than a hundred miles east of Wounded Knee, South Dakota (on the Pine Ridge Reservation), site of the infamous Indian massacre of 1890 and the last major conflict in the endless Indian Wars that accompanied the European expansion West.

[ii] See for example her article, with Ann Baker Cottrell, in Carolyn D. Smith, ed., Strangers At Home: Essays on the Effects of Living Overseas and Coming “Home” to a Strange Land (New York: Aletheia Publications, 1996); also various resources catalogued and available on line at www.tckworld.com and www.tckids.com. The concept of a “third culture” was first written about in 1969 (see TCK Research Network News 2:2 [Summer 2009], 1), but the first dissertations and articles to refer specifically to third culture kids/TCKs were not published until 1976.

[iii] Personal correspondence with the author. Much of the biographical material about Ruth Useem was provided by Ann Cottrell, professor emeritus at San Diego State University, San Diego, CA. Dr. Cottrell also must be given credit for pushing Useem to initiate what became their joint survey and analysis of 700 adult TCKs. Tellingly, as Cottrell recounts, “The study was initially designed as a small exploratory study of no more than 50 in-depth interviews. . . . Word got out and people started contacting us asking to be in the study. It was clear people wanted to do more than recount where they’d lived, etc. The background information survey grew to 24 pages.”

[iv] Ann Cottrell. Personal correspondence with the author and writing in memorial to Ruth Useem.

[v] Ann Cottrell, “Happy 40th Birthday Third Culture Kids!” TCK Research Network News 2:2 (Summer 2009), 1. See also Note 13, above.

[vi] One family friend remembers that Ruth liked to subscribe to newly launched journals; it seemed to Useem that a lot of pent-up creativity got expressed in the initial issues. According to Newslinks (International Schools Services newsletter) (Winter 2003-04, p. 16), Ruth Hill Useem’s personal collection of works by and about third culture kids was donated to Yale Theological Library; a bibliography she compiled of nearly 1,400 published works on the subject is available from Ann Baker Cottrell, 5111 Manhasset Dr., San Diego, CA 92115; email: acottrel@mail.sdsu.edu.

[vii] Dahlia Lithwick, “The Female Factor: Will three women really change the court?” Newsweek (Sept. 6, 2010), 19.

Our Tribal Elders, The Heart of Ruth Van Reken

Today I offer you Part 2 of the paper by Paul Asbury Seaman, Our Tribal Elders. This part, about the heart of Ruth Van Reken made me cry and I’m not a Third Culture Kid, though I am raising three of them. So many beautiful things here today.

Last week in the Introduction, Paul wrote that:

In a very primal sense we are formed by the landscape of our upbringing—by specific events and social factors as well as the physical place. But our identity is equally influenced by how we interpret this heritage. The basic human question Who am I? is not just about self-discovery but finding our place in the world…

…Placing each of our tribal elders—Van Reken, Useem, Pollock, and McCaig—in one of the Four Directions of the medicine wheel will highlight their distinct contribution and also illustrate four different “windows through which to view the global nomad enigma. These are heart, identity, wisdom, and integration.

(Read all of Part 1 here) And today he will begin diving into the lives of the four people who left massive impacts on the conversation about growing up as a Third Culture Kid by looking at how Ruth Van Reken embodies ‘heart.’

Paul attended Murree Christian School in Pakistan. He currently lives in the Bay Area, California with his wife Catherine. He has published several articles about the impact of growing up overseas as well as a memoir, Paper Airplanes in the Himalayas: The Unfinished Path Home (West and the Wider World)

Website: Paul Asbury Seaman and you can contact him at pasburyseaman@gmail.com


Heart… Ruth Van Reken (b. 1945) Our deepest, most satisfying connection to others—as well as to places, things, even ideas—comes from the heart. This is where we hold our most cherished beliefs and sense of self, and it is the heart that tells us we are home when we find what we have been yearning for. The first quadrant of the medicine wheel is the East, the direction of the rising sun, of new beginnings, and family. This is where we experience our emotions and our most vulnerable moments. It is here, in the heart, that we feel the ache of displacement and it is through the heart that we redeem our sense of belonging.

Ruth Van Reken’s credentials as a spokesperson for TCKs are partly genetic. She comes second in four consecutive generations of third culture kids. At one point when she was a little girl, her family (including her parents and older sister) consisted of four people born on four different continents. In her adult life, her husband’s career as a doctor included time in the Navy and several years with an interdenominational mission board; in Liberia he was assigned to the main government hospital, sponsored by USAID; in Kenya he worked as a professor for the medical school of Moi University in Eldoret. This gave Ruth experience in four of the major categories of sponsoring agencies from which TCKs come: military, religious missions, government, and education (the others being corporate and nonprofit).

Her grandfather was a missionary doctor who set up a Presbyterian hospital in Resht, Iran—then known as Persia. Her father was born there, became a missionary himself, and took the family to Africa for the first time in 1944. (The ship on which they crossed the Atlantic was sunk by German planes on its return voyage to New York.) Ruth was born in Kano, Nigeria and, not counting two home-leave “furloughs,” lived there until she was thirteen. Four more of her siblings were born in Nigeria where her parents worked for a total of thirty-four years. During high school Ruth lived with her grandmother and aunt in Chicago. She did not see her parents once in four years.

Later, she married David Van Reken, soon to become a doctor and a man who shared her calling to mission work. David served two years at the U.S. Navy hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia, and in 1976 Ruth returned to Africa, this time as a wife and mother.[i] Working through SIM (Society for International Ministries; formerly Sudan Interior Mission), they spent nine years in Liberia, where the first of three daughters was born. The global itch was passed down again, and Ruth’s first grandchild was born in Ghana.

One day when Ruth was growing up, her father told her he felt like he didn’t quite fit anywhere, and she was shocked. This from a man who had regaled Ruth and her siblings with stories of his childhood in Persia, a man who was a well-regarded leader in their mission community, the one people came to whenever there was strife between missionaries and the Nigerian church leaders. (Both sides trusted him, but in the end both sides got mad at him for not taking their side. Being a cultural bridge can be a lonely task.) But her father also used to tell Ruth: “Wherever you go, unpack your bags and plant your trees. Too many people keep waiting to move and they never really live. If you have to move, then at least you will have lived life fully while you are here. If you don’t get to eat off your trees, someone else will.”

Van Reken’s first book, Letters Never Sent, a global nomad’s journey from hurt to healing grew out of Ruth’s struggle with inexplicably persistent depression as a happily married adult. It is presented as a series of letters she might have written to her parents—if she had been able to name her feelings—beginning with her first night at a missionary boarding school in Nigeria and concluding the day her own daughter leaves Africa to begin high school in the United States. The result, published in 1988, is a sort of memoir that carefully reconstructs the little girl’s pain and how that unresolved grief impacts her as she moves into adulthood. With the special power of personal narratives, Ruth’s book has helped thousands of people get in touch with grief. Psychology tells us that we cannot truly feel joy until we are willing to feel all our emotions, including anger, sadness, and fear.

Not everyone will relate to Ruth’s boarding school experience, or to the overtly Christian perspective of her upbringing (and that of the adult author). But the themes of loss and grief, of unintended consequences, and how children can so easily misunderstand the most well-intentioned actions of their parents—these are universal. Although barely 160 pages, it took me a year to finish Letters Never Sent. I cried on almost every page. The book is powerful because of Ruth’s courageous presentation of her feelings, without judgment or analysis, simply describing the sense of abandonment, the compulsive insecurities, and the irrational fear of losing those close to her that continued to plague her well into adulthood. As a result of naming the things she previously felt she was not allowed to even feel, let alone say, Ruth was able to let them go.

Her modest little book is now something of a classic of global nomad literature, far beyond how she originally conceived it.[ii] It would be hard to find someone more empathetic, who is a more fully-present listener, than Ruth Van Reken. And that is her continuing gift. Such compassion—the ability to authentically connect with another person’s pain—would not be possible if she had not acknowledged her own. Ruth’s “letters” were a deliberate part of her faith journey, not just a therapeutic exercise; and her struggle with darkness enabled her to see the commonalities beyond our disparate backgrounds and personalities—starting with the lonely child in each of us, longing for connection, to be loved, to know that we belong.[iii]

Intimacy is the greatest expression of feeling at home. Learning to embrace the whole of our past (whether or not we ever get it all untangled) is part of our wholeness as human beings—and as a culture. It has been said that intimacy means “in to me see.” We cannot be closer to someone else than we are to ourselves. The awareness and trust that creates such closeness must include owning all our feelings—the accumulation of buried emotions as well as what we feel at any given moment. Letters Never Sent is about reconciliation—with our past, with others, and with the conflicts within ourselves. Sometimes we have to forgive life itself for not being all we thought it should have been. More than something we do, forgiveness is a state of grace beyond blame.

Recently, Ruth told me about flying across the mountains of Afghanistan a few months earlier, in a small single-engine airplane like the ones in which she used to travel across Africa as a child; and how the plane banked to dodge the masses of low-level clouds. Later, sitting in a cold guest house after leading yet another workshop on third culture kids and their families—in forty countries, so far—she realized, This is what I was born to do. Everything in her life, all the pain and displacement, joys and connections, had prepared her for the satisfaction of her life now and the effectiveness of her calling. The awareness of such complete integration is a moment most of us can only hope to achieve. In many ways, Ruth has become one of the fruit trees her father counseled her to plant.


[i] Ruth Van Reken had a B.A. in Nursing, as well as being an R.N. But with the trend toward nationalizing mission hospitals and education institutions, her services were declined. Instead (along with raising four children), Ruth started a Bible study group for interracial couples. In a serendipitous foreshadowing of her later work with TCKs and CCKs (cross-cultural kids), it was here that she was first exposed to cross-sector commonalities and saw the many hidden aspects of cross-cultural relationships.

[ii] Including the first, self-published version, more accurately titled Letters I Never Wrote (1987), Van Reken estimates that as of 2010 Letters Never Sent has sold about 35,000 copies—“not really that significant by publishing standards,” she adds quickly, in her usual self-effacing way.

[iii] In summarizing survey responses from adult TCKs, Van Reken lists nine challenges they experience as a result of their cross-cultural background. Six of them—fully two-thirds—relate in some way to the question, “Where do I belong?” www.tckid.com/step2 (accessed June 30, 2010).

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