third-culture thoughts

On the streets of Budapest as thousands of Hungarians remember the Soviet invasion of 1956.

It wrapped its arms around my head and pulled as the revolving door spit me into its dim realm. As the days and years passed, the not unpleasant but pungently earthy smell would become a reminder that I had left the sphere of one world and entered an inner sanctum; a sub-world, if you will, where people carried their burdens in speeding bullets of dark passages. The Moscow metroFresh air became redefined and distributed with the whoosh of 150 kilometer per hour measurements and the multiplication of bodies sharing a tiny compartment. 

Thousands gather in Heroes Square, Budapest to remember the Revolution of 1956

Lessons                                                                                                                                                      Shhh. Speak only Russian,’ Chuck would remind his two little girls and four blue eyes would valiantly try to curb their childishly enchanting giggles. Because I was an aunt before I was a mom, these are a part of the milieu of my first, precious, Moscow memories. All of us were learning what it meant to blend in, to enculturate, to synchronize our habits and expectations with our host culture.

As Jay and I became parents, four little girls made their toothless entrances into our lives. There, in the midst of toddlers, pampers, and sticky fingers, I found myself reading and resonating with a book called Third-Culture Kids by David Pollock. It was then that I first understood what our choice to live in a host culture would mean for our children.

Budapest police erect a barrier in preparation for a political rally.

Our four lively girls are a category. There is a defining title to explain the fact that they are forever different.  In some way a little out of sync with their peers, they are a sub-group of their culture, of every culture. Perhaps, more pointedly, they are a culture unto themselves – that  puzzle piece that never quite clicks flush with the rest of the picture. And they perceive it, they sense it, they know it; at fundamental levels, they are defined by it.

Europe’s varied transport system – a tram in Krakow.

A lumbering pregnant woman teetered on the edge as she waited for the metro car to arrive. She had the kind of impending birth look, which begs a stare but manners demand that you lower your gaze. Suddenly, the train burst into the station with the whoosh of pungent air and the swell of people swept her to the threshold of the crushingly crowded car. She hesitated.  Then, rocking back as the doors slammed closed, in a split second decision she determined that there was no room for her as a package deal.  When the train accelerated from the now desolate track, an umbilical pull birthed realization on her face. The outer pocket of her coat was caught in the door of a metro car rapidly gaining speed. With more instinct than thought, she heaved baby and body against the momentum, successfully ripping the pocket from its solid foundation. Expelling the breath she had not realized she held, the realities of the event began to sink in as she stared into a now silent corridor. Her last visual was of a green pocket waving a hearty goodbye as it exited University station on the red line.

Amongst my maternity clothes lovingly packed away in a box, is that green, Moscow coat minus one very unfortunate pocket. Lexi was the baby I carried that day, and the metro event plants itself as a marker. Each girl has one of her own events: the crash of the Russian ruble while Sophia was in-vitro, a near-miss with a hand grenade while pregnant with Lydia, and Jenna had a wild ride when her mom chased a Romanian thief down a Bucharest street. Before they ever drew their first breath, they were already leading the unique life of a third-culture kid.

EVENTS                                                                                                                                                            It is not uncommon for people to read ‘unique’ and think ‘exotic’ when our children talk about their experiences. True, they live in Europe, they have been in multiple countries, ridden trains, flown before they walked, tasted a variety of cuisines but we long for you to understand their context.

Waiting for the final flight. The long journey home.

One of the first questions they regularly expressed as toddlers when traveling: ‘Which English will I speak when we get there?‘ As they grew older, the reminder: ‘In this country it is safer to / not to speak a certain language.’

They know that you eat fish, even if fish makes you want to throw up, because the hostess has sacrificed to honor you as a guest.

They have played with orphanage children and internalizing the reality of real poverty, stood before congregations in America to ask for donations to buy them Christmas gifts. They feel the unfairness of prejudice because ‘those Roma (Gypsies)’ are people with whom they worship in church . They have seen its deathly nature when Andrew, their Nigerian friend who taught them to play guitar and carried them on his shoulders, was stabbed in the side by a group of neo-Nazis on a Sofia street.  He lived in their home to recuperate.


Second-hand smoke and pollution are an inescapable part of life.

Every time you get into the car, people with real needs are going to come to your window and beg for money. Nobody really knows what the best response is but some of the faces you now recognize as disconnected companions on your daily ride to school.

Mom being searched, Dad being questioned in the border-guard shack, suitcases being opened, flashlights scanning faces are NOT reasons for panic.

Street dogs are vicious and can be fatal. Panic!

Outside Saint Peter and Paul Church, Poznan, Poland

Our girls have slept through a mafia murder on the floor below them, lived through an undetonated hand grenade in the parking lot of the zoo, remember the explosion of a homemade bomb less than a kilometer away and the arrival of a misguided Nato missile in their  city. They have been harshly questioned at the border for certain stamps that they have in their passports. The path to the home of friends took them by mafia thugs with loaded machine guns. They experienced their first bomb evacuation from school in kindergarten and multiple times over the course of their elementary school years. They have watched uprisings, political rallies, and marches in the streets of their city and been abruptly separated from their family due to emergency crowd control efforts by police. They have witnessed military training at borders and wondered out loud why the men carrying rifles wore black masks to cover their faces.

They have led entire foreign teams around a city of several million, translated for and been responsible for people more than twice their age.

Yet, they would tell you that they have led very normal lives. And, they have … within the context of a childhood in Eastern Europe.

JOY                                                                                                                                                               Not only do Jay and I have the joy of raising four incredible girls in this amazing part of the world, but as Field Strategy Coordinators, we also have the privilege of working alongside colleagues in 11 countries of Central Europe. Our field has the largest number of Nazarene expatriate workers on any one field on the EurAsia region and that includes 27 third-culture kids, ranging in age from 2 years old to 18. We feel the responsibility for their healthy development.

Every one of these kids has similar stories of God’s faithfulness juxtaposed with the reality of poverty and discomfort, social unrest, the rawness of life and death and the sometimes tangible  but always powerful presence of the Holy Spirit.

A tractor circa the Soviet era waits beside us for a green light on a Budapest street

REFLECTION                                                                                                                                                          Very recently, my tears flowed freely as I listened to a young woman, now a mother of TCK’s herself, share beautiful parenting wisdom born out of her years growing up cross-culturally. When my eyes were dry, I spoke with her mom, a dear colleague of mine. Now a grandmother, my colleague reflected that at the time, the life they led seemed quite normal but in retrospect, she wondered about the dangers through which they had lived. Just for a second, I wondered too.

This season of celebrating the miraculously incarnational birth of a child who drew his first breaths far away from his home and took his first steps in a foreign land give me pause. Later, in a garden, in another time and place, that young man who knew an awful lot about the realities of growing up third-culture spoke to his Father. He asked that his friends would receive grace and courage to live out their lives in radical submission to their call. He never said it would be easy or safe. In fact, he said virtually the opposite.

Thinking about metros and giggling girls, a faithful God and cultures, hope for our world is birthed in my deepest heart. The Third-Culture Kid has so much to teach us, the Church, about sacrificing self in order to embrace, to live with, to understand, and ultimately to reach a world searching for answers, stability, peace … a place to call home.                                                                                                                                         

10 He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. 11 He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. 12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: 13 who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:10-14)

3 thoughts on “third-culture thoughts

  1. Your husband is the son of Rev. Sunberg who sat with our family when little Susan Bough was diagnosed cancer and she died. The Sunberg children were her friends in Griffith Indiana. He also performed his first marriage for my daughter Alice and Philip Bough there. The name Sunberg brings back many memories. I am 91 years old.

  2. I think one of these great daughters will be more than ready to navigate college at Trevecca. Her parents have prepared her for life wherever…. She will be a blessing to her new friends as she shares the wider world with them.

  3. I have to boys, 4 and 7. We are missionaries in Argentina. And one time they ask as: What are we… Americans(for mommy), Nicaraguan(for his daddy) or argentines… we just said: Home is where ever your family is.

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