Helping Third Culture Kids Understand Home: Books that Speak to the Expat Child

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Helping Third Culture Kids Understand Home

Third culture kids (TCKs) are a fascinating group of individuals who can identify with parts of several cultures, but never feel fully at home in any of them. These are very often missionary kids (MKs) or military kids. While their passports may label them as Americans or Canadians, they may feel more like Brazilians or Cambodians.

The question, “Where are you from?” can be one of the most difficult questions for them to answer. 

The Problem of Home

“Are you glad to be home?” a friend asked my 3-year-old shortly after we returned to the United States for a visit. My daughter gave me a confused look, and I could see her thinking, “What is this guy talking about? This isn’t my home!” 

The concept of home will always be a challenging one for TCKs. My children are American citizens, but the older ones were born in India. My oldest daughter felt particularly attached to India, and it annoyed her that she was not an Indian citizen. Once when she was about five, an Indian man asked her where she was from. My redheaded, freckle-faced girl looked up at him and replied firmly, “India.” When my family visits the States, we joke that our minivan is our home. 

Now that my children are older, they have developed their own standard answers to the question “Where are you from?” but even as they are giving their rote answers, I can see in their eyes that there is much below the surface that is hard to express and even harder for mono-cultural people to understand.

I have found that my kids, and other third culture kids I know (including my 70-year-old TCK father-in-law) really come alive when they are with other TCKs. They are with people whose lives and experiences may be vastly different from their own, but who share the commonality of living between worlds. There is something life giving about spending time with people you understand well and who understand you. It can give you a feeling of home. 

How Books Have Helped My Children Understand Home

Sarita often talks about the importance of stories, and it was while going through HBL E with my oldest that I realized what an impact books could have for TCKs. Our family was going through a major transition at the time as we were grieving the loss of one country while preparing to move to another. Then we read In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson. Though the main character in the story had a very different life and situation from ours, my daughter could strongly identify with the fact of leaving the place that had been home and learning to adjust to a completely different culture and situation. 

A year later we read Homesick and cried as Jean Fritz and her family were forced to leave the place she had thought of as home. Even books like Daughter of the Mountains and The Witch of Blackbird Pond have become special favorites of my TCK family because the characters learn to adapt to and thrive in cultures different from their own. 

I love watching my children enjoy these books and identify with the characters who are adjusting to different cultures, dealing with both humorous and frustrating cultural situations. Through these books, we understand that living life between two worlds, while not always easy, is a privilege that holds a great deal of joy. 

It is easy to think we are alone in our situations, and TCKs can feel that more than most. However identifying with these characters has brought a sense of comfort and peace to my children as they see that they are not the only ones dealing with these issues. These books have also given them a better understanding of who they are as Third Culture Kids. While they may never feel fully at home in any particular country, they can appreciate the culture in which they currently live as well as the unique culture they possess as TCKs.

Books that Speak to Third Culture Kids

Throughout our years of homeschooling with Sonlight we have come across multiple books that speak to Third Culture Kids. Here are several to add to those mentioned above:

  • Heartwood Hotel (HBL K) – A transitory mouse finds a place that just might become home.
  • The Cricket in Times Square(HBL C) – A gentle introduction to crossing cultures with the adventures of a country cricket who adjusts to life in New York City.
  • Sarah, Plain and Tall (HBL D) – A mail order bride must learn to thrive in a new culture when she moves from Maine to Kansas.
  • The Year of the Dog (HBL F) – A Chinese American girl learns to reconcile the culture of her family with that of those around her.
  • Habibi (HBL F) – A girl moves with her family to a new country and culture and must learn to understand and accept it.
  • Born in the Year of Courage (HBL F) – A Japanese boy unexpectedly finds himself in America and must learn to adapt.
  • It’s A Jungle Out There! (HBL H) – An American missionary kid tells stories of growing up in the Amazon.
  • Dragon’s Gate (History 120) – A Chinese boy is sent to America to work on the railroad.
  • My Heart Lies South (Lit. 130) – An American woman moves to Mexico, marries a Mexican, and must adjust to the culture, language, and way of life of her new family.
  • They Loved to Laugh (Lit. 130) – An orphaned girl moves in with her Quaker family and finds an entirely new culture within the same country.
  • Indian Captive (Lit. 130) – An girl learns to understand and appreciate the culture of her captors.
  • Stink Alley (Lit. 130) – A young orphan is adopted by the Puritans in Holland and must learn to fit in to the Puritan culture.
  • Children of the River (Lit. 330) – A teen girl in a Cambodian refugee family tries to become an American teenager while struggling to follow the expected traditions of her family’s culture.

A Better Country for Christians

In Sarah, Plain and Tall, Sarah has been missing her old home in Maine and tells her future husband Jacob that “there’s always something to miss, wherever you are.” 

TCKs live between worlds, and no matter where they are, there will always be something and someone to miss. 

This can be difficult, but it can also be a great opportunity for us as parents to point them to Christ and remind them that this world truly is not our home. For those who are believers in Christ, we know that our longing is for “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16 ESV). 

The apostles Paul and Peter remind us that we are “aliens and strangers” on this earth as our citizenship is in heaven (1 Peter 2:11, Philippians 3:20). Our TCKs can take comfort in the fact that while they may never feel truly at home anywhere on this earth, they have an eternal Home in heaven where there will be no more painful goodbyes and where they will be fully, truly at home

Until that time, TCKs need to know how to live in this world in a way that honors God. They have a unique understanding of the world that other people don’t have. How can God use that in their lives for His glory?

Missionary Biographies

Missionary biographies can be a great example to TCKs of what God is doing around the world in and through His people who are willing to cross cultural boundaries for the sake of His name. As they see the eternal work that others have done, they will have a better perspective on eternity. This can give them a clearer vision for their own lives, and it can also help TCKs who are missionary kids better understand what their families do and why. 

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2a).

  • Stories from Africa(PreK) – Stories of God’s faithfulness to His people in Africa
  • The Good News Must Go Out (HBL A) – Stories of God at work in Central African Republic
  • Return of the White Book (HBL A)– Stories of God at work in Southeast Asia
  • Catching Their Talk in a Box – (HBL B) – The Story of a missionary lady who makes gospel recordings for people to use the world over
  • George Muller (HBL B) – The story of a man of prayer who ran orphanages in England supported solely by prayer
  • And the Word Came with Power (HBL C) – The story of Bible translators in a remote village
  • Gladys Aylward (HBL C) – The story of a single missionary to China during the Soviet-Chinese war
  • With Two Hands (HBL C) – Stories of God at work in Ethiopia
  • Adoniram Judson (HBL D) – The story of one of the first missionaries to modern-day Myanmar who completed a Bible translation that is still in use today
  • Bruchko (HBL E) – The story of a young man who traveled to South America as a missionary without support
  • William Carey: Obliged to Go (HBL F) – The story of “The Father of Modern Missions” who did church planting and Bible translation in India
  • God’s Adventurer: Hudson Taylor (HBL F) – The story of an English missionary to China who went against the flow
  • Mary Slessor: Forward into Calabar (HBL F) – The story of a poor mill worker turned pioneer missionary in Africa
  • God’s Smuggler (HBL H) – The story of Brother Andrew who risked his life to take the Bible around the world
  • Cameron Townsend: Good News in Every Langauge (History 120) – The story of the founder of Wycliffe Bible Translators
  • Peace Child (Lit. 130) – The story of how God prepared a cannibal culture of Iran Jaya to receive the Gospel of Christ
  • Living on the Devil’s Doorstep (History 320) The story of a pastor’s son who becomes a missionary to the black sheep of society in Afghanistan and Holland.
  • There’s a Sheep in my Bathtub (History 320) – The story of an American family church planting among unreached people in Outer Mongolia
  • Eternity in their Hearts (Lit. 430) – Stories of how God worked to prepare peoples’ hearts for the gospel before missionaries arrived
  • Evidence Not Seen (Lit. 430) – The story of a single missionary’s faith, courage and survival in New Guinea during World War II
  • The Insanity of God (Lit. 530) – The story of missionaries who went through a crisis of faith and decided to learn from the stories of other believers around the world
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