Here’s the traditional definition of a TCK:
A person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of the same background. – Dave Pollack, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds
For a long time the “traditional” TCK was understood to be one who leaves their parent’s passport country and grows up in a different country. I’m interested in talking here about another kind of TCK, the “domestic TCK,” one who grows up cross-culturally within one nation.
A feeling common to many Third Culture Kids (TCKs) is that of being seen, but unknown. TCKs often look by their skin color or dress, or sound by their language or accent like they belong to a certain social group, but feel more belonging or loyalty to a different group. I, Brianna look and sound like I belonged perfectly well in the Pacific Northwest, that is until I started to tell any story at all that took place before college. I was in Papua New Guinea for most of my life until then. But you can’t tell it by looking at me, at least not since I learned to dress a little more consistent with current U.S. trends. Not to bash how I used to dress, but…it was different. This is a pretty stereotypical TCK experience for those who grow up outside their passport country, but I want to introduce to another kind of TCK, those who grow up in the country where they are a citizen, but have an third culture experience of that country.
My classmate, Mike grew up with me and the rest of our classmates at an international school at the Ukarumpa missionary center in Papua New Guinea. For a lot of fascinating reasons too complicated to describe here, Ukarumpa is not within any particular Papua New Guinean city or village. It is near and among villages and towns, but is not one. It is a separate place and culture all its own. It is my home, and Mike’s home, but he is a citizen of Papua New Guinea who is not from any Papua New Guinean town or village. It is in Papua New Guinea where he could have the experience of looking and sounding typical, until he starts to tell stories about childhood. TCKs growing up within a subculture within their passport country are a kind of TCK that gets less press, but should not be forgotten.
Leaving Ukarumpa was something I anticipated from childhood and there was always a plan to go to college in the U.S. That was a pretty easy to pull off given my citizenship, family history of college attendance, access to Federal loans, and other factors. However, finding his path after college was completely different for Mike who didn’t have these advantages and whose family didn’t talk much about “life after Ukarumpa.” Long story short/story for another time, Mike attended college in Canada and now lives there with his wife and two sons.
Recently I had the privilege of interviewed Mike about his Domestic TCK experience!
10 Questions for a Papua New Guinean TCK from Ukarumpa
*UIHS = Ukarumpa International High School
*PNGan = Papua New Guinean; Ukarumpa = missionary base/centre in Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea
1. What do you miss about Ukarumpa and what do you not miss? What if anything surprised you about what you turned out to miss or not miss?
I miss the people, my PNG family and friends and the MK kids I grew up with. Surprisingly, I don’t miss the place as much as I thought I would. To me, it is the people who created that place and whom I made memories with at the Ukarumpa.
2. What perspective have you gained on your life at Ukarumpa now that you are older or now that you no longer live there (or both)?
I lived in a bubble and the world is a completely different place outside of Ukarumpa. I have also noticed a lot of inequality around housing, employment, retirement, church, services and social status between the Papua New Guineans who work on the centre versus the missionaries with most of the policies benefiting the missionaries and not so much the Papua New Guineans.
3. What have you realized the wider world (the people who surround you now and or the people at Ukarumpa now) might not understand about what your life was like at Ukarumpa?
I don’t think the wider secular world really understands why anyone would go to a foreign country with their family and live there for many years to translate the Bible. A lot of them think it’s a cult-like movement but that also opens doors to discussions around that and I have had many constructive discussions around God, Missions, Faith and life as a Papua New Guinean.
4. What was it like to transition away from being a UIHS student to a UIHS graduate, particularly as a Papua New Guinean?
It was very hard. Ukarumpa was my home and livelihood since birth to the end of High School and unlike my MK peers I didn’t know what would happen when that world evaporated in front of me. I was a PNGan within my home country but I didn’t feel like I was at home and that let me to a lot of confusion and frustration trying to make sense of life. I think a lot of PNGans would share similar feelings.
5. What do you wish someone else had told you about what to expect about this transition?
It may be an emotional roller coaster ride and that’s okay. Humans are relational beings and so when people leave a variety of emotions are experienced. Reach out. It’s important to talk about it and not let it fester. Chances are there are many others who are going through the transition.
6. What would you tell yourself if you could give a message to yourself right after graduation? It’s okay that you don’t know what the future holds, never cease to trust the one who holds the future. I had a hard time trying to figure out how my future would turn out and tried to do so so much to figure out where I would end up. It’s always best to pray, trust God and be patient in and through the moments of uncertainty.
7. Who supported you the most as you went from being a UIHS student to graduate?
I was in a unique situation where I had to repeat my grade 12 year so by the time I returned all the familiar faces I grew up had left. I had to rebuild my friendship and even then I knew it would only be for one year before they departed. So my parents were my unwavering support as I went from a student to a graduate. I also had a couple missionary families who knew me very well and helped encourage me and look for different options and explore different options after high school.
8. Who have you found in your life that understands you best now and what do they get about you?My wife and some of my MK And Papua New Guinean Friends. Although my wife never grew up in Ukarumpa she has been back a couple times and is able to relate to a lot of topics I bring up.
9. Given that home is such a complicated thing, instead, what activities make you feel most at home or fully yourself? (for example, one for me is eating dinner outside with my family, in college it was camping).
Eating dinner in the living room instead of the dining room as that was what I did with my family growing up. I also try to speak as much pidgin I can with my wife and kids. Cooking and eating foods, like kaukau and greens.
10. If you were in charge of Ukarumpa, what would you change and why?
One of the biggest things I would change/add would be providing more transition support to the PNGan employees and their kids, especially those that are going through the High School. PNGan employees have to move out of Ukarumpa at a certain age and most are not given much support to life outside of Ukarumpa. Also with the PNGan kids to provide/explore options that are applicable to their circumstances such as overseas undergrad studies, scholarships or even options to national universities.
Social App for college student TCKs https://www.madisonzeller.com/cultureclub
Third Culture Kids (book) https://www.amazon.com/Third-Culture-Kids-Growing-Revised/dp/1857885252
Families in Global Transition https://www.figt.org/