Episode 111: Understanding and Ministering to Third Culture Kids with Kathy Gross and Teresa Rowland

This episode is Part 1 of a discussion and interview with two of my best friends who have worked with third culture kids overseas. In this part of the conversation we talk about education options when living overseas and ministering to TCK’s when they return to their home country. If you have any questions, please post them below in the comments.

Our Guests: Kathy Gross and Teresa Rowland

Kathy Gross

Kathy (left) with our friend Priscilla (right) having fun playing tourist in China.

Kathy has taught in international schools in Taiwan and China for over 20 years.

Teresa Rowland

Teresa grew up as a missionary kid in Colombia, South America, and then served as a missionary in Venezuela. She and her husband Bill currently serve in Oklahoma where Bill is the Director of Missions for the North Canadian Baptist Association of Churches..

Recommended Books for TCK’s:

Transcript with Links:


Welcome to “Books That Spark,” a podcast for parents and caregivers, celebrating books that spark imagination, emotion, questions, and discussion, leading to teachable moments with our kids. Today is a very special topic to my heart. We are going to be talking about third culture kids or TCKs and missionary kids, MKs, and what it is like to grow up overseas. And I have two very special guests with me today. They’re two of my very best friends. One is Kathy Gross, and she has lived in Taiwan and China as a teacher and has taught many expat children over the years, and Teresa Rowland, who I met in college, and she grew up as a missionary kid and also became a missionary. And so she has served as a missionary and as a missionary mom and has grown up as a missionary kid, they have unique perspectives to share with us today. And as you know, I have also been a missionary overseas for 15 years. We lived in Taiwan, administered there, and my husband was a TCK growing up in Venezuela and Singapore his whole life. So we have a lot of varying and different perspectives to share with you today. And when we’re finished, if you have any questions that we have not hit on that you would like answered, please feel free to put those questions in the comments below the show notes in the blog. So Kathy and Teresa, thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate your time.


Oh, we’re happy to.


Thank you for the invitation.


We wanted to spend this episode and the next one talking about third culture kids, expat missionary kids, and how we can minister to them, and some books you can use to encourage them. If you’re getting ready to move overseas, or if you’re a minister or teacher working with them, how you can understand them and maybe help them. Our youth minister asked how he could best minister to my kids when we moved back to the states. I thought that was really nice that he cared enough to ask. And I’ve wanted to do an episode like this since that time. So I’m looking forward to hearing what you guys have to say and what you have to share. Let’s start with just a few questions. Teresa, can you just basically tell us a little bit about your experience as a third culture kid and as a third culture adult?


Okay. I was six when we first moved overseas, we moved to Costa Rica so that my parents could go to language school. And I had my seventh birthday there and was seven when we moved to Colombia, lived there except for a couple of furloughs until I was 17 and went to college. So that was my time there. My experience as a mom with third culture kids, we went to Venezuela in 1992. My son was seven and my daughter was five. We had also spent some time in Costa Rica and were there until their teen years. And we’re back in the states for three years. And then our daughter was with us for one more year.


Okay. And Kathy, tell us a little bit about your experience.


When I first moved overseas to teach at an international school, I had no idea what a third culture kid was. And I didn’t know that there was anything different about third culture kids until I started teaching. So if I could just define third culture kid right away. A third culture kid is a child who has a passport from one country and is growing up in another country, or sometimes more than one other place while the child has a foot in both worlds. He or she doesn’t really feel like they completely belong in either culture, they might identify more strongly with one culture or the other, but when they’re in one country, they’re missing out on all the things that kids their age are doing in the other country. Not always, but usually they’re not the same ethnic group as the people that they’re living among so that even if their best friends are in this new culture, they don’t really necessarily feel like they belong. In trying to teach students, they had a lot of things going on in their mind and in their family and in their backgrounds that just give them a different perspective on life than a kid who’s born and raised and lives in the same place all their lives. So as I was teaching first in Taiwan, and then in China, I’ve learned a lot about the uniqueness of being a third culture kid and tried to be more supportive and understanding and looking for ways to help these students thrive.


Good. That’s a great explanation. I know we worked in a Korean church in the LA area when we were first married. And so I saw third culture kids from this side, and it was really interesting to see how they had adapted to the American culture pretty well, the young people had, the children had, the adults were still living a very Korean culture and the children spoke more English than they did Korean. And they just felt really separated in a way, from their parents. And their understanding of life in general was different. And it was very interesting to see their worldview, their ideas and attitudes about different things were different, and then of course, I saw that with my own kids, that they adapted to the culture much faster than I did and embraced the culture. And it became their home much faster in Taiwan than it did for me. My husband was a third culture kid his whole life, and he grew up in Venezuela and Singapore most of his life. And then of course, we lived in Taiwan for 15 years. So he’s a third culture kid. I’m surrounded my third culture kids. And it’s just interesting to see, not only culturally, how they adapt to culture faster, but how they pick up languages faster, and how they relate to people who have lived more of an expat life than they would someone who’s never traveled much. They just immediately relate, and that’s just been really interesting to watch. So there are different ways to be educated. Kathy taught in international schools. Teresa, were you homeschooled your whole time you were overseas?


When we were in Costa Rica, I did go to an English international school, I’m sure. It was Country Day in San Jose, Costa Rica in its infancy. I’ve looked it up since then, and it’s quite a big school now. So that was my experience in Costa Rica, and then when we got to Colombia, I was homeschooled. From then on out we did a correspondence school, in that we did Calvert course and used them, where you could take the test and have someone grade it and send it back. And then for my high school, I did high school through University of Nebraska. I think at that point, it was called division of continuing studies, their high school program. And I did have some friends that they did a grade in the local schools, other missionary kids. And it was not a good experience. And I guess they put ’em back a couple of grades behind where they should have been because of the language barrier. And they did that, I think just for one year and realized that this was not gonna be the best option for them, and went the homeschool route with my children. We had Venezuelans telling us, “you don’t wanna put your kids in Venezuelan schools.” Because they just didn’t feel like they, you know, were up to what we would expect. And we were also wanting to prepare our children for college in the states at some point, making sure that they had the background that they needed to succeed there.


Okay. With our kids, we did a combination as well. My two younger ones went to the local Chinese school and that had positives and negatives. They learned the Mandarin language very quickly and the culture very quickly, but they never felt like they fit in with their own peers here when we came back to the states for a year and it was really an adjustment for them. They got put into the ESL program, even though we had done some homeschooling and I thought they were pretty close to grade level, but my daughter, when she first went to… was it fourth grade? They put her in kindergarten English. But she advanced between kindergarten and fourth grade within that one year. And so it was pretty amazing. But you know, there’s things to consider. There’s a lot to think about. And as a minister here in the states, the thing I think of is just being aware that there’s going to be language differences and cultural differences. I remember when I first met Teresa at college, we were on the same wing and I thought she was strange. I didn’t know I thought she was Colombian. First of all, cause they put that on her door, and then she spoke English and I was so confused. Didn’t understand third culture kids at all. So being aware of that, a lot of times with my kids, my mom used to think they were rude because they were doing things that were perfectly normal in Taiwan culture, but in American culture for a child, it was considered rude. And so there’s those kinds of things to think of. But then also like Teresa said, preparing them for college here in the states, that’s a challenge. My kids never gone to school in America until, well, like one year Annie went to fourth grade, Ryan went to kindergarten. My older two went more years in the states than the younger two. But when we moved back and Ryan was ready for high school, you know, it was definitely a learning curve to understand the culture and how school works here, cause it’s very different. And as an educator, Teresa and, well, both, all of us are in education. We all understand there’s different philosophies of education, and in Chinese culture, there’s a different philosophy of how education works and how it should be done. It is very different from the U.S., and so that was also something challenging for my kids. Did you find that too, Teresa, between South America and North America?


Because I wasn’t in the schools as, you know, as a student or as a parent, I wasn’t exposed to it as much, but yes, the approach to education is different. At least in what I experienced in Latin America, there is a lot more rote memory. There’s a lot more copying. The way of, uh, because of the resources available, the way things are done is different, but I didn’t spend time in a classroom, so I can’t really speak to it, you know, completely from that perspective.


Okay. Kathy, did you have something to add?


Well, I was just gonna say, yeah, my perspective was different. I taught in over the twenty-something years, I taught in three different international schools, and all three of them pretty much followed American curriculum. The children coming into the school were coming from all kinds of different places and different backgrounds and different schooling. So there was a pretty large learning curve for everybody. As many of these students, as they finish school, at least as far as education goes, they feel usually more American than anything else, when they’re trying to consider what to do for their university studies and things. When I was teaching at the last international school where I taught, sometimes they would start with this from kindergarten, but some students, their parents would start out trying to homeschool them. And while some parents did a great job with homeschooling, others really didn’t have enough understanding or make enough time, or there were different issues. Some of the students had some learning difficulties, and there was no one to help make sure they stayed kind of in line with their grade levels, so it was different. We had some kids who were homeschooled and then they came to our school and they were advanced well beyond, you know, their age, but others, like, within the same class, I might have two sixth graders: one was probably working at an eighth grade level and another was probably working at a third grade level. And we had other students who had been going to the national schools and maybe they were doing really well in the national school and the Chinese language and everything, but you know, you were talking about how your kids never fit in when they came back to the States, these kids, because they weren’t Chinese, they got bullied a lot.


Yeah, we had that too.


So even though they could keep up with the work, in fact, some of them were quite brilliant, but it’s just emotionally and sometimes physically too hard on them to stay in the national schools. So if families are planning to overseas, they need to consider, they need to be willing to maybe change their minds about what their goals are. If they think they’re gonna raise their child and then their child’s gonna go in that same country and go to university, that doesn’t always work either. There’s a lot to consider. There’s so many positives for being raised in different cultures, but it just needs to be thought out very carefully.


Yeah. And I think that’s a really important point. I think it’s been a very strong positive for my kids to grow up overseas. However, there are definite challenges and drawbacks. And one of those was especially with my daughter, not as much with my son. She was taller than the other girls, she developed faster than the other girls in the Chinese culture. And so here she is in third grade, second grade and older boys are making rude remarks and comments saying things that a second grader should never hear. We wound up pulling her out of Chinese school before she got past fifth grade. Fifth grade was the last year because the sexual advances were not appropriate, and I just couldn’t handle that. And then being bullied as well, kids would throw rocks at her, call her names, and she was fluent in the language. She knew everything they were saying that was really challenging and rough. My kids, three of my four have learning issues. They’re on the autism spectrum. The schools were not geared to help them, and so that was another challenge. And you really need to think of that overseas, because some places are not equipped to deal with special needs. We found that homeschooling would’ve been the best choice if I had committed full time to doing that, but I kept having to work, and teach, and tutor, and that if I had to do it over again, I would say, “No, I can’t.” And I would’ve just done homeschooling and been a full-time homeschool parent. That to me, would’ve been for us, the best choice I could’ve made. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but we did the best we could at the time, and with what we understood. There’s a lot to think about when it comes to education.


Each situation, each family, each individual is really different, even within a family. Depending on the age that a child is when they go overseas, depending on their connections with their home culture and family and things like that makes a huge difference. Even within the same family, my brother was born overseas. And so his sense of the “third-culture-kid-ness,” if we could say it that way, that he experienced was much stronger than it was for me. I still felt like the U.S. was my home, and I don’t know that it was because of the age I was, if it was because I was by nature, an introvert. And so, my interactions with people, even in my host culture, I had friends, but I didn’t have as many friends from my host culture. It was more interactions with other kids, my age at church and things like that. So I’m sure that affected my connection with my home culture. Those things affect that. And so that’s gonna affect how things go when they get back. Also sometimes just the individual child or parent with the teaching. You just need to know what’s gonna work for you. In some places, kids went to boarding school, and that was kind of the expected thing. In fact, we had friends that sent their kids to boarding school, and we just decided that that wasn’t for us. We knew that the time with our kids was short, and we didn’t wanna give any of that up. You just have to evaluate what option is best for you and make the best decision you can with the information you have.


Yes. And if you are getting ready to move overseas too, and you get your package of what they’re going to give you; benefits and payment and all that, find out if they’re gonna even include schooling, because ours did not, and it’s very expensive. So that’s another thing to think about when looking at going overseas. Yeah, and what will work best. We had a boarding school too, that started in middle school? Kathy is that right? Yeah, middle school through high school. Even if we’d had the money, we wouldn’t have done that. In this episode, we talked a lot about TCKs, MKS, expats and what it’s like to live in a different culture and grow up learning more than one language, and more than one culture. And we call them third culture kids because they don’t quite fit in either of their two cultures, the host culture or their native culture, because they have become kind of a morph of the two and therefore live in a third culture. And of course, sometimes children have grown up in many different cultures because of their families responsibilities with their job or the military or whatever has happened. Or even as a missionary, there are so many wonderful books that can really explain what it’s like to be a TCK and for helping your children, your teenagers, especially to process some of their feelings and ideas and thoughts. I have many books I wanna share with you and they will be in the show notes and I will put them there with the links. So you can find those in the show notes at TerrieHellardbrown.com under the podcast transcript tab. If you would like to ask questions, like we said, you can put those in the comments below the show notes, and Teresa, and Kathy, and I would be happy to answer. We would be happy to share with any of you, especially if you’re getting ready to go overseas for the first time, it is a wonderful experience, your children will be blessed. It just is an adventure that I think everyone should take if they can experiencing other cultures and other languages. And just seeing the world from a different perspective is wonderful. So it has been a super positive experience for our family. It has been an amazing opportunity for God to really get hold of our hearts in a new way, and to challenge us in our walk with God. I just really encourage you, if you’re getting ready to embark on an adventure like this, that you will not be disappointed. I think even if the experience is difficult, even if you’re going to a country that is not as hospitable, as maybe the ones that we lived in, I think that God is going to do amazing things in your life and in your family. Keep the communication lines open and enjoy the adventure together, and take lots of pictures, and keep lots of notes to remember what it was like. I appreciate you being here today. Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed this episode, please like, and share and let other people know we’re here. We really do appreciate you. Thank you for joining us for “Books That Spark,” a podcast celebrating books that spark imagination, emotion, questions, and discussions. As we disciple our children and help them follow Christ with their whole hearts. If you would like to connect with me, you can join my mailing list by finding me at TerrieHellardBrown.com. You can sign up for my mailing list and get notifications when I post a new episode, a new blog, and also you get a monthly newsletter.

Links to Recommended Books:

Adelina Aviator by Jessica Vana

Arrivals, Departures, and the Adventured In-Between by Christopher O’Shaughnessy

At Home Anywhere – Six Proven Expat Secrets for Making Yourself at Home in Any Foreign Country by Rob Robideau

Faith on the Move: A Devotional for MK/TCK Teens in Cross-Cultural Transition by Interaction International

Finding Home by Rachel Jones

A Fish Out of Water by Hannah Flatman, illustrated by Rekha Salin (Christian picture book for young children – I really love this one)

How Far Do You Love Me? By Lulu DeLacre (just a great picture book about family, love, and geography—not strictly a TCK book)

How to Raise Confident Multicultural Children: Ideas and Practical Advice from Diverse Professionals for Even Greater Success Raising a Bilingual and Multicultural…  by Elisavet Arkolaki and 9 more contributors (this has more of a textbook feel to it with essays from 10 contributors).

I’m from…Earth?: How Understanding Third Culture Kids Can Connect a Divided World by Carissa Gobble

Jamie and the Big Move: A Story to Empower Kids Coping with Change by Jana Dietsch Wingels

The Kids’ Guide to Living Abroad by Martine Zoer, Illustrated by Michelle Christensen

Relocation Workbook: Kids on the Move by Leah Moorefield Evans

Slurping Soup and Other Confusions by Tonges, Menezes, and Gemmer Emigh

Third Culture Kids: A Gift to Care For by Ulrika Ernvik

Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds by Ruth E. Van Reken

Your Host: Terrie Hellard-Brown

Terrie Hellard-Brown writes and speaks to help children and adults find God’s purpose and plan for their lives. She teaches workshops and writes devotional books, children’s stories, and Christian education materials.

Her podcast, Books that Spark, reviews children’s books that spark imagination, emotion, questions, and discussion leading to teachable moments with our kids. Her podcast posts each Tuesday morning.

Her blog posts discuss living as a disciple of Christ while parenting our children. She challenges us to step out of our comfort zones to walk by faith in obedience to Christ and to use the nooks and crannies of our lives to disciple our children.

Terrie uses her experiences as a mother of four (three on “the spectrum”), 37 years in ministry (15 in Taiwan), and 32 years teaching to speak to the hearts of readers.

Her motto is “Life doesn’t have to be perfect to be WONDERFUL” and keeps her childlike joy by writing children’s stories, delighting over pink dolphins, and frequently laughing till it hurts.

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