Understanding and Ministering to Third Culture Kids, Part 2

This week we continue the conversation with Kathy Gross and Teresa Rowland about understanding Third Culture Kids and what’s it like to raise a family overseas.

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:



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 another episode in talking about third culture kids or globally mobile people, and I am so excited to continue the conversation with two of my best friends in the whole wide world, Teresa Rowland, and Kathy Gross. As I mentioned last time, Kathy is a teacher and has taught in international schools in China and Taiwan for over 20 years. And Teresa grew up as an MK, a missionary kid in Colombia, South America, and then she was a missionary and missionary mom in Venezuela. And so it’s wonderful to get to continue talking today with them and hearing what they have to share with us, and if you have any questions, please post those in the comments on the show notes, you can find the show notes at terriehellardbrown.com. So let’s jump right into the conversation, Kathy and Teresa. Thank you so much for joining me today. What advice would you give parents to help them to prepare their kids for moving overseas or moving home?


Well, I was just wondering what Teresa’s parents did to help her prepare, but I would say to try to teach the kids as much as they could about the country, that they’re about to go, to help them be as involved as possible in decisions that are being made, including maybe what they’d like to try for schooling. Kids who are more outgoing might really enjoy trying to go to the national school. When a child is suddenly moved to another country and they haven’t had any say so, and maybe they’re very upset about leaving their family and friends, they feel like they have no choice or options. Every decision is made for them. They very often feel cut off and it’s very difficult then to really take up the reins of a new life in a new place and try to make friends, sometimes children who don’t even really speak English very well, if they speak English at all. There are a lot of things to consider. So helping the child kind of know what to expect and trying to build an interest in them for this new culture, this new way of life, help them find some things to be excited about. Maybe try to find some families who already have children that they’re raising overseas and talk to them as well, and see what their experience is. The child needs to felt heard. If God calls someone overseas, he’s calling the whole family, so they all need to recognize their calling.


Yeah, I agree with that. That’s good. Okay, Teresa?


I was gonna say, it depends to some extent what the purpose is for being overseas. If it is missionaries going overseas, letting your children know that they are also part of your ministry is a huge thing. I think even as a child, I got that sense that I was there to also share about God’s love with people of this culture. So I had that sense even as a child. I think my kids saw that it was something we were doing together as a family. If it’s a different situation, like Kathy said, looking forward to things to experience in that culture, maybe researching it, so you know about it. I think those are things that are helpful to kids. And it’s interesting too, you talk about kids learning a new language. My daughter was younger than my son when we went overseas, but because she has some learning difficulties in language arts that translated, pun intended, to Spanish as well, grammar and things like that. She didn’t just instinctively pick it up like my son did, and so that was sometimes where she would almost feel uncomfortable because she wasn’t sure she was using the right term or the right word, but she still communicated. She probably did it much better when mom wasn’t around, because then she was wondering if she said it right. I, as a kid, I don’t remember learning Spanish, the only thing I remember about learning Spanish was we played color tag and a particular color was base. And that’s how I learned my colors, but I tell people I learned Spanish the same way I learned English, by hearing and association. And if you’re young, then that’s one of the advantages you have is that the language is rather quick. Now sometimes you get home and your mom says, is that a word you should be saying? No, probably not. Because you know things they don’t know.


Yes. It was also very interesting cause my kids could speak Mandarin, but they couldn’t translate into English. And so they couldn’t tell me what their teacher was saying. You know, the teacher would ask a question and we couldn’t understand the teacher. They could, but they couldn’t tell us what she was saying. And so that was awkward at best. It’s just really strange. And then they would get to the point where they would be playing with their friends and switch back and forth between English and Mandarin and not even know that they had done it. And that was always fun to watch


My younger brother and a friend that was his age says you put in the, at that point it was a cassette. You put in the English cassette or you put in the Spanish cassette, and when you’re in that language, you’re thinking in that language and it’s just happening in that language. And hopefully as an adult learning a new language, you get to that point, but as kids, you get to it so much sooner and sometimes if it happened in Spanish, you come home and you start to tell it or whatever your language is. And it’s easier just to switch to that language cause that’s the language it happened in.


Yeah, exactly. Well, I wanna share a couple books on this topic. There’s one book called The Kids Guide to Living Abroad. My daughter has a chapter in this book that she helped write. But the author, Martine Zoer, chose kids from all over the world who are missionary kids or expat kids, and had them write about their experiences. And so this is really a cute book because you can hear from the child’s perspective, what living overseas is like. And so that would be a fun one to have your kids look at. If you’re getting ready to move overseas, if you’re moving overseas or you’re moving next door or whatever, there are a few workbooks that you can get for your kids to make memories, to make plans and like Teresa we can get excited about the move. So there are several workbooks that just have ideas for anticipating, preparing, looking forward to what you can do in the new place, meeting new people, and making it a fun experience or at least something that they’re anticipating. I will put a link in the show notes for a couple of these workbooks, because I think they’re really something handy for families to use. Whether you’re moving across town or you’re moving across on the other side of the world, what advice would you give teachers or ministers when they’re working with TCKs?


Keep an open mind. Don’t assume that you know what it was like for them too, in that culture. Let them share who they are and their experiences. People have a tendency of assuming that if you lived in another culture, you lived in a grass hut and that can close doors to that person opening up. Especially if you’re talking about people wanting to minister to kids that are coming back to their home culture, that would be one thing. And be sensitive to the fact that they may not understand what you’re saying, just because you’re using things that may make sense to everybody else, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re gonna get it. That may be less so now than it was at one point because you know, you have a lot more and especially things like entertainment go across continental barriers much more than they did once upon a time, but there’s still a lot of cultural things that you miss out on. So it’s kind of easy to feel awkward. I had some friends that, they came back to go to college and they didn’t know how to work a pop machine. And I thought that was odd because I knew how to do that, but that was their experience. So there’s just lots of different things that you don’t even think about that could be difficult for them. And don’t assume that they’re just really excited about being back in their home culture. If this is, you know, where you’re at, because they may not be, they may feel totally like a fish outta water and be missing their host culture, and that may be something that they’re dealing with. And it’s hard for people “at home” (in quotes) to understand because they think that you should be excited about being home, especially family, people who were close friends. Those are some of the things that just kind of need to be sensitive to.


Well, I had a friend who was still hurting because he had been growing up in Africa and he went home with his family for their home assignment or furlough, and he overheard his grandmother asking his mother if he was mentally retarded because she had asked him to turn on the air conditioner and he didn’t know how to do it. But he had never had an air conditioner. So there are those judgements that are made because we’re not raised to be sensitive to people who have grown up in different cultures. For him to still be talking about that, so many years later, it had a big impact on him. I think there was one person who was “home in the States” home, but missing his home in another country, and he said they were watching the Olympics, and he cheered for someone from his host country, and his whole family turned on him. So you definitely have a different set of loyalties when you’re growing up in other places. You have a wider understanding of the world too. What I wish would happen is, when TCK’s or third culture kids come back to this country, that their teachers and ministers would step up for them and help other people to understand what’s going on with them rather than just labeling them as strange or lacking something in the mental department.


And I remember too, when we went to college, Teresa, they had put her in a dorm room with an MK from Brazil. Wasn’t she from Brazil? I mean, very different cultures, very different personalities, but because they had both grown up in South America, then they should be able to live together and, actually Teresa and I could have lived together better than they did. It was a challenge for both of them. I think making assumptions like that in any stereotypical thing is not a good choice with any situation like that. And I think the big one for me is understanding “reverse culture shock.” I don’t know about you guys, but I was blindsided by it a little bit. I mean, I knew to expect it, but I didn’t understand how really hard and depressing that that was gonna be for me and my kids. And we’re all going through it at the same time, and nobody here understands, they don’t get it. Like you said, they’re happy you’re home, “It’s your family, you should be happy to be home. Weren’t you homesick for America?” Well, no, I’m homesick for Taiwan, you know? And my kids were homesick for Taiwan, cause that was their home. You just feel like a fish outta water. You feel like something’s wrong with you because you don’t feel at home in your own culture. It took me two years to even feel kind of comfortable here in the States again when we moved home. Kathy, I think you’re still trying to feel comfortable.


Because I came home quite often in the summer, in some ways, it wasn’t so bad, but it did take me several months not to try to speak very slowly with like when I would go to the grocery store or something. If I needed to find something, I would find someone and try to make gestures and speak very slowly. There were a few times I even tried to use some Chinese and I’m like, “Oh wait.”


I still use Chinese without thinking


And my Chinese isn’t all that great, but one of the things I really enjoy is that there’s a Chinese restaurant near here that I like to go to because they will keep their Chinese simple. But they’ll speak to me in Chinese and show me that honor of having actually lived in their country more recently than they did


Because of having grown up overseas, the reverse culture shock, it was different. I do remember walking into Walmart and I couldn’t make a decision. I had to come back another day because there was just too much. The first time I walked into a Walmart supercenter, it was like, “Hmm. Yeah, I can’t do this.” I’ll have to try this again another day when I can process. But so there were those times, our last couple of terms, or last term especially, we were back and forth several times. Our kids were already in the States, and so didn’t experience it as much because we were going back and forth. I think one of the things that is hard that you don’t expect, is coming back and everybody else has continued on without you and the space that you fill sometimes feels like it’s kind of gone, like it’s disappeared. You know, like if you cut a pie and it’s a little runny and it just runs together and that space is no longer there because family, well, everybody’s got their thing that they do and how they do it. Or even friends that have been good friends, they just kind of, they coped. They figured out how to go on without you being there. And that space you filled is no longer there. And so then you got to figure out how to fit in again. You don’t expect that when you come back, you expect that everything’s going to be waiting for you, just like it was when you left. I say that more as an adult than my experience as a kid. So, One other thing that just came to mind about your kids and helping your kids. The first time we came back on furlough, I don’t remember, but my dad said we came back in December. So I started in the middle of the school year, a small school. I mean, we’re talking maybe 25 kids in my class. It was fifth grade, last half of fifth grade. My dad said that I had a stomach ache every day for the first month we were back because, you know, I felt really like I didn’t fit, and, you know, didn’t want to go to school. I always loved school. And so they made it a point, the next time we came back, to come back in the summer. So that at least we were starting the school year at the same time as everybody else, I don’t know that it made that much difference. I mean, by the time we came back, the next time I was a junior in high school. So it was a totally different experience, but at least they were trying to do what they could to make that transition as easy as possible.


Okay. So Teresa, you were in a unique position because you were a third culture kid, a missionary kid, and then you became a missionary mom. Do you feel like you had better insight and were able to help your kids more than maybe I was able to help mine, since I was mostly clueless?


I don’t know. It’s so much different being the mom. In fact, that was one of my things about going back overseas. I knew how to be a kid, but you know, even vocabulary, I didn’t, you know, we were going back to a country that spoke Spanish. I grew up speaking Spanish, but I didn’t have experience or vocabulary in going to the doctor or things like that. Things that you do out with people, so it was a little bit unnerving to me. I think maybe I was, you know, maybe a little bit more sensitive to how my kids were going to react to things, but again, each situation is different. I had an introvert and an extrovert, the extrovert was out on the street playing with the other kids and the introvert you’d see every once in a while, I’m sure it played a factor in being able to anticipate that a little bit, but then it’s just such a different experience for even, even in that role.


So I don’t know that I was any better than you because again, it’s a different experience. So, and everybody’s, you know, where they’re going is different. People were. You know, I had some of my husband’s family that said, “oh, you’re just going home.” Cause we were going to Venezuela. It’s like, “Umm, no, not exactly.” I grew up in a different country, with a different culture and I’m going to a totally different place. So, you know, having had that experience, help with the language and being a little bit familiar with the culture, but I still anticipated that things would be, you know, still pretty, pretty much different. And actually they talk a lot about a honeymoon period. When you first go overseas, you know, where everything is just so exciting and so much fun. And you know, all this stuff, there was no honeymoon period for me. I hit the ground and I was like, “It is dirty. It smells. I remember this part of it, I don’t like this part of it.” And while everybody else, you know, in a month is freaking out because they’re going, you know, they’re starting to hit that culture shock wall. I was like, “Well, yeah, this is the way it is.” And I was settled into it, but my initial response to it was really very negative because you know, there was no rosy outlook. I just remember the things that were bad and didn’t see the good things, but then I saw the good things. So.


Yeah, there is something to be said for that honeymoon period, where it’s all new and interesting and “I can’t believe we’re here!” And it’s all exciting, and then you get the culture shock and then you have, like we called them in Taiwan, the “I hate Taiwan days.” Where you’re just like, I want to go home. I’m tired of the traffic, you know, or whatever. And so we would find places to go, like we had a B&Q, which is like Home Depot. And we would go to that store and walk through it, because it felt like we were in the States for a few minutes and it had a little sandwich shop in the same building and they served ham and cheese sandwiches on croissants. And it was like, cool. You know, it’s almost American. And we had things like that that we would do to deal with the feelings after the culture shock wears off when you just are missing home. There are quite a few books available, and I’ll have those in the show notes, that speak to teenagers and young adults who are getting ready to move overseas or are sharing their experiences or have moved back to their home country. One of them is called A Fish Out of Water by Hannah Flatman. Another one is “Arrivals, Departures, and the Adventures In-Between, and I love the attitude on that one. And one more I wanted to mention is I’m From…Earth, (and then it has “…earth”), and that’s the one thing of not knowing where to say you’re from, and my kids had that trouble too. 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 also ask any questions you have for Teresa, Kathy or myself on that blog post on my website for this episode, where the show notes are, down below is a place you can comment. We are happy to answer every question or respond to every comment. So please feel free to post comments there. We also are on social media. If you would like to respond on social media as well, we will get back to you. I just really have appreciated Teresa and Kathy taking their time to share with us today and last week, and next week we will have part three as we finish this conversation. We’re thankful you were here today. If you enjoyed these episodes, please like, and share, tell your friends about us, every time you do that, it helps boost our numbers so that other people can find this podcast. And we hope we’ve been an encouragement to you. And we just are grateful for you being here.

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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