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Third Culture Kids and the Disaffected Mormon Underground

January 28, 2010

The Poisonwood BibleToday, in my international accounting class, my professor invited a couple as guest speakers. I was initially wary, because this couple is a team of long-time Christian missionaries to Papua New Guinea…and the only thing I’ve seen regarding missionaries to Papua New Guinea is this. They weren’t with the same group though; they didn’t focus on the same project, and the presentation, while still bearing religious experience, wasn’t a complete proselytizing recollection. Rather, I thought it bore some pretty interesting sociological differences between the Gapapaiwa people and us here. The speakers presented their background as Biblical translators in a way to show differences in business communications, as well as personal and religious communications.

When they said that they went to Papua New Guinea for something like 23 years and took their kids with them for the greater part (I still don’t have the details, because apparently, the kids got to see US high schools and the culture shock therein), I began to have a different “sense” about them. No longer did I “imagine” them to be envoys of something like New Tribes Missions, but I got a fuzzy reminder of the book The Poisonwood Bible.

Most of this sense was as a contrast. For example, the husband/father of the family didn’t seem anything like Nathan Price. The children and wife didn’t appear — from the wife’s telling of the story — to be reluctant co-missionaries like Orleanna and her children. But I wish I could have heard from the children themselves, just to hear from them what it was like to grow up in a completely different culture.

The mother/wife did say something pretty revealing. She remarked at how her children aren’t really American, culturally. When they came back to America, they had to be taught different customs and norms, and whereas she and her husband were primarily American, but “stumbled” around with the Gapapaiwa culture (for example, never getting the rhythm of the language great [although it sounded pretty good to me when they spoke, but then again, I don’t know]), her children were most fluent with the Gapapaiwa language and cultures, but only awkwardly “learned” American norms about looking others in the eyes, wearing jeans, etc.,

What the mother said that was the clincher though, was this. I’m paraphrasing, but…:

These children grow up to be Third Culture Kids, and there is a phenomenon of these Third Culture Kids from a variety of upbringings. What these Third Culture Kids must realize is that they do not belong. And they never will. They must learn to accept that they can’t be American, but they can’t be Gapapaiwa. They have to be something in the middle. Many Third Culture Kids, in fact, end up marrying others, because even if the particulars of their situations vary, they understand the phenomenon and each other.

That struck me. They do not belong. And they never will. Isn’t the desire to belong one of those huge human ones? And isn’t the goal that we find belonging? The woman actually said something else that was interesting…relating to herself. Again, paraphrasing:

It was important to feel called from God, because this was tough, and God provided the way. There were times when I thought, “I hate having to deny everything I am for this foreign life.” And I thought, “What am I even doing?” It was only when we came back with the finished Gapapaiwa New Testament — in their language, that they helped create — and so many people had tears because they were so happy, that I knew for sure it was all worth it.

Here, I see a similar struggle. A struggle to belong. And I particularly resonated with the comment that she had made: she felt the struggle of inauthenticity — of knowing what and who she was deep inside but feeling that her actions went against everything she was. She was *denying* herself.

But there’s a difference. She had something in the end to wrap everything up. The translated New Testament. What do her children have? Is there closure for Third Culture Kids? According to her, no. Give it up.

I find this interesting on several levels. I grew up in a military family (another situation prime for TCKdom). I didn’t learn fancy languages (I regret not paying attention when I had the chance!), but I understand the not-being-one-or-the-other and ultimately never being.

But I feel that being a missionary kid isn’t necessary. Being an army brat isn’t necessary. These things are just very visible examples. What about our very own Disaffected Mormon Underground (DAMU)? We are people who aren’t non-Mormon, but we aren’t Mormon. Whether we say ex-, post, former, new order, alumni, etc., we are in this “third culture.”

And the thing is…wherever we end up going, even if the particulars may vary, we are like the TCKs in that we will find one another. So, it reminds me of a post I wrote earlier (The problem with atheist communities), and a response to it (Networking for the no-Gods crowd). I pointed out the difference in atheists, and the responder suggested that I underestimated the commonality that we share from living in a theist-dominated society. While I still think things are a bit more nuanced than this (for example, living in a Mormon-dominated society is a bit different than living in an Evangelical-dominated society, which is a bit different than living in a society with liberal Protestants, or living in a Muslim-dominated society, even if these are all “theist-dominated.”)

But isn’t this just saying, “Though the particulars may vary, the third culture kids will gravitate toward one another because of the shared general experience”? So I guess that’s why atheists do have communities. We’re so secumenical like that.


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  1. Now here’s a tangential question inspired by this post…

    I wonder what percentage of those of us in the DAMU already felt like third culture kids way before we left the church? Sounds like you did. Gosh I know I did. Most of my life I was telling my non-LDS friends how I was “of the Mormons but not like the Mormons.” Grin.

  2. I completely agree. Even moreso because I always lived in primarily non-LDS areas. So, being “like” the Mormons was especially weird, since people had strange ideas about what Mormons are.

  3. You’ve nailed something I’ve been feeling for years. Although I have only associated with non-Mormons (apart from family) for the last few years, I’ve always felt neither Mormon nor non-Mormon. My never-Mormon friends are so . . . free. No guilt, no fear. They don’t have to hide parts of their minds and experiences from family. I will never understand what it’s like to not have your religious background hanging over your head at all times, and occasionally having to deal with members who come after you to try to drag you back in.

  4. FireTag permalink

    I heard someone once describe mutations as creating “hopeful monsters”. That expression captures both the horror of being trapped in the “difference”, and the necessity of such new combinations of traits if life is to move forward into new opportunities.

    We don’t get to choose our parents. They choose each other to achieve their goals. (I sincerely approve, since the alternative would be my non-existence, and I like myself.)

    We can now choose to emphasize the hopefulness in our lives, or the alienation, and that choice will have its own set of consequences.

  5. Molly, the thing is, I think many other people have comparable issues in their lives, even if it’s not mormonism. So, I find that if I can reach common geound despite the particulars, that’ll be beneficial.

    FireTag: Like the idea of being a hopeful monster.

    I think that talking about our existence vs. Nonexistence is kinda an invocation of anthropic principle…we are here…that’s set.

    I’m not quite so sure on this radical idea of choice in emotional states. It’s like a rorschach test…we don’t choose to see hopefulness vs. Alienation vs. An ink blot. What we see is something that hits us, not something we directly and consciously choose.

  6. Kat permalink

    I really like this. I have often felt that if I left the Mormon church I would still be different from the rest . I can’t be all Mormon but I can’t be all Non Mormon either. I’m trying to figure out how to be happy with who I am no matter which path I end up staying on.

  7. Kat, glad you liked this, but I hope you can figure out happiness despite which path you are on.

    What I’ve tried to do is be attuned to myself and be authentic to that. As long as I don’t feel like I am “selling out” myself, I can deal with most of everything else outside of me. This, for me at least, involves forging a path outside of the expectations of what it means to be Mormon. I own up for my actions, thoughts, and beliefs, and don’t try to fit molds just because people have preconceived notions of how others should act.

  8. Another excellent insight! You’re really pouring on the brilliance for Niblets season (and deserve to win the “interfaith dialog” one).

    We absolutely have this situation going on at our house on so many levels. My kids are French and American — both, but in many ways neither — and growing up in Switzerland.

    Personally, I completely relate to your comment about the DAMU: “We are people who aren’t non-Mormon, but we aren’t Mormon.” At the same time, I have a bit of this same situation with respect to my nationality. I’m not like the mom in the above article, surviving a foreign adventure for the sake of some higher goal. Choosing to be an expat has changed me — I can’t go back and fit into an American identity the way I used to, but I will never be completely European either.

    I completely agree that this is one reason that atheism makes sense as a way of grouping people who have had a common experience. It’s not merely an “absence of” label — it often marks a particular type of insider-outsider experience.

    I also relate to your comment about being LDS in a non-LDS area. I wrote about this experience myself here:

    Ironically, growing up Mormon taught me to value non-conformity. This is ironic because Mormons are famed for lockstep conformity in action, dress, and thought.

    But training Mormon kids to be like other Mormons necessarily requires training them to be unlike everyone else. And when you live in an area where Mormons are few and far between — like Minnesota, where I grew up — that means being unlike just about everybody.

    • It is said that a true eccentric will always pick either a small community where their eccentricities can be known and noted, or a highly homogeneous community where their non-conformity will be likewise on full display.

      In a place like San Francisco… quite frankly, who gives a damn if your different?

      Pick a number.

  9. Seth — oui et non…

    For a lot of us who are different, being eccentric isn’t deliberate or intentional — even if we don’t think it’s bad to be different. So, whether our eccentricity stands out in the community (or not) is not a major concern either way…

  10. Great discussion!

    One of my first thoughts on reading the story of the missionary family was: ‘How lucky those kids are–they can see the strengths and weaknesses of both cultures, because they have less reason to be blindly loyal to either.’ They can probably better see the overpowering consumerism in our culture, for example, and not buy into it.

    Sure, it can’t be easy to be a fish out of water wherever you are, but you can better choose your own path.

    I imagine that there are many of us who have become third culture by choice, although the dynamics are different than by birth. I can appreciate the position of many of your readers, although my ‘post’ is post-conservative evangelical Christian. Yeah, we tend to find each other!

  11. Thanks for the comment, Al.

    Indeed, the mother did relay a story of one of the daughters’ experience when they came back to the states. She needed a pair of gym shoes for one of her classes, and when she entered a mall, she burst out crying because of how many shoes there were. She felt terrible about buying another pair of shoes when most of her friends back in Papua New Guinea didn’t even have a single pair.

    She ended up getting a new pair for her class, but when she returned to PNG, she gave that pair away to the community.

  12. Larisa Naples permalink

    Wonderful post, and discussion!

    I grew up as a third culture kid, with childhood homes in Venezuela, Iran, and Israel, before “coming home” to the United States in 10th grade. As the daughter of an international businessman (airport architect), my life was both blessed and cursed, in many ways, much of which beautifully described in Pollock & Van Reken’s wonderful book, “Third Culture Kids: Growing up among Worlds.” Though the not-belonging-anywhere, and in-between-ness aspects of our experiences are certainly shared, there are many aspects of the TCK experience and psyche which are peculiar to TCKs due to the constant cycle of being torn away from *everything* familiar (geography, community resources, language, school curricula, friends, neighbors, etc.), and having to start over. For anyone interested in learning more about the TCK experience, and how it relates to the more general Cross-Cultural experience you are discussing here, I really recommend having a look at their book.

    And more relevant to the current topic of Cultural Mormonism —
    I have been trying, for years, to find out about the cultural aspects of Mormon life, by interviewing passing missionaries. Sadly, I was never able to get much good information out of them, b/c it always devolved into a theological pitch-fest. I have posted a request for information on cultural Mormonism on my own blog (, and I would really appreciate it if you all would take the time to visit me, and post some concrete details!

  13. Thanks for the comment, Larisa; I’ll check out that book.

    I’m sorry you haven’t been able to get much information about the cultural aspects of Mormonism — I probably could’ve told you that the missionaries wouldn’t necessarily be the best source (since their job is, I guess as you put it, a “theological pitch-fest”.

    I’ll see if I can post the link around a few places to see if you can get some responses.

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