BEING “BOTH-AND” [An intro to third-culture + the Kingdom of God]

To be a third-culture person is to live life in-between. You are not fully one or the other. Imagine yourself as a beautiful red suspension bridge over a river. You have a strong connection to the land on both sides but most of your life is more connected to the water which is ever changing. People from both sides recognize you as somehow part of them, but don’t believe you fully belong with them. The two sides of the water seem like opposite worlds in many ways, still somehow they connect with each other by your very existence.

I will never forget meeting my friend Sungjae for the first time. He was born in South Korea to Korean parents, then moved to Argentina, then to Kenya, then to Chile, then to the United States. “I am not Chilean, Argentinian, American, or even Korean. I feel like I am nothing.” I knew what he meant. As a third-culture person myself, I know how easy it is to live life defined by what you are not. Though I was born in the United States to American parents, I am not fully American.

[Pause to say: “I don’t like the term “American” to define people from the US, because I am keenly aware that Canadians are North Americans. And Costa Ricans are Central Americans. And Colombians are South Americans. They are all Americans. “UnitedStatesian” is awkward in English, but the term is clear and beautiful in Spanish, so from here out I will say “estadounidense.” (Also note: we don’t capitalize nationalities in Spanish.)]

My own story

Because, when I was in my formative years, my family moved first to Costa Rica and then to the Dominican Republic. My life changed. My values changed. I added a new language and new ways of expressing myself in the world. I do not assume many of the things most estadounidenses assume nor do I always think the way a “typical” estadounidense thinks. From that time on, I was no longer fully estadounidense. But, I was not Dominican either. Though Dominicans come in a variety of skin tones, when they look at me, they immediately know I am not Dominican. When I walk down the street in the DR, strangers call me “Rubio!” (which means “blonde guy”) or “Americano!” reminding me that I am other.  I can remember one time meeting a new friend over the phone, speaking to them in pure Dominican Spanish and then having them be shocked when we met in person and I was a “gringo.”

There’s a lot about Dominican culture that I embrace. Dominican rice and beans with fried plantains (tostones) and avocado is my favorite meal. Merengue music makes me feel immediately alive and lifts my spirits. When I am greeted with a kiss on the cheek, I feel warm and welcome. But, more noticeable aspects of culture like food and music and greetings are the easier elements to adopt and change. Deeper elements like values of “making do” (resolviendo) and event-orientedness also resonate strongly with me. Still, I am too task-oriented and contemplative to be fully Dominican. And there is much about the Dominican culture and experience that I still don’t understand. Like Sungjae, I spent a lot of time thinking and feeling that I was nothing. I was neither estadounidense nor Dominican. But, what if, instead of defining ourselves by what we are not, we instead see ourselves as what we are? We are third-culture people. The truth is that I am both estadounidense and Dominican. The power for me has come when I stopped seeing myself as “neither-nor” but instead as “both-and.”

What is third culture?

Third culture people are individuals who were raised in a culture other than their parents’.  They spend significant parts of their early development in at least two different cultural environments. Third Culture Kids (a termed coined in the 1950’s by American sociologist, Ruth Useem) may move from one culture to another before they have had the opportunity to fully develop their personal and cultural identity. Or, they may have been born in a country to immigrant parents, such that their home culture is very different from the culture in which they live the rest of life (school, work, play, shop, etc.). Merriam Webster notes that “the “third culture” to which the term refers is the mixed identity that a child assumes, influenced both by their parents’ culture and the culture in which they are raised.” 

Third culture people + the kingdom of God

Third Culture Kids is a relatively new term. Though it was coined in the 1950’s, it didn’t gain any kind of traction until the 1990’s. And, Merriam Webster has it in their “Words We’re Watching” category, acknowledging that the term is frequently used, but hasn’t yet met their criteria for inclusion into their dictionary. But, this concept has been around for a very long time. In fact, the Bible is full of third culture people. Because I am one, I see them all throughout scripture. (Have you ever noticed that when you are pregnant, you immediately notice so many other pregnant mothers out there? Or, when you use a specific kind of computer, you are keenly aware when you see others using the same kind?) I have been thinking about writing about these things for over 10 years. I have read through scripture looking specifically at the lives of third culture people. I have written Bible studies and taught on these characters. I have had countless conversations with third culture people from all over the world. I am excited to include their stories along with the stories of the biblical characters. In a series of blog posts that may turn into a book, we will look together at many different third culture people in the Bible and consider together the important roles they play in the Kingdom of God. My hope is that if you are a third culture person yourself, you will be inspired to embrace the both-and mentality, learn to live in the beautiful tension, and offer yourself generously to God and the world around you. My prayer is also that if you are not a third culture person, you will discover and appreciate the unique ways third culture people operate in the world and the Kingdom of God.

[Written by Josh Davis]

2 thoughts on “BEING “BOTH-AND” [An intro to third-culture + the Kingdom of God]

  1. I’m smiling as I read this Josh. And will look forward to reading more. I’m very interested in the topic as you know, I’ve thought about writing about it but have been led in a different direction. I think this te toca a ti. I’ll be praying for you.

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