Home service can feel like a perpetual pop quiz for third-culture kids. Though very thoughtful articles have been written about what to ask older TCKs, the little guys get peppered with questions, too. 

I recently asked several elementary-school-aged TCKs a few questions about questions. Here are some tips they shared that could help them feel more comfortable in those casual, church-foyer conversations.

Missionary kids, third-culture kids
Dawson — proud to live in the Yukon.

Do start with the basics

Dawson moved to the Yukon Territory of Canada when he was a baby. He’s 10 now and, while it doesn’t bother him a bit if someone thinks he’s 11 or 13, there’s another mistake that REALLY bothers him.

“People always ask, ‘How is it in Alaska,’ and I do not LIVE in Alaska, so it’s kind of frustrating,” he said. “People should start more simple. They can just ask, ‘Where do you live,’ and then I can say, ‘The Yukon,’ and it’s more efficient because they actually know the truth.”

Dawson was one of 26 kids from across Canada to win a Canada’s Young Citizens contest. Click here to watch his entry — an enthusiastic and entirely charming video about one of the elders in his community — and to read a short interview with him.

Don’t be put off if they don’t want to answer

Some children are introverts. Others have a sense of “stranger danger” — and, to them, you’re not only a stranger (even if you changed their diapers in the church nursery a decade ago), you live in what seems like a strange culture.

“People ask, ‘What’s your age, what’s your name,’ and I’m like, ‘You’re a stranger, so I don’t really want to give up any of that information,’” said Jonathan, age 11. “I can trust Taiwanese people, but I don’t know really about Americans.”

Missionary kids, third-culture kids, MK, TCK
Lev on his Ukrainian playground.

Do ask questions that help you picture their world

Lev, age 7, suggests: “Do you live in an apartment or not? Do you live next to your school or not? Does your brother go to a different school or not? Is it a long walk or not?”

Third-culture kids want you know what their everyday life looks like. (For the record, Lev’s answers: Yes, yes, yes, yes.) Other questions that might fall into this category: Where do you play? What kinds of things do you do with your friends? How do you get around town?

Don’t make them choose

Questions like “Do you like the States or Japan more” or “Where do you consider home” can be fraught for a little guy or gal.

“If someone asks me where home is and I say I am American, then the Ukrainian people might think, ‘Oh, we raised him, but he thinks that this is not his home,’” said Dietrich, 10, who moved to Ukraine when he was three months old. “But if I say America, then my family might feel sad.”

Deep down, TCKs might have a culture that they prefer. They might have one place that they consider home, or they might not. But because these are such difficult, nuanced choices for TCKS, these aren’t great topics for casual, church-foyer conversations.

Do ask them what they like about the country they live in

Jonathan is used to building LEGO on the go as his parents travel.

Many TCKs feel deep affection for the country where they’re growing up, and they have insights that their parents probably aren’t going to include in their missionary presentation. Gems like these, from Jonathan:

  • “In Taiwan, everyone’s friendly, except the garbage truck lady.”
  • “People love small dogs in Taiwan. And a lot of people in Taiwan put their small dogs in a purse.”
  • “The fruit is really good in Taiwan. The banana has a lot of flavor. One time I ate a banana in America, and I said it wasn’t a banana.”

Eliana, 8, liked the Middle Eastern country she lived in so much, she wants others to see it, too.

“I really like it when people ask me, ‘How was it there’ so that I can give them information,” she said. “It’s really cool there, so if they’re interested they can go visit.”

Don’t ask them to criticize the country they usually live in

No country is perfect, but when TCKs identify closely with the culture that surrounds them every day, they might feel disloyal telling people here about the issues there.

For example, “I didn’t like having to say that people littered and people smoked and did drugs in Ukraine,” Dietrich said.

To avoid this kind of discomfort, in casual conversation steer clear of questions like, “What don’t you like about living there,” “What are the bad parts of living there” or “What’s the worst thing about living there?”

Do prepare yourself for honest answers

While TCKs might not want to criticize the country they live in, they likely have no problem at all noticing what they don’t like about their passport country.

I asked Dawson what’s different between his Yukon Territory town, population 400, and the States: “No one’s caring in the States. If there’s some people walking behind you in the Yukon and something falls out of your pocket, they’d just say, ‘Hey Dawson, you lost that.’ But if you’re in a city in the States and people don’t know you, if you drop something, they’re just going to keep on walking. Where I live they’re just super caring. They care for each other.”

Jonathan said one difference is that, “in Taiwan, a lot of people are skinny.”

If you’re going to ask what’s different, just be ready — it might paint your country in an unflattering light.

Don’t demand that they say something in a foreign language

“Say something in another language,” can make any second-language speaker clam up. Try starting off with, “Do you speak another language?” If the answer is yes and it seems like an enthusiastic yes, try, “Would you mind telling me how to say ‘Hello’ in Russian?” It’s far easier to come up with the word for “hello” than it is to meet a vague request like “something.”

Do ask open-ended questions

Others queries that Dietrich suggested included:

  • How do people in Ukraine treat you? (not: Are Ukrainians nice?)
  • How did it feel to be a missionary? (not: Do you like being a missionary?)
  • How did it feel to not have the same toys that American kids have? (Not: Do you miss American toys?)
  • What was school like in Ukraine? (Not: Do you like Ukrainian school?)
  • What foods were popular in Ukraine? (Not: What’s your favorite food?)
  • What do you think about your teacher in Ukraine? (not: Do you like your teacher?)

These questions allow kids to share as much or as little as they want. Plus, such questions tap into the child’s personal experiences and feelings, so they can give nuanced answers that avoid generalizing entire cultures. Dietrich’s favorite food? At Ukrainian school: Fish soup. At home in Ukraine? Pizza.

Do take all this with a grain of salt

TCKs are as different as the cultures they experience. Some kids just can’t wait to tell you their name and their best friend’s name and their best friend’s dog’s name and about that one time that mommy yelled at daddy and that other time when their little brother pulled down his pants in public.

Others children are more reticent. So, above all, pay attention. If you ask a nice, open-ended question like, “What do you think about your teacher?” and you get, “She’s OK” in response, perhaps this isn’t the day to pepper this particular child with questions.

TCKs (or parents of TCKs), do these tips ring true? What else should well-meaning question-askers consider?

Focus on third culture kids: As children in many parts of the world return to school, The Missions Blog will spend September exploring the unique ways third culture kids experience this world and how God uses missionary children to communicate his love.

More about third culture kids


About the author: Josie Oldenburg served with her husband and three sons in Kyiv, Ukraine, for 12 years. Full disclosure, she’s the mom of the Lev and Dietrich who are quoted in this article, and the one who makes Dietrich’s favorite pizza. Unlike him, she can’t stand fish soup.  

Banner photo: Dietrich sings in a class show at his Ukrainian elementary school.