TCKs as Prototypical Citizens and Culture Shock as Exaggerated Poop: Ted Ward’s Views on Growing Up Abroad

16241388115_fec39f427a_zQuotation tracing. It’s almost as exhilarating as tracing a river.

According to the Taipei Times, the sport of river tracing may have been birthed in Taiwan in 1982. That year, a Japanese expedition team representing the Osaka Grassshoes Society traced the Nantsi River to the top of Taiwan’s Jade Mountain. (How’s that for an epic-sounding adventure?) Years ago I got to chaperone a group of junior-high-school students in a much less demanding trek, hiking in and up a fast-moving mountain river in northern Taiwan. We had a great time wading, swimming, crawling, and climbing. Not only did we find the spring that was the river’s source, but we also enjoyed—and discovered a lot during—the getting there.

So it is with quotation tracing, finding the origin and context of well-known, though often misquoted and misattributed, quotations. There’s much to be learned from tracking down quotations, and now that I’m older, I find that quotation tracing is more suited to a more sedentary lifestyle, as well.

My target quotation this time is one that we read often in literature about Third Culture Kids. And just like river tracing in Taiwan, it comes from the 80s. It’s Ted Ward’s

TCKs are the prototype citizens of the future.

I used this form of the quotation a few years ago in a blog post that I wrote. Sadly, at the time, I hadn’t checked the source. Had I done so, I would have seen that the original comes from page 57 of “The MK’s Advantage: Three Cultural Contexts,” in Understanding and Nurturing the Missionary Family. The chapter from Ward is an abridged version of a presentation he made in Quito, Ecuador, at the International Conference on Missionary Kids, held in 1987. (David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken, in Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds, are two who point to this source.) I would have also seen that the quotation has been paraphrased over time.

Speaking about the qualities that define Missionary Kids (MKs) as world Christians, Ward says,

Another characteristic is the loyalty to Christian values, even above the social pragmatics that we deal with in any society. There are characteristics of the internationalizing community of Christ that may very well, in this increasingly shrunken world, become characteristic of the church in general in the twenty-first century. One of my propositions is that the missionary kid of the nineties will be the prototype of the Christian of the twenty-first century [emphasis mine].

Because Missionary Kids are a subset of Third Culture Kids, it’s not a stretch to apply what Ward said to the larger group as a whole, but it’s interesting that his comments in this context refer not to general global citizens but to citizens of the community of Christians. This is understandable, though, as Ward’s audience was missionary families, and if he were talking to expat families in general, I would think it logical that he would apply the same principle to the broader category of all TCKs.

But looking at Ward’s presentation as a whole, I find something even more interesting. It’s his strong pronouncements of how MKs should embrace the advantages of their lives abroad and should not focus on the perceived negatives. “I view the MK growing up experience,” he says, “as very positive and very valuable, in comparison with the experiences available to their cousins who are stuck back home.”

To combat negative stereotypes applied to MKs, Ward uses somewhat blunt language, language that grates against my way of thinking. But one of his goals seems to be to shake up our assumptions, and my discomfort shows that he has been successful in that with me.

At the time that he spoke at the Quito conference, Ward was serving as dean of International Studies, Mission, and Education at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Before that, he spent 30 years at Michigan State University, teaching in the areas of education and curriculum research, and taking a leading role in the field of theological education.

While at Michigan State, Ward was a colleague of Ruth Hill Useem, the sociologist and anthropologist who coined the term Third Culture Kid. Ward describes Useem’s technical usage of TCK as being in the context of

cultural variables that are not definable in terms of ours and theirs. She was talking about the dynamic of that which is different because people from outside settings residing in an inside setting do not take their primary identities ultimately from either, but they take it from the commonness that they have with others who are doing the same thing.

But Ward goes on to point out that Useem’s definition of third culture is based on her study of “the overseas intellectual communities of Western European and American people in the sciences and technology.” And he writes that the paper in which she coins the term Third Culture Kid has “no reference to anything like what we would call the MK.” Therefore, he believes that today’s use (or “misuse”) of TCK has made it a “static term,” with “standard values” and “generalizations about it which lead us to the wrong questions.” (edited 5/11/21*)

What are some of the wrong questions? They are nonsense questions. “Is it OK to be an MK?” “What are the problems of being an MK?” They’re dumb questions, but they’re the questions that a static view of culture leads you to.

Then you get preoccupied by rootlessness. Oh, come on. Millions of people in the world are rootless. Don’t get paranoid about thirty thousand kids when ten percent of them are rootless.

It is this kind of negative thinking, especially by parents of MKs, that Ward opposes. For instance, in the area of culture shock:

Words like culture shock—good grief! Talk about popularization of some bad research! Culture shock—for the most part largely exaggerated poop! Incompetency, yes, but incompetency comes in all kinds of forms.

And about American expat parents who are concerned about their children’s lack of understanding of US culture, he responds,

I find more MKs understanding the nature of American society than people who are raised wholly within it. Would that we could get that message across to parents. Paranoid parents have got to be helped.

Ward also laments missionary parents’ worries about reverse culture shock. Years ago, it wasn’t so easy for missionaries or their children to return “home,” so they weren’t so apt to influence their children towards the inevitability of going back. One qualification of MKs as prototypical world Christians, says Ward, is their ability to serve God anywhere, without being tied down to a particular country or culture, especially the one from which they came.

Ward believes that the long-term work of missionaries has changed. “A career missionary today does not get buried in China at age forty-seven under great mounds of Chinese soil,” he states. “He gets buried at age forty-seven at a North American mission office desk under mounds of paper.” Ward doesn’t want this sort of mindset to be passed on to Missionary Kids.

Ward has given me, a former missionary and current parent of several MKs, a lot to think about, and I wonder how I would have responded if I had been in his audience 27 years ago.

While tracing Ward’s quotation to its source, I’ve been challenged, affirmed, and stretched. I’ve learned a few things and I’ve read some things that I’ll be pondering for a while. I’m grateful for the work that Ted Ward has done for and with cross-cultural workers and their families. And while I’m not on board with everything he’s said (for instance, I don’t think that culture shock is “largely exaggerated poop”), I do understand that there can be a tendency toward paranoia and excessive navel gazing.

We need balance. It’s good to look inward, with caution. But it’s also good to look up and out and aim for some mountaintops, to hike some rivers, to look with optimism at the path ahead, and to see the landscape from a different perspective.

(*In my original post, I misunderstood Ward’s view of how Useem defines the term Third Culture Kid, writing “According to Ward, Hill Useem applied it to particular new cultures—new communities in a distinct time and place—that expats form inside their host country. This is different from how we currently use TCK (or MK) to describe a broad group of people raised overseas.” I have rewritten the paragraph above to better express Ward’s objections to today’s usage of TCK.)

(Ian Bartholomew, “Taiwan’s Rivers Offer Vast Potential for Adventure,” Taipei Times, August 19, 2001; Ted Ward, “The MK’s Advantage: Three Cultural Contexts,” Understanding and Nurturing the Missionary Family: Compendium of the International Conference on Missionary Kids, Quito, Ecuador, January 4-8, 1987, Volume I, Pam Echerd and Alice Arathoon, eds., William Carey, 1989.)

[photo: “Consumer Confidence!” by Chris & Karen Highland, used under a Creative Commons license]

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