Painting Pictures: The Third Culture Kid’s Struggle to Fit In

Home/Third Culture Kids/Painting Pictures: The Third Culture Kid’s Struggle to Fit In

Painting Pictures: The Third Culture Kid’s Struggle to Fit In

painting picturesToday’s Painting Pictures post is by Paige Porter-Livesay, a TCK who is still (barely) a kid. How fitting that the first guest post in this series (Who Are Third Culture Kids) was by Ruth Van Reken, co-author of the book Third Culture Kids and that the last guest post expresses the words of a TCK. I am so grateful for Paige’s willingness to contribute and for her honesty and courage in writing, her words and bravery brought me to tears. At 19, Paige is able to articulate things that I suspect my own children are grappling with but are, as yet, unable to fully express. I feel something tender and sacred in her words.


Growing up in Haiti, we had a countless number of visitors in and out of our house, ministry, school, and really, in our lives as a whole. I wish I knew how many people I’ve met in my life, I bet it beats the average 19 year old by a lot.

Some people left more of an impact than others. At times I didn’t even take the time to remember their names, others I thought I would be close with forever. Both extremes were wrong of me. There were many goodbyes. I didn’t realize it until this summer when I left the country that I grew up in to start college, how much those goodbyes affected me.

Meeting all these people growing up, I bet you might guess I have no problem making friends.

As I have been adjusting to life in the states I have realized how hard it is to “fit in” and stay true to myself. Making friends has been difficult, to say the least.

In some situations it can be easy making friends. Growing up as a missionary-kid, being a chameleon is a skill most MKs possess. Living outside of the USA, many different types of people come and go throughout an MKs life. Meeting people on your own turf, on the “mission field” is much easier.


We, as MKs, have needed to find our place in countless situations, and circumstances. Whether that is in a school where we were the only non-natives, or at a church where our parents were speaking. I generally found that it was easy to find some sort of place for myself during those moments. People knew a little bit about us and I didn’t have the work of explaining who I was.

Since moving back to my passport country, I have found it to be so difficult to fit in and make friends. I’m not quite sure how to stay true to myself while making new friends.

Now that I am going to an average community college, with other average people like me, it’s significantly harder to fit in (the way that MK’s fit in-which isn’t really fitting in at all.) When I enter a classroom no one knows that I’m different than him or her. (I don’t mean that in a snobby way.)  Nobody knows that I grew up in a insanely poor county, and this isn’t really home to me.  I look like I belong here, after all.

It’s harder to make friends than I ever expected it to be. In fact, I haven’t yet found a way to make a real, genuine American friend.

I’ve found that I have two choices. One: Be honest about who I am, and that this country is not my home. I would need to explain to them that I don’t quite know how to do life here just yet and that I don’t really enjoy life yet either. I would want to explain that poverty is something that isn’t a shock to me and that not everyone can even begin to imagine walking into a community college class. I would need to explain that rape and abandonment are tragedies I know well.

Or Two: To simply go along with what my fellow American “friends” are talking about, and pretend like I know what they’re talking about. I would need to play along like music and football are important to me too. I would need to pretend I care about the things they care about and stay quiet when ignorant or hurtful things are said about the poor about the minority or about the hurting. I would not be free to explain my heart and the things I’ve learned to love because of my beloved third-world country that raised me. The thing is, it feels to me like nobody understands or cares to know the real you when the real you isn’t the norm. They are afraid to try and don’t know how to talk about the odd life you have had so instead they choose not to talk at all.

TRL_0485I realize how downer this sounds; I’m not denying that. Although, as a fresh college student who just entered back into the US, I’m not yet at a place where I can be super extremely positive about this new phase of life. I know I’ll get there, through the prayers and help of others, and each time that I give the struggle of this transition over to God. I do believe I’ll make other friends that will understand my heart, but right now, I’m not yet there.

 Thank you Paige, it is an honor I do not take lightly, that you have entrusted your heart to Djibouti Jones.

Paige is the daughter of Troy and Tara Livesay who blog at Livesay Haiti.

*image credit


  1. carol harwood December 11, 2013 at 2:26 pm - Reply

    You speak beautifully through your writing Paige… raw yet eloquent, probably how you manage to stay true to yourself, and please if you do nothing else over the next several months of adjusting to this crazy place hold fast to that promise! All the others you are meeting are just as confused, lost and trying out new roles like you are.
    We are so similar some times. I in my new role as empty nester in a new community have used the phrase, “not there yet” so often when talking to my therapist/mentors. I usually dive into new situations but I’m not the same and searching for answers.
    I will pray for you on your journey, you are sooo amazing and talented, it will come!

  2. Trish Triemert December 11, 2013 at 2:47 pm - Reply

    This is a message for Paige. Living in a new country makes you a stranger in 2 countries–it is very difficult. You have added experiences that are beyond what most people even allow into their consciousness, and it seems very lonely. Would you believe that someone more than twice your age that hasn’t seen half the struggle also has had a hard time adjusting to a new and an old culture? One really cool resource I found to make friends when the host country isn’t so friendly nor understanding is It is not a dating site, it is a community of people who share an interest or activity. You may find relatable people in an expat group though techically you are not. Or some other group–I have found my expat friends here to be much more worldly in terms of education, life experiences, and travel. If nothing else it helps to prevent withdrawing, you can sample a number of experiences and get more involved in the ones you enjoy the most or find the most relatable people. This may or may not help you today in a real way, but it does get better. I will be thinking of you!

  3. Shari December 11, 2013 at 2:51 pm - Reply

    I don’t know if it will help, Paige, but I want you to know that as a PK I went through exactly the same thing, the same loneliness, the same chameleon strength/weakness (it is both). I still remember vividly when I went to church as a freshman where my father was not preaching, and I was not already known (or known about) and not one person even said hello to me. I was invisible.

    At 17 I went to an extremely conservative Christian college where it was more about the rules than the relationship with Jesus, and I made many wrong choices trying to fit in. I will pray specifically that the Lord will give you a friend who is going through the same thing, as they are there with you.

    Stay in the Word and keep asking Jesus to specifically show you the people that need your friendship and talents and gifts in their lives. He will. Your unique and special life has been preparing you for His work and He is faithful.

  4. Mom December 11, 2013 at 4:02 pm - Reply

    Hi Paige –
    I cannot truly understand your feelings or experience (duh!) because I didn’t move abroad at age 11 like you. (duuuuh) — But you brought something up here that I had not previously considered. When you grow up as an “MK” people kind of “know” you — they come to see you or meet you already knowing about your life and having a huge interest in it. That’s not really the normal American kid experience. People tend to place you/us (missionaries) on a pedestal so that becomes your/our norm, being thought of as an interesting or maybe inspiring person. Returning to America makes all that go away and I wonder if some of the struggle isnt’ caused by that false sense of importance we can sometimes feel when people elevate us for the work in Haiti. Just a thought. I sure do love you and I’m really glad you chose to be vulnerable and honest and put your thoughts and words out there.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones December 12, 2013 at 2:22 am - Reply

      Okay, you made me cry too. Amen.

    • Marilyn December 13, 2013 at 5:53 pm - Reply

      Tara, Paige, and Rachel – first off Thank you so so much for posting this Rachel, for writing it Paige. I loved it and so many memories of coming to the U.S. after my years in Pakistan. 18. Cold. In Chicago. Had never walked anywhere by myself because of living in a Muslim country. Your words brought back all those memories and so many more. So glad you are able to be honest at this age and write — I wish I had known I could use writing as a tool back then! Tara – what you said really hit me at one point in my life. I realized I was used to being ‘known’. I was used to being ‘special’. I was used to feeling ‘valued’. I was used to being a privileged minority. All of that changed and I tripped in the humility of all of it, instead of leaning into my discomfort. So thanks to all of you for bringing up some powerful memories and feelings to ponder. And I think that’s what I’d say – to expat and to TCK: Lean into the discomfort, let it grow you, cry with it, rage with it, and in doing that find Joy.

  5. TammyInMN December 11, 2013 at 5:35 pm - Reply

    Thank you, Paige. Your words always teach me something and I am left a better person for it.

  6. Cheryl Buxamusa December 11, 2013 at 7:40 pm - Reply

    Dear Paige,

    While reading your post here, I got a lump in my throat! Perhaps it is because I identify with many of the things you wrote. I was someone who moved away from the States when I was 20, and came back to America in my middle-age years. When I returned, I found it really hard to fit back in. I don’t think your problem is only because you’re a missionary kid; it has also to do with having been so fully immersed in another culture, especially one as different as Haiti is from America. It’s like we go through culture shock all over again once we return to America. Little children adapt more easily to a new environments, by the way, but the older we get, the harder it becomes. This lonely feeling you are experiencing also has to do with having expats as your long-term friends, and going to church with those types of people from all over the world. They seem to be a different breed.

    This feeling of not belonging also has to do with having lived in an area that is not as prejudiced against those with other skin colors. It saddened me, for example, that in America, people label other people so easily. People who want to help the poor, are often labeled as “bleeding hearts”, or “socialists”. If a person wants to be kind to foreigners, they are looked at suspiciously, as if they might be some kind of spy. People say they are “Pro-Life”…yet their “Pro-life” doesn’t include taking care of people After they are born…or making sure that hungry children here in America have something to eat.

    In my case, re-entry also shocked me when I realized how many different brands of products there are here in the stores. I was used to seeing only one or two brands of anything in the stores of my new land. They were not affluent enough to have dozens of different brands like they have here. At times, I didn’t know where to turn. It was all so confusing!

    Mostly, I was shocked how people seemed to be shallow…so into material things. I was shocked at coming back to a world where even in Christian circles, no one really gave missions a serious thought.

    Your generation, the one raised with smart phones, has changed drastically from mine. People used to say “hello” when they met…now they keep their eyes down, and onto their cellphones. People can bully someone very easily by sending them nasty text messages. Girls get lured into making “selfies” in hopes that some guy will like the way they look. I teach, so I see how so many are tempted in having it all be about looks and “Keeping up with the Kardashians.” Being “grown-up” often means being very shallow about many things.

    I really feel for you, Paige. I hope you can hold on to who you are…because who you are is really beautiful and wonderful. Your parents are awesome people, and even though it is ‘their’ ministry…it’s been a part of what makes you so unique, too. I encourage you to not shy away from who you are, even if it means having less, or even no friends for a while. Pretty soon, God will move someone in to be your friend or even a boyfriend who loves what makes you different from the others.

    In the meanwhile, until that person or persons come to you, keep zeroing in on the needs of those around you, and working on your relationship with your family and with the Lord. Remember, too, that all the “greats” we have ever heard of, such as Corrie Ten Boom, Gladys Aylward, Darlene Rose, Elizabeth Elliot, Mother Teresa, and on and on…they all had trials and loneliness, they all had times when they couldn’t see an answer, but they all came out victorious. That’s the way it will be with you, I am sure. It’s easy to say, I know…because we’re not in your shoes right now. But remember, you must be pretty special to the Lord to allow you to be so far in your thought processes and so wise even at the age you are. You are really special.

    I will pray more often for you, and I look forward to hearing about your life in the coming years.

    Love in Christ,
    Cheryl Buxamusa

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones December 12, 2013 at 2:20 am - Reply

      Thank you for sharing this Cheryl, I think your words will be useful when I ‘launch’ my own kids too. You said so much, your words are rich and encouraging.

    • Sander December 15, 2013 at 9:53 pm - Reply

      Preemptively labeling ones classmates as uninteresting and unworthy of chatting with after class simply because they enjoy going to football games or pop music is prejudicial too — Paige would be writing them off based on what she “thinks” they’re like without actually getting to know them.

      Surely there are non-racist kids at her college — and bringing up the tragedy that is rape or horrific deprivation (even though you encountered rather a lot of it as a MK) with a brand new, casual acquaintance you’ve sat across from in English for all of three classes isn’t particularly appropriate either. I’m in no way, shape or form suggesting Paige hide who she is, but shooting the breeze over a coffee at Starbucks is how you get to know people… “Sharing your heart” is generally reserved for folks you know a tiny bit better and are moving towards being friends with.

  7. Marla Taviano December 11, 2013 at 7:42 pm - Reply

    Thank you for sharing, Paige. Two years ago today, my husband and I and our 3 daughters boarded a plane for Cambodia where we spent 5 weeks meeting beautiful friends and loving kiddos who had been orphaned or sold for sex by their parents. In that short period of time, our hearts were wrecked. We had plans to move there long-term, and then my husband began having serious health issues. God has been so good to give us ways to love Cambodia from here, but there’s nothing I want more than to be there. Our girls (13,11,7) often feel like they don’t fit in here. I asked my 7yo the other day if she wished she had a close friend, and she said, “Mom, I can’t. No one here thinks the way we do.” I love your family and pray for you often. And I know it’s easy for me to say, but I beg you to choose option #1. To be true to who you are even when it’s so, so hard. xoxoxoxo

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones December 12, 2013 at 2:22 am - Reply

      So insightful for your 7-year old, what an amazing heart and testament to the way you have chosen to live. Not easy, but rich.

  8. Greg Hench December 11, 2013 at 9:16 pm - Reply

    The way I see it is that you have something most do not… a story worth sharing. Consider pursuing churches and youth programs to share what you have learned about life. It’s about educating those who don’t get you.
    Greg Hench. Youth Pastor

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones December 12, 2013 at 2:21 am - Reply

      A story worth sharing, yes. I like thinking about that with my family and my own story. Sometimes it doesn’t feel worth sharing – not worth the risk – but no matter what, it is ours and we can own that with courage, just like Paige did here. What a lovely way to think about it, thanks Greg.

  9. Grace Henry December 12, 2013 at 11:43 am - Reply

    Just want to say thank you, Paige, for writing this from the unresolved “middle” of the story. As someone who thought a lot about being genuine all through college, I understand that private worry: that there’s one side where you can slip into whatever scenario and play along, while on the other side you have such a strong perspective it’s hard to relate to anyone.

    I want to encourage you that God can speak to you all along the journey about how to hold both of those. How to have a frivolous shopping trip with friends (and enjoy it!), and how to stand up for something you believe when the time is right. He really does have wisdom for how to live with this balance, and he *cares* to help you through it!

  10. Cindy December 12, 2013 at 12:19 pm - Reply

    Paige, you have provided much food for thought for this almost ’60’ year old about to embark on an adventure I thought, I would only dream about. Living overseas. Dubai, our destination, seems in many ways a confusion of cultures, with so many expats from so many nations. A host country that seems to be having an identity crisis, or is re-defining it’s identity. I wonder about fitting in there, not wanting to be sucked into the opposite lifestyle of a country like Haiti, not wanting to huddle with the expats. Praying for the “balance” grace, for us!

  11. Joanna December 12, 2013 at 2:46 pm - Reply

    Dearest Paige,
    I am one of the people that walked into your life in Haiti and wow am I forever grateful. I can’t begin to imagine how you feel on so many levels but in a small way that we share, I had similar feeling coming back to the USA after surviving the earthquake. You said it best, you look like you should fit in and understand people and to be understood but WE DON’T! It makes it just a little harder. Know that John and I love you dearly and you will forever hold a very special place in our hearts. I understand, we are not young and hip like you and we will not replace or fill the void of a genuine friend your age but we will always be here to laugh, cry and just do life with you! We love you, Paige!

  12. Tara Livesay December 12, 2013 at 7:21 pm - Reply

    Joanna — you are as hip as anyone I know, woman!!!

    Thanks all for your kindness to our wonderful girl. I knew you’d have great things to remind her of and share.


  13. Jack Cox December 14, 2013 at 1:45 pm - Reply

    Dear Paige,

    Whatever who choose to do, I really encourage to continue writing. I was capivated while reading your piece.

    I wish you the best of everything,

    Jack Cox
    (Jeremy’s Dad)

  14. Sander December 15, 2013 at 9:45 pm - Reply

    I’m a third culture kid too — having grown up as a “diplomatic brat” overseas before returning to the US for college. There are a whole lot if us floating around — MKs like you, military brats, dip kids like me and a vast number of “corporate brats” (who are similarly re-located to a brand new country every few years).

    There are plenty of “ordinary” American college students who aren’t especially interested in football or frat life (if I found them at penn state, you can find them anywhere), aren’t racist or classist and are genuinely interested in social justice issues. You do need to TRY though. (And an attitude of “you know nothing of poverty because I grew up in Haiti” is unlikely to engage them. There are also tons of awesome, smart and engaged kids who do love football and pep rallies — by refusing to associate with them, you are likely missing out on a ton of interesting people whose company you’d likely enjoy and whose perspectives on life just might broaden your own.

    I made most of my college friends at the international student union at Penn State — it turned out to be a mix of third culture kids + international students.

  15. Kait December 16, 2013 at 3:54 pm - Reply

    I went to Haiti for the first time when I was 13. I wasn’t a MK but after that first short term mission trip with a family member, I continued going back for three months every year on my own until I left for college.

    You explained the disconnect so perfectly that it almost hurt to read this. I felt completely lost in my home and school because I had seen and known things that I could never explain. My parents never went to Haiti, didn’t understand how much I struggled with balancing the two worlds, and couldn’t help me because they had no context for what I couldn’t understand. The people I had been friends with since kindergarten felt so foreign to me as they worried about prom and getting their first car while I worked and saved to afford the plane ticket back to PAP for the summer.

    When I reached college I finally found my tribe and connected with people who had similar life experiences of poverty, culture shock, and international living. But like someone else said, I had to first be open with people about who I really was. I had to explain the Creole tattoo on my wrist, I had to talk about Haiti and Brazil and Uganda, poverty and hope, holding a baby as he slowly died in my arms – I had to let those experiences out so people could say “Whoa. Hey, do you know X? He grew up in China!” and then connect with X. Sometimes I was labeled the weird girl. Sometimes I didn’t want to be the odd one. But when I was open (without being judgmental) I found people who had been, who knew, and others who simply wanted to.

  16. Jaime December 16, 2013 at 8:03 pm - Reply

    I want to encourage you, I think in time you will find that you have more in common with others your age than you think. If your experience is anything like mine, you will find that many many college students are pretending to fit in, pretending to belong, and pretending to care about music and football. While it may not look identical to your own experience, rape, abandonment, and the pain of poverty are realities that your peers here bear as well, and the pain that it brings will ring familiar to you.

    It won’t be everything. There will always be parts of your life and experience that just won’t translate. But I think you’ll find that at the core, there is more understanding than it seems.

  17. Tara Livesay December 16, 2013 at 11:06 pm - Reply

    Gotta take the risk and keep trying – sounds like lots of people are out there that might be great friends. I know that as an introvert you struggle to try after a few bad attempts but I am encouraging you to keep at this and not choose loneliness. I love you, my tender girl. XOXO mom

  18. Lisa January 3, 2014 at 4:12 am - Reply

    I wasn’t a TCK – I grew up in Canada, but never fit the shallow/”popular” mold either. I’m also an introvert and for as long as I can remember I was more interested in social justice, etc than pop music. As an adult, I’ve been fortunate to have the chance to work with and/or be friends with people with similar passions and interests (in person and online). It gets better. I pray you will meet some like-minded students this next semester (I don’t know US college culture that well, but am guessing there must be some clubs/groups/volunteer opportunities where you’re more likely to encounter kids with similar passions? )

Leave A Comment