Imposter: Mormonism as “Third Culture”

Image result for third culture kidsFor those unfamiliar with the term, TCK refers to “Third Culture Kids” or those of us who were raised between two cultures. Because of living overseas during their childhoods, my kids are–at least partly–Third Culture Kids. [I previously blogged about two famous Mormon TCKs, Mitt Romney and John Huntsman here.] Although I didn’t live outside the US during my formative years, we did move a lot, and because those moves were known to be temporary (we kept our house in PA), my own childhood experience also qualifies as a Third Culture upbringing. But I would posit that many Mormons growing up outside of the Mormon Corridor will find the “Third Culture” label relevant to what it feels like to be in such a minority, forever existing outside of the surrounding milieu, deeply aware of a personal cultural rift that isn’t always apparent to others.

“When we think of the word culture, obvious representations such as how to dress, eat, speak, and act like those around us come to mind. But learning culture is more than learning conformity to external patterns of behavior. Culture is also a system of shared concepts, beliefs, and values. It is the framework from which we interpret and make sense of life and the world around us.”
David C. Pollock, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds

First, let’s talk about the definition of a Third Culture Kid. There are three cultures in this person’s life: the parental or originating one (also referred to as the “passport culture”), the culture in which they reside (which they understand is not their own or their family’s and is probably temporary) and the interstitial or “third” culture which is the intermediate culture that exists outside of those cultures; as a beneficiary of this third culture, the child is often responsible to some extent to represent that culture in a positive light. In the case of a military brat, the military is the third culture. If one’s parents are in the foreign service, the enclave of embassy families (generally quite close knit) is the third culture. And, I posit, that for Mormons living in areas where the church is very uncommon, the church itself is a sort of third culture.

“Anthropologist Gary Weaver suggested looking at culture as a kind of iceberg: one portion is clearly visible above the surface of the water, while the much larger chunk of ice is hidden below. The part above the water can be considered surface culture––what we can physically see or hear, including behavior, words, customs, language, and traditions. Underneath the water, invisible to all, is the deep culture. This place includes our beliefs, values, assumptions, worldview, and thought processes.”
David C. Pollock, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds

Third cultures have a few things in common:

  • They are shared among those individuals who are in that intermediate state.
  • They are the one common thread through the various cultures in which a person lives.
  • There is an expectation for the child (or adult, later) to represent the interests of the interstitial or “third” culture to others, an “ambassador” role of sorts.

There are four parental careers that typically lead to a TCK experience:

  • Military
  • Diplomatic
  • Business
  • Missionary

Image result for third culture kidsFor my kids, it was my business career. Likewise for me, my dad’s career in nuclear power led to our relocations. While Mormon missionary experience is another form of being a TCK, and missions have a specific culture, it is an adult experience and as such is less formative. One’s cultural identity is already mostly formed by that age. But still, two missionaries who serve in completely different areas can often relate because the culture of the mission is an interstitial one, existing in the space between one’s original (passport) culture, and the local culture in which we work.

There are benefits to being a TCK, such as:

  • Interpersonal sensitivity due to increased exposure to other perspectives
  • Cross-cultural intelligence and ability to navigate other cultures
  • An expanded worldview. While we learn about other cultures when we travel, we also learn about our own.

There are also some unique challenges to this type of background:

  • Confused loyalties associated with politics, patriotism, and values
  • Pain and grief associated with moves and loss of cultural identity
  • Ignorance of one’s home culture and superficial engagement with a host culture
  • A focus on adjusting and adapting rather than belonging.
  • Identity crisis

In my own developmental years, we moved a lot: Florida, California (both of these before I was old enough to form lasting memories), and then to central Pennsylvania. After 5 years in Pennsylvania (when I was 8 years old), we did two short-term moves but kept our house in Pennsylvania, always planning to return. First we moved to rural Texas, and then coastal south New Jersey. When I was 12, we returned to our previous house in PA where we remained until I left for college at BYU. One year later, my parents sold our home and moved to a completely different part of the country (the deep south).

There were a few constants when I lived in these places. First of all, I knew that we were only there temporarily. If I had been asked, I would have considered Pennsylvania my “home” culture. (I still mostly do, although when I lived there, I also expected that my living there was temporary because I knew I would be going to BYU at age 18, clear across the country). As an outsider, I viewed Texas and New Jersey as an outsider, a cultural observer. This difference was made even more stark because rural Texas is so proudly anti-north with its proliferation of confederate flags and use of the term “Yankees” as a mild insult. The accent was strong, the vernacular was unique, and even the foods were unfamiliar. New Jersey was much more comfortable, although it was a more diverse place than Pennsylvania Dutch Country (not a very high bar) with a lot of Italians and Jewish people, and both groups had their own strong subcultures, customs, foods, and vernaculars.

The one constant throughout those years was the church. No matter where we lived, we instantly had a ward family with familiar doctrines and structures and social activities. These had a local flavor both literally–barbecue and crab bakes instead of chicken corn soup–and figuratively.

“TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.”
David C. Pollock, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds

Image result for third culture kidsNever having been to Utah really until college, I didn’t realize that the church would be so different where it was the predominant culture – when its position in society wasn’t insecure and constantly having to explain itself. I didn’t realize that there would be prejudices, norms, and assumptions that were totally unfamiliar to me up to that point in my church experience. It was a culture shock, and a real eye opener. Like most “TCKs” I expected to be among people I could finally relate to, and in many ways they were the least like me of all.

Although business cultures require less “representation” of the sponsoring corporation (e.g. American Express or the National Regulatory Commission) in one’s temporary local community than military or diplomatic do, there’s a sense in which the person living abroad represents our nation at large to locals. Living abroad, we are often called upon to defend actions of the American government or to explain American culture. While living abroad, I’ve been asked to defend gun laws, wars and military skirmishes, political statements, and mass shootings, just to name a few.

When I was growing up, someone once asked me what quality I found most irritating in others, and I said provincialism. I didn’t use the word “provincialism” because I didn’t know the word at the time, but what I described was people who had never been outside their own county, people who didn’t question their assumptions, people who couldn’t see anything beyond the end of their nose. To me, these people had no idea there was a whole world out there, one they often derided without understanding it; everyone and everything from “outside” was a threat to be feared or marginalized. When the Dead Milkmen came out with the song “Tiny Town,” it encapsulated my criticism of what I saw as small minded insular communities (this was no doubt colored by living in two very different places in rural America).

And yet, as I get older, I see two things that have modified my perspective:

  1. the rise of the American monoculture, which is perhaps a mega-provincialism or perhaps just the inevitable outcome of modernity. [1]
  2. that culture exists because of provincialism; without it, there’s only monoculture.

Eventually, maybe earth will become Coruscant, one big monoculture, with Costcos and Targets dotting the entire planet.

But the reality is that I’m the one who never exists within a culture. I’m the outsider. I don’t see what is forever barred from me: belonging to a local culture in any meaningful way.

Image result for third culture kidsWhich brings me back to Mormonism as its own Third Culture. Living as a Mormon in an area where Mormons are rare, unknown, misunderstood, maligned or invisible to the larger culture has also colored my life experience. I often felt like the hidden immigrant, a TCK term for someone who looks like everyone else but is culturally different and aware of that difference. My Mormon friends were my home. They shared my values and my assumptions in ways that the kids I went to school did not. With them, I could mostly be myself without worrying about my actions reflecting on my church.

Nowhere was this feeling of being a hidden immigrant more prevalent than when I first attended BYU, my first experience in what I thought might feel like a “home” culture: a predominantly Mormon society. Instead I quickly found that, as with other moves, I didn’t speak the language or wear the right clothes, and the foods were unfamiliar. More importantly, I didn’t share the cultural values, prejudices and assumptions of Utahns. On some level, I expected them to see the church as transcending culture, as I always had. But instead it was all mixed up in Utah culture for them, a culture as foreign to me as all the others had been. Once again, I had to learn the rules, the language, the dress code, and to hide my otherness.

Studies show that adults who live abroad actually demonstrate stronger prejudices and biases than children who live abroad do (the real TCKs) and even than those who stay mono-culturists. Perhaps this is why Utah culture is often so reviled among those of us who first experienced it as adults; our identities are already formed and not seeking to fit in, nor having the same pressures to do so. In other words, we prejudge. Our biases are set based on whatever our developmental cultural assumptions were. That probably goes both ways: Utah colonialism and non-Mormon corridor Mormons who move to Utah.

And yet, with the rising American monoculture, these observations are becoming a bit of a time capsule now, as obsolete as landline phones, mom and pop shops and parachute pants. In 2017, we all shop at Costco.

[1] I used to have a recurring stress dream that I was leaving on a trip, and in my haste, I realized that I hadn’t packed things I needed. This dream has changed in the last 15 years, though. Now it doesn’t stress me out because I know that no matter where I go, I can buy deodorant, clothes, toothpaste, food, whatever. No cash? There will be an ATM, or better–they’ll take credit cards. If I need help, I won’t be stranded because my cell phone works no matter where I am.


  1. I love this. Growing up in Michigan, I was always an outsider. Worse for me, I fit in better with the kids who were NOT Mormon, and so I really never could quite pick a culture. It has colored me and my life ever since.

  2. Hedgehog says:

    Such a pertinent observation. I have always felt my religion put me on the outside growing up here in Britain. And as Shawn found above, I did fit in better with kids who weren’t Mormon (but were generally otherwise religious), but didn’t feel free to whole-heartedly join in, always felt held back to some extent. I still feel mostly like an observer both at church and in the wider world. But it is perhaps something I have in common with my husband. He was a travelling child, on account of his father’s work, and growing up spent more time out of Japan than in it.

  3. Not a Cougar says:

    Ditto to what ShawnH and Hedgehog said. Going into the MTC was the first time I spent any length of time in Utah. While I know it’s not exactly representative of living there, I didn’t like it and it soured me on ever wanting to live there. The kicker was while going to the temple, a temple worker asked where we were from. The first three of us were all from non-Mormon Corridor states. When the fourth said he was from Utah, the temple worker said, “Well thank goodness there’s at least one of you.” I know he was attempting to make a joke, but it nonetheless stressed my apparent inauthenticity as a member of Church.

  4. My kids, BIC, are the third culture ones in our largely Lutheran/Catholic Minnesota community. I grew up here as a non-member. It would drive me insane to live in the Mormon Corridor; it’s an unfortunate waste of great climate and beautiful topography. I do my best, as a native, to help the Utah imports to adapt – gently correct them when they refer to us as “the mission field,” which (heaven help us) still happens, and other notable gaffes.

    It’s interesting talking to my kids about how they feel (or felt – most of them are grown now) being LDS sets them apart. Kids are much more accepting of strangeness and otherness than they were when I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, but they still got pressure to drink, dress provocatively, go farther than they were comfortable with boyfriends/girlfriends, etc. I think they felt a lot of pressure to “rep the Church,” especially if it chanced that there weren’t too many other LDS kids in our big (3500+ in 4 grades) high school, or if the others ran in different circles.

  5. Angela C: Your post resonates very strongly with me. But you are much more articulate. I have, from time to time over the past 40+ years of my adulthood–especially since I finished college and entered the “working world”–felt this sense of not being fully integrated with the way the wider (American) culture interprets and reacts to things.

    Having a BS in Sociology/anthropology I have long referred to our “Mormon subculture” as the interpretive filter we/I have. And, when discussing society/politics/pop culture, etc. with my work colleagues (having no other non-Mormon interactions of any substance) I commonly would be very conscious that my interpretation/opinion was affected strongly by my lifelong experience (acculturation) in my subculture.

    In particular, this resonated…
    “what it feels like to be in such a minority, forever existing outside of the surrounding milieu, deeply aware of a personal cultural rift that isn’t always apparent to others.”

    And the quote from Pollock…

    “…But learning culture is more than learning conformity to external patterns of behavior. Culture is also a system of shared concepts, beliefs, and values. It is the framework from which we interpret and make sense of life and the world around us.”

    Thanks for putting into words my long-felt unease.

  6. My three oldest sons solidly fit the definition of TCKs having lived as expats for seven years in Sweden, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Transitioning back to life in the United States was extremely difficult for them after living in Sweden and even today, I notice gaps in their cultural literacy. Pollock’s book was quite life-changing to me because it gave me terms and concepts I could use to understand what my children were and are experiencing and also ways to explain what we experienced as a family and the ways we changed permanently from that.

    It certainly is an interesting exercise to use the terms and concepts used to describe TCKs and apply them to Mormonism as a third-culture. I think it can certainly give insight to one’s experience living as a member of a religious minority.

    That said, as I observe my three oldest sons, I can tell you that being a TCK and being a member of a religious minority group (we live in NY where our ward youth attend 22 different high schools. My sons don’t have any members attending their schools) are two different experiences.

  7. In addition to my comment above…

    The primary feature of being a TCK is that of being rootless. Even when you are in a new country you are not rooted in your home country. Ask how expat kids feel about returning to their passport country and they will often be quite ambivalent. It isn’t really home. Adults may be rooted in their passport country and feel like the outsider as they travel around.

    Whereas your example of the church as being a third culture is based on roots. If you have any degree of consistent activity in the church, you are going to be pretty rooted in it, which means you are rooted in a particular culture while trying to sort of assimilate to the majority culture. Certainly it is a challenging experience to manage that.

    I guess the best I can say this is that a TCK is trying to assimilate into the majority culture from a position of rootlessness, which makes him or her remarkably flexible and adaptive, while a member of religious minority trying to adapt to the cultural/religious majority is coming from a position of being rooted or connected.

    I hope that makes sense.

  8. Really excellent observations, Angela.

    I grew up in “gentile” Idaho, Mormons making up about 10% of the town. I’ve spent adulthood in the Midwest and on the east coast. I’ve had very few close, confidence-sharing relationships with people outside Mormondom.

    You’ve certainly put words to my experience. The best explanation I’ve been able to make to myself is that I constantly have to “translate” when I deal with non-Mormons.

    Also, pointing out that all 3rd cultures have to represent their culture to others was eye-opening to me. I had considered that unique to Mormonism.

  9. Angela C says:

    tiffanyswedemomisraeltrip: Yes, there’s a difference of course. The analogy to Mormonism isn’t the “home country” or the “host country,” but the interstitial culture: the military or expat community of rootless individuals who don’t fully integrate with the cultures around them and aren’t completely fluent in those cultures because they are held back by the interstitial culture and the need to represent that culture.

  10. I’m intrigued by the counting. To get to three, I think of the military or foreign service kids who come from the U.S. (one), are living in a foreign country (two), and spend a lot of time in an English language school or an on-base community (three). To get to three for a Mormon story, I think you have to include U.S. (one), majority Mormon, i.e., Utah and some parts of the intermountain west (two), and minority Mormon (almost everywhere else).

    For me and my children, never part of the majority Mormon world, there doesn’t seem to be a third leg for a TCK story.

    Or maybe there is. U.S. monoculture (one), Mormon orthodox (two), Mormon progressive (three). I recall my son, while attending a notoriously liberal Eastern college and a Mormon ward with a large number of Utah imports, saying that he didn’t fit in anywhere and expressing TCK kinds of angst and insight.

  11. Happy Hubby says:

    Living where I had maybe 2 people in my high school class that were LDS, this does feel familiar. I really remember the tension of trying to fit in both “places” and still be true to myself. That is a lot to put on a young kid.
    I have never lived in Utah (or anywhere close). I have to admit I really don’t get it and many parts seem very strange. I visit Utah often, but I really feel like the saying, “It is a wonderful place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there” really applies. I apologize for any offense this statement might cause. I don’t say it to be snotty or look down on others. I am just fairly sure I wouldn’t like it and would have to drop the “happy” from my pseudonym of “Happy Hubby” :-)

  12. Interesting, Angela! I had some of the same intuitive understandings of my own childhood raised Mormon–that there were significant ways in which my experience paralleled those of my first-generation/second-generation immigrant friends (at my very diverse high school). I wrote a bit about the similarity of Mormon moms and Chinese moms when Amy Chua’s “Tiger Mom” book came out.

  13. Hedgehog says:

    Cynthia L. Yes. Now that you mention it a disproportionately large number of my school and university friends were from immigrant communities, or had immigrant backgrounds. The city I was raised in had a large immigrant community.

  14. I have three grandchildren growing up in the Philippines, and I have wondered about their eventual reintegration into American culture, not to mention maybe someday living in a predominantly Mormon culture. They speak some tagalog, love the unique Filipine foods (barbecued chicken intestines on a stick, anyone?), and are completely at home as blond children in a world that is pretty much all dark hair and darker skin. I think a lot of good will come out of it, but I suspect that for all of them, their only exposure to the US is on their twice-yearly return trips to the states, and those are very much vacations, not much immersion in a culture. I think I will pick up this book for my son and his family.

    This whole concept, though, resonates with me to some degree. I know it will sound silly, but growing up in Ogden, Utah, it was markedly different than the rest of Utah, and I knew it. Not only did Ogden in those days have a higher percentage of minorities, they actually had more African Americans than the whole rest of the state combined during my high school years. I believe this was mostly due to Ogden being the railroad hub for the Intermountain West, and had attracted a lot of out of state, non-lds workers for the Air Force base there (where my dad worked), and two large military supply depots, one for the Army, and one for the Navy. I actually had a sense of culture shock when I attended a weekend recruiting visit to BYU, as I had qualified for a specific academic scholarship program. I felt completely lost and disoriented on the Y campus for those two days, even though I had relatives in Provo, and had spent a lot of time there as a kid. BYU and Utah County were a foreign place to me. I gave up the scholarship, and ended up back in Ogden at Weber State. I opted for the familiar, and have not really regretted it. I felt comfortable there, and even though the church was strong, about half of my high school friends were non-LDS.

  15. macthenaif says:

    I moved around a lot while I was a kid, eventually graduating from an northeast urban high school. I experienced Utah for the first, and only significant length of time as a missionary traveling to and from and attending the MTC. While I had a few LDS friends at Church, none of them were from the Mormon Corridor or were born into the Church. My school friends knew I was Mormon, but few had any idea what that even meant. Between myself and my siblings, to varying degrees, we acquired accents, attitudes and experiences that were foreign to our Mountain West-raised parents.

    My kids are bi-racial, bi-cultural, bi-lingual Americans who have spent a majority or all of their lives overseas. Some of the older kids have hazy memories of living in the States, but the younger ones none. Some of the kids attended the early grades in local schools where they were language learners, but for the past several years they have been in American or International schools. They have spent periods of time exceeding 12 months as complete racial, national, religious, cultural and ethnic isolates. Their direct exposure to either of their parent’s cultures has been limited to vacations/visits. You can’t get much more textbook “TCK” than these guys.

    I understand completely the feeling of being the only Mormon kid at the bat mitzvah. But I would never make the comparison between those two experiences.

    While there is a large percentage of the expat community who is incapable of carrying a conversation that doesn’t involve lifestyle specific references to that one fish grill in Zanzibar that IS.TO.DIE.FOR, or how dog sledding in Lappland is so last year, that would make a vegan blush, the unspoken secret is that for the most part moving somewhere new in-and-of-itself does very little to change a person.

    As far as developing a sense of alienation/otherness I suspect that, particularly in this modern, connected world, there are a whole bunch of things that trump growing up in a foreign culture. My experience is that most people who label their kids as 3rd culture are avoiding labeling more serious social/personality issues, and potential associated parental culpability, since it probably wasn’t the kids choice or preference to move to Baku in the first place.

    I did have to laugh though. The idea that driving a hundred miles down I-25 turns you into some modern day Ota Benga is a little bit of a stretch. Only someone from Utah could say that with a straight face.

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