Rooted or Rootless?

Category: Third Culture Kids

rootsFor decades, Third Culture Kids of all stripes have been labeled “rootless”. That has always bothered me. Having grown up highly mobile myself, when I hear that just because I moved 7 times by the time I was 18 years old I have no roots, no real connections to a place - I raise my eyebrows and wonder if others really know what “connection” means.

When a person is geographically mobile there is a sense that indeed he may be challenged in geographical belonging, but it is important that he not be confused with not having a sense of rootedness. In a very real sense, the geographical rootless may have a relational rootedness that non-mobile people would never understand.  

Nomadic peoples have been on the planet for centuries. Have you ever wondered if they had a sense of not belonging? Or do they feel like something is terribly wrong with them because their home is not tied to a permanent plot of land?  There are 30 to 40 million of these nomads, most of whom have a strong sense of community and relational roots that run very deep.

Could it be that the feeling of rootlessness that TCKs often feel might be tied to not being with people who have experienced their type of rootedness? Or maybe there is a feeling of rootlessness because they are told by well-meaning adults who love them that they have missed out on the security of place because they have grown up global and mobile?

liveoak-1Where I live in Florida, you can see majestic Live Oak trees. At maturity their trunks can be several feet in diameter and their branches extend to an amazing width. When I look at them, I wonder in amazement at what they may have witnessed in their lives. Those trees live here. They do not move. They have a root system that keeps them in place in an environment perfectly suited for them to thrive.

Central Florida is also home to the largest river in Florida running 310 miles to Jacksonville opening into the Atlantic Ocean. All along the water’s edge, and sometimes in the middle of the river are the most beautiful water lilies.  On the surface they look like fragile plants with stunningly beautiful flowers and a root system that seems to be anchored in nothing but water.

waterlilyTCKIn 2004 and 2005, Central Florida was bombarded with several severe hurricanes, tornados and tropical storms. Incredible damage was done to the area. At the end of the season most of the mighty Live Oaks survived the storms, but the low lying ground was flooded and many of these trees stood in several inches of water for a long time. After a while that water took a toll on many of those grand oaks and they died. They were simply not designed to live in water. The water plants on the other hand, thrived. These tender plants were right in their element. Their roots which seemed to be rooted in nothing were actually intertwined with other plants helping provide stability and enabling the others to extend their roots to find the nutrients that the water provided. Of course, if those plants had been taken out of the water they would have died pretty quickly because they were not designed to live on dry soil. So, I ask you, which plant is more stable…..the oak or the water lily?

To take this a bit further, I asked several TCKs some questions about rootedness and being rootless.  Here is what I got:

  • All of them told me that although they enjoyed and even loved their host countries; they would choose being with “their people” over being back in the country they left. They all viewed rootedness for TCKs very differently than rootedness for mono-culturals.
  • Most felt like they wanted some geographic roots, but all said they strongly needed relational roots.
  • With the exception of one they said their international experience was worth it - even though it was extremely painful to miss it.
  • When I asked if they wanted to stay in one place as adults, responses were pretty divided. (Slightly more wanted to continue a mobile lifestyle.)
  • All I talked to wanted to live internationally again.


So in conclusion can I ask that we stop saying TCKs are rootless? Or at the very least can we say that while they may be geographically rootless, they are relationally rooted instead. To be honest, I would take being relationally rooted over being geographically rooted any day!

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All images used with permission

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