Third Culture Kid Transitions - Justin Hopkins


Poetic  Auto Ethnographer: Justin Hopkins

Participant: Self study

Project: Cross-cultural expereinces/ Third culture

Source: Hopkins, J. B. (2015). Coming “home”: An autoethnographic exploration of Third Culture Kid transition. Qualitative Inquiry, 21(19), 812-820.


Born in the United States, I grew up in Senegal, West Africa, where my parents worked as missionary linguists. “Coming ‘Home’” tells the story of my return to the United States after graduating from high school. I frame my personal memories, shared in the form of poems (following the methodology outlined by David Hanauer’s Poetry as Research), with reflexive analysis (using the theory of David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken’s Third Culture Kids). I examine the difficulty of leaving particular places and people from the “host culture,” as well as the challenge of transition back into the “home” culture.


Involvement: Some Time Before Leaving Senegal

Sitting in a frangipani tree,

Settled into its branches,

Feeling the knots in my side,

Against my neck,

Feeling the sun on my face and arms,



Sleeping surrounded by mosquito netting and mud brick,

Hearing the scorpion scuttling across the vinyl floor,

Playing soccer in the sand at twilight,

Hiding from a man in a costume made of bark, shrieking and clashing machetes,

Laughing at baby parrots fighting for food from a yoghurt cup,

Listening to Mom or Dad reading aloud by the glow of a hissing gas lamp,

Riding a bicycle over a bridge with a crocodile living under it,

Taking a bucket bath,

Climbing the baobob tree,

Speaking Jola, the local language,

Dancing to the djembe drums,

Relishing the sound of rain on a tin roof,

Seeing soldiers walking and tanks rolling into the village,

Leaving the village,

Giving candy and bread to beggar boys,

Riding in taxis with cracked windshields and without floorboards,

Watching falling stars while camping out on rocky beach cliffs,

Swallowing bitter malaria pills,

Haggling in the marketplace for a watch or a calculator,

Making tea with my brother on a thatch mat,

Drinking Coke from a perspiring bottle,

Wearing brightly colored trousers made for tourists,

Learning French, the colonial language

Eating rice and fish and vegetables from a communal bowl,

Sweating, always sweating,

Swimming in the sea, dodging Portuguese Man-of-War jellyfish,

Smelling the eucalyptus, the smoke…


My methodological approach was simple. Although I never thought of myself as a poet, David Hanauer guided me through an established procedure to produce poetic data, summarizing “the poetry writing process [as] a form of inquiry in which meanings of personal experience are discovered” (p. 25). … It’s worth noting that, serendipitously, I discovered after the fact that the five poems I composed correspond precisely to David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken’s (2009) stages of transition from culture to culture: involvement, leaving, transition, entering, reinvolvement (p. 66). I included these stages in the poem’s titles.


Leaving: Shortly Before Leaving Senegal

My friend leaves Senegal before I do.

We have pictures of us together as children,

Playing Legos,

Practicing martial arts.

Now he poses alone for a going-away photo,

Wearing his multi-color patchwork pants,

His dark blue suit jacket,

His Bob Marley beret.

He looks funny.

He wears rings too,

One his parents gave him,

Gold, with an inscription of Africa on it,

And a tiny ruby for Senegal;

One I gave him,

The copy of which I wear myself,

Much less grand,

A simple, silver band,

With a friendship knot woven into one side.

He smiles widely.

Later, probably close to midnight, at the airport,

We hug goodbye.

And then he is gone.

On the ride back to the Center, where I live,

I struggle to hold back tears.

Back at the Center, where I live,

I climb the wooden stairs to the roof,

Sit in a corner, alone,

And cry,

Feeling the cool brick against my back,

The hot breeze against my face.

He was my childhood.

He was my Africa.

And now he is gone.


Transition: Leaving Senegal

My turn at the airport comes,

And I feel ready.

I carry my beat-up backpack,

And other luggage.

18 years weighs a lot.

There are more friends to bid farewell.

We exchange gifts,


I drink a Coke.

I ride the bus to the plane.

I notice my last step on African soil.

My foot moves from the ground

Onto the steel staircase to the plane.

I slump into the window seat.

The lights on the continent fade.


Reinvolvement: Some Time After Arriving Stateside

Just a few days before starting my new job,

Cashier at a grocery store,

[My friend] was visiting.

How wonderful to walk and talk with him again.

I woke up,

Excited to spend another day with him.

I walked out of my room,

And met my mom.

She said something had happened.

Her voice was tense.

We went to the TV.

We watched the second plane hit.

We watched the towers fall.

I was shocked,

And afraid.

But as I saw the flags unfurl,

And shared the shock, fear, and awe with my neighbors,

I thought,

I live here now.



Hanauer, D. I. (2010). Poetry as research: exploring second language poetry writing.

Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Pollock, D. C. & Van Reken, R. E. (2009). Third culture kids: The experience of growing

up among worlds. Boston: Nicholas Brealey.