Citizens of nowhere: Third Culture Kids

Expat families

With globalization increasing, and workers moving from one country to the next, where do expat children call home?

When kids arrive at the end of their time at Garden International School in Kuala Lumpur, they get a leaving kit. Including: a paper clip, a sour-sweet, a length of ribbon, a rubber band and a sponge.

The items were selected to prompt discussion about leaving and what it means — tying up loose ends, bittersweet emotions, and making memories. Every leaving child is also recognized during a school assembly.

“We make them understand how important it is to say goodbye,” says Mariella Vittetoe, head of counseling at the school. “We will be able to have a smoother transition if we have closure in this place.”

About 60% of the Garden School’s over 2,000 children come from countries outside Malaysia. For a lot of them, it’s not their first experience living in a new country. “It is a constant transition,” adds Vittetoe. “Children are coming and going all the time.”

They are better able to deal with change and are more flexible

These are Third Culture Kids – or TCKs, a term introduced by US sociologist Ruth Hill in the 1950s, for kids who spend their formative years in locations that are not their parents’ home county. Globalization has made TCKs more common.

Usually, they are kids of expat workers, but they can come from transnational relationships, or — as is more and more common in Asia — attend an international school in their home country. TCKs in many cases develop an identity that’s rooted in people rather than locations.

Keeping an open mind

Diana Matthew spent 15 years traveling. Her kids, now young adults, grew up in a series of postings that took the family from the UK to the US, Indonesia, and Sweden. Matthew says her children enjoyed a privileged upbringing, but one that gave them a better understanding of the world as well.

“It does mark them as different when they return, but they have to live with that,” she says. “It sets them up to be more flexible and better able to deal with change.”

A lot of Third Culture Kids make their first move before the age of nine

A 2012 survey by Denizen, a publication targeting TCKs, discovered most of the 200 participants moved for the first time before the age of nine. And they had lived in an average of four countries.  Most had degrees and 85% spoke two or more languages. Those attributes make TCKs attractive to employers.

Home: ‘everywhere and nowhere’

American sociologist Ruth Van Reken says TCKs are more likely to speak more than one language, are more culturally aware and have a broader world view. But she also warns that life as a TCK can create a feeling of rootlessness and restlessness when home is “everywhere and nowhere.”

When it gets difficult

The repeated losses caused by frequent moves can cause anxiety and stress among TCKs, says Lois Bushong, a family therapist. She specializes in working with TCKs. A lot of expats are on finite contracts as short as two years, causing kids to leave friends and make new ones on a regular basis. It can also take its toll on the people left behind.

Matthew remembers the biggest jolt for her kids came when they returned to the UK as teenagers. Their new schools didn’t have the transition support programs, and the kids couldn’t talk about their experiences without the other children perceiving them to be showing off.

“It’s absolutely a lot easier to go to an international school because everybody is in the same boat,” her son Jason remembers of that period. “Making friends when I moved back to the UK at 15 was the most difficult since everyone else there had been at school since primary.”

It was a similar experience for Mary Tapp, now 19 and a student at Northeastern University, when she went home to the US after three years in Frankfurt. She was 15.

Everybody knew everybody but no one knew me

“I went from a school with a fantastic welcoming new student program to a school where I was the first new child in years,” she says. “Everybody knew everybody but no one knew me. They were in a bubble and being friends with the new kid from Frankfurt who didn’t necessarily understand local fashion, and allegedly had an accent, was not among their priorities.”

Dealing with transition

Parents in many cases try to minimize disruption by organizing moves around school terms, key exams and major transitions.

Counselors note that difficulties are more likely to show up around the ages of nine or 10, when friendships become more important to a child’s identity, and more so during teenage years. Children can become withdrawn, starting to isolate themselves from their classmates or become angry, lashing out at the other kids.

A part of my own heart seemed torn out every time I had to tell good friends goodbye

Bushong grew up as a missionary kid in South America, and remembers frequent farewells: “I felt as if a part of my own heart was torn out every time I had to tell good friends goodbye, knowing that I might never see them again.”

She encourages discussion with family members to understand how everybody is dealing with the move. “Watch your kids and if you see them acting abnormal or withdrawing, talk to them about what is happening,” Bushong says. “Listen and validate their feelings of grief.  It will help them move forward.” Ignoring potential problems can also cause trouble later when the child becomes an adult.

“If a person has had a difficult experience during childhood and hasn’t been able to make much sense of that, it can be carried into adult life,” warns Kate Berger, moved from New York to The Netherlands to study and now runs the Expat Kids Club. She is working with schools and families handling international moves. Still, she emphasizes that a lot of TCKs benefit enormously from their childhood experiences.

Growing support

Luckily for TCKs, there is now more support than ever before. Over the past decades, schools improved counseling services and increasingly provide assistance to kids from the moment they arrive to the time they leave.

Peter Rice, 14, started at the Garden School three months ago after his mother joined the teaching staff. Born in the UAE, Jack’s lived in several countries, but has joint British-Canadian citizenship and sees himself as Canadian. He says it took some time to settle in, even with a helping hand, but a school camp finally helped him bond with his classmates.

“A lot of the other kids have gone through the same things as I did,” he says with a hint of a North American accent. “They’ve also had to move again and again.”

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