Third Culture Kids – Maintaining Stability in a Life Without Roots


Author:
Megan Wu, GMS – Santa Fe Relocation Services (Shanghai, China)

[Editor’s Note: We are delighted to feature this article about Third Culture Kids by Guest Author, Megan Wu.  Megan is herself a Third Culture Kid, and is now raising one of her own in Shanghai.  In addition, she serves as Relocation Services Manager for Santa Fe Relocation, a leading relocation provider.]

The business of global mobility is all about helping people who find themselves in a foreign country and a different culture. Many assignees are families and with that comes a lot of worry on how the children will adjust to the move and the new surroundings.

When a child is moved from one culture to the next they instantly begin forming their own “third” culture to incorporate all the new and the old that they come in contact with, making them “third culture kids” (TCKs). A third culture child is someone who has grown up in a culture not their own. They feel that they no longer can completely assimilate with their home culture, and as they are a foreigner, cannot completely assimilate with their host culture; therefore forming their own third culture. How each child handles this cultural jumble does of course depend on each child’s personality, duration of stay, age, parental attitude, etc.

I am one such TCK, after moving to Shanghai in 1998 at the age of 15. I have lived in Shanghai for 12 years. Now that I am the mother of a 3 year old girl and facing questions on how to best raise my daughter in Shanghai, I have thought a lot about the importance/disadvantages/advantages of being a third culture child. Since my daughter is growing up raised by an American parent, living in China, she is very much growing up in the “third” culture that I myself have created. and all the benefits and challenges that come along with it.

Cultural Acceptance and Diversity
Growing up abroad has given me a greater understanding of other cultures. I have had the chance to come in contact with children from different cultures in school, and now in an international work environment. My friends and colleagues are from many different countries around the world, opening my eyes to different cultures. I have become more aware of the fact that there are different ways of celebrating, smells, tastes etc. This has given me the flexibility and a sensitivity that can be more difficult to obtain when living “at home”.

Learning and hearing foreign languages is also an important factor in the cultural growth of TCKs. The hopes of many parents is that the children will be able to learn at least one or even more languages while being abroad. This is not so easy. After several years in China, I did not speak more than basic Chinese, as most of my world was based in English – at home and in school. My understanding was more than basic, as Chinglish (Chinese and English mixed) was a common “language” at school and I achieved some comprehension of the language this way. It was not until I began studying Chinese seriously at University that I could combine all the conscious and subconscious knowledge I had to actually advance to fluent Chinese.

Based on my personal experience, and similar experiences of friends, I believe it is critical for parents to ensure that there is some aspect of the TCKs life that is submerged in the language they should learn – be that extra language lessons, a special activity or even just spending time with a maid/nanny that does not speak your own language.

Cultural Roots
The flip-side to being culturally aware and flexible is a sense of lacking cultural roots. Growing up, I was asked if I felt rootless every time I returned home for the summer, but could not quite understand the implications until much later. I always felt that I had stability of where I came from and what I stood for. This may not have come from my culture but rather from my family. Wherever my family was – this was home and I know what social/cultural rules applied. To me this has emphasized the importance of having consistency in the home environment – not only in terms of rituals, but also in terms of rules and values.

It was only upon my return to the US after graduating from high school in Shanghai and starting US University that I discovered what the effects were of my overseas experience. My lack of understanding of common conversations such as TV shows and politics was embarrassing. My gap of knowledge in the modern culture with regards to TV shows, commercials, programs/activities growing up, and that my peers did not understand my experiences, was a constant reminder of my time away from “the norm”. Reverse Culture Shock does exist and in my case, resulted in my decision to embrace my overseas experiences, return to my life a nomad and move back to China. Every child deals with reverse culture shock differently, of course. Some will see their return “home” as yet another adventure.

Social Skills
Going to school in a foreign country puts great emphasis on your social skills but also builds you empathy. At any international school around the world, each student will have been “the new kid” at one time or another. Generally I have found that TCKs will have a sense of openness and confidence in handling new situations simply because they have to! During school they will inevitably say many goodbyes to good friends; they have to make new friends continuously. This can lead to many good friends all over the world that will last for a long time, but can also create a situation where a protective mechanism is built up where “out of sight is out of mind”, leaving the TCK with few friends from a specific period in their life.

Reflections
Looking back I do feel that the advantages of being a TCK far outweigh the disadvantages. I will always be unique. In my role as a relocation professional, I will always have a different way of perceiving the world and a different understanding of the challenges that face our clients, especially the children.

Resources
There are plenty of resources either from the web or books where you can better understand your Third Cultural Kid. Here are a few websites that might provide you with more insight:

Whatever you do as a parent, the most valuable suggestion I can give you is: Tell your child that their life will be different, the lessons they learn along the way as a TCK will be valuable tools in their adult life, and most importantly they are not alone.

More About Megan

3 responses to “Third Culture Kids – Maintaining Stability in a Life Without Roots

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  2. Thank you Megan for your interesting article.
    Read also ‘The mission of Detective Mike Moving Abroad’ a new book for Expat Kids on Amazon.com. This book can also be used as a resource for Intercultural training for children.
    Simone T. Costa Eriksson http://www.interculturalplus.com

  3. Great article. Thanks so much for writing it!