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Third Culture Kids: Growing Up and Growing Away

3 minute read

If you’re an expat, you may wonder if you’re doing your child a favor by taking them out of their home country, away from your home culture, away from family and friends and raising them overseas. And if you’re a Hong Kong Chinese sending your child to an international school, you may similarly wonder if you’re helping or harming them by giving them an international cultural school experience at the cost of their local school culture.

In both situations, you’re creating what’s known as a Third Culture Kid (TCK). These are people who don’t fully belong to their home culture, either because they’ve been raised outside that culture, or schooled outside of it. They don’t share your culture entirely, nor are they a full member of the culture of any other society. They are a blend — they have a Third Culture.

The fact that you are raising a TCK has an impact on your child, and on your relationship with your child. The answer to the question “Is it a positive or negative impact?” is “It depends.”

Children who attend international schools face a number of challenges. Class composition tends to be fluid: children come and go as parents take up international assignments elsewhere. This means that friendships also come and go, and children become accustomed to losing and making new friends. For some children this is a positive: they learn how to deal with loss and become adept at forming new relationships. For others, it is a struggle, and the loss of friends can wound them deeply and perhaps even make them reluctant to invest too much in new friendships.

Children who attend international schools become aware of their minority status — even if they are local Chinese. If their physical appearance isn’t different from those in the general community, they still know that their experience is different. They become as fluent, or even more fluent, in English as in the language of their parents. They come into contact with peers and teachers who challenge the morays of their home culture and they begin to see themselves as different from that culture, and from their parents. This can be a great benefit, as children question the prejudices of their culture and become more accepting of and open to others. Others may feel unmoored, not knowing where they belong and what to believe, caught between what they see at school and what they have learned at home.

It is this tension between the culture of the home and the melting pot of the school that can cause the greatest stress for parents. On one hand, there is great pride: Our child is able to navigate this wider world, mix with people of all backgrounds and receive a better education (probably) than we got. On the other hand there is a realization that our child is not only growing up, but also growing away from us. Perhaps they have different ideas about what is right or wrong, or about how family members should treat each other. They might struggle to fit in with other relatives, or reject the idea of living in their country of origin because they now feel like a stranger there. They might not be interested in the books, ideas, humor and music of our culture. Or develop ideas about sexuality and gender roles that are not acceptable in our culture.

And so for some parents, the sense of loss we experience as we see our child become more independent (and ourselves less important to their existence) is compounded by the sense that they are drifting into another culture entirely — the culture of TCK’s. Not only is our child becoming an adult, soon to move out of the family home, but in addition, they are turning into someone different from us. They’re entering a world that we don’t know, don’t understand, and can never be a part of. Our imagination takes flight, and we see them finding a partner from another culture, someone that we cannot connect to, speaking a language we may not be fluent in, and then having children who are equally different and remote from us. We see ourselves abandoned.

It is this fear of abandonment that underlies the intensity of many overt and covert conflicts between TCK’s and parents. Our sense that they are growing up and growing away from us triggers us to hold tight to try to bring them back. Perhaps we insist they study the language of our culture, or go to university in our home country, restrict their access to other TCK’s, follow our religion, adhere to the moral code of our culture, refuse to let them leave home, or demand that they spend vacations in our home country.

For readers who hope I have words of wisdom that will cut this Gordian knot, alas, I must disappoint. Parents will inevitably try to keep their children firmly in their own cultures, and children will just as certainly grow into the culture they feel most comfortable in. But perhaps an understanding of what is happening will help to lower the intensity and fears around this struggle.


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