Third-Culture Kids

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  • Thursday, 16 July 2015 00:00
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Third Culture Kids

My two children were born in Australia and grew up in Hong Kong. The elder went to university in England, where she has lived ever since. The younger graduated from university in the United States, where she lived for five years, before returning to Hong Kong to live. Between them, they have studied a range of languages other than their native English including French, Mandarin, Spanish and Cantonese. Both of them are global citizens, comfortable inhabiting different cultures, and living, studying and working in different countries around the world. They also fit the definition of the ‘third culture kid.’

The term ‘third culture kid’ refers to children who grew up in and were educated in a culture other than the one into which they were born. There are undoubted advantages to growing up in another country and another culture. These include unparalleled and unique educational opportunities. Rubbing up against another culture provides a perspective on one’s home culture in particular, and a perspective on the world in general, that cannot be easily gained from within one’s own culture. Very often there are opportunities to travel widely, to learn at least one other language within the community where it is the natural mode of communication, and so on. In short, it allows one to look at the world through different eyes. Third culture kids are flexible, adaptable, and perfectly placed to acquire the 21st century skills that are the cornerstone of educational systems around the world.

However, the label ‘third culture kid’ comes with a price tag. There are disadvantages as well as advantages. In many places, including Hong Kong, most expat kids will never become part of the local culture. In an important sense, they will always be outsiders. This is the nub of the label ‘third culture’. They no longer inhabit their home culture and can never merge with the host culture. They inhabit a third space–thus the label.

Haruka Nuga was born in Yamagata, Japan, but moved to Hong Kong when she was only a few months old. “In Hong Kong, I’d be considered Japanese, but in Japan, I’d be called kaigaishijo–it’s a term used to refer to Japanese children educated and brought up overseas. When I was younger, there would be many moments when I would feel ambivalent about my [lack of] identity. I feel like I don’t belong to any one culture.”

Another major disadvantage is the instability and the difficulty of maintaining friendships that is common in expat communities where mobility is commonplace. One of my children was told, “If your family moves on or decides to return to Australia, don’t tell your friends you’re leaving. They’ll drop you immediately.” The assumption is that there is little point in investing in a relationship that isn’t going to last. When told that he would be moving from Singapore to a new city, one teenager said: “I’m not so sure that I want to move to a new city. ... Things I worry about with the move include academics, safety and friendships. For me, since I am in the first year of a two-year high school program, it is quite an inconvenient time for moving and I’m nervous. In the new city, I will be attending a different international school system that has a dif- ferent academic program. ... I’m also worried about the fact that my new city isn’t as safe as my current city, so of course I’m scared–it will be a whole new environment. I’m going to miss my friends. ... I’ve met so many great people here and I am extremely upset that I have to leave soon... I am hoping that I will come back to my current city so that I can revisit all my friends.”

“There are undoubted advantages to growing up in another country and another culture.”

Potential loss of identity and a sense of belonging somewhere in the world, as well as the difficulty of maintaining friendships need to be weighed against the advantages of living and learning in another cul- ture. At the end of the day, whether or not being an expat kid was worth it will depend on the experiences of each individual and the value placed on those experiences by that individual.

When I interviewed people who had been third culture kids for all or part of their childhood, I got an interesting reaction from one informant, Jodie, who said that the term itself had lost its meaning in the last ten years or so, as had the notions of “home culture” and “host culture.” Jodie felt that with globalization and technology, it was no longer just wealthy executives and their children who moved around and lived abroad, but ‘regular’ people as well as students, refugees and so on. For many of these people, and their children, the “third culture” has become synonymous with the “home culture”. tj

The complete article can be found in Issue #276 of the Tokyo Journal. Click here to order from Amazon.


Written By:

David Nunan

Tokyo Journal columnist Dr. David Nunan is a former president of the TESOL International Association, the world's largest language teaching organization and the world's leading textbook series author. Vice-President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Anaheim University Graduate School of Education, David is a world-renowned linguist and best- selling author of English language teaching textbooks for such publishers as Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press and Thomson Learning. His English language teaching textbook series Go For It is the largest selling textbook series in the world with total sales exceeding 2.5 billion books. David has been involved in teaching graduate programs for prestigious institutions like the University of Hong Kong, Columbia University, the University of Hawaii, the Monterey Institute for International Studies, and many more.


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