Tuesday, 29 July 2008

What's a Third Culture Kid?

Twenty years ago, Diane and Avi Schwarz, both native New Yorkers, decided that they loved Italy so much that they wanted to move there and start a new life. So they up and left, just like that. They rented a tiny apartment in Rome and had two sons, one after the other. The sons attended the local public Italian school and rapidly learned Italian, as children are prone to do. Meanwhile, home life and family activities and events were strictly English in language and American in culture. And of course, all family vacations have been to the States.

The Schwarz sons are now just completely high school in Rome. When the younger one is asked, "Do you feel American or Italian?", he answers "In Italy, I feel American. When we are in the States, I feel Italian."

The Schwarz sons are "third culture kids". Third Culture Kids are children who grow up away from their family's "home" country. Sociologists have found that third culture kids become both "a part of" and "apart from" their local environment, creating a "third culture" that does not wholly belong to either their "home" culture or the local culture where they live.

Third culture kids have their own particular issues that their parents have to watch out for. There are the obvious ones like ensuring that their child has a proper mother tongue. My daughter hears English from me, French from her father and Italian all around her.  She's more or less trilingual.  So which language is her mother tongue? (I'm trying to make sure that it's English!). How can I make sure that she is able to communicate in all three languages without rendering her not great in any language?

There are also more subtle issues facing third culture kids, relating to identity and the need of a "home". For a third culture kid, simple questions like, "Where are you from?" can require reflection. And often a third culture kids discovers, upon entering her passport country at age 16 to live (possibly for the first time in her life), that she knows a lot less about her "home" culture than she thought. She may have American parents, maybe even went to American schools overseas and speaks the English language like an American. But she realizes on "re-entry" that she doesn't like driving everywhere, she hates American food, it's too cold, she can't talk about anything with people and she doesn't understand why everyone dresses so badly.

Probably the best thing that we expatriates can do for our children is to make them feel grounded somewhere.  Our daughter will probably end up feeling culturally more "French" than Canadian and although part of me is reluctant to let her grow up without knowing much about backbacon, beer, and baseball (sniff, sniff), the other part of me knows that I need to let her latch 0n to one culture, for her own feeling of identity, and as long as we're in Europe, it might as well be the French identity. 


Kataroma said...

I'm a third culture kid and a mother of another third culture kid living in Rome. Things are even hazier for me than they are for the schwarzes as I grew up in two different countries so have roots and cultural traits from both.

Anyway, like most TCKs i have lots of issues to do with cultural identity, accent and 'where to live' (siblings, elderly parents and parents in law on three continents!) However, I don't think its very difficult (especially for a non TCK parent) to do anything to mitigate the usual TCK cultural identity issues - just dont add any new cultures I guess. These issues are just something which each TCK has to work out for him/herself.

The Globetrotter Parent said...

Hey Kataroma, CONGRATULATIONS on the arrival of your baby! No doubt your child will grow up to be truly international (no choice, given the Australian/Swedish mother and Dutch papa, and living in Italy on top of it all!).

Ivana said...

Your post strikes a cord with me too. I was born in Singapore, spent more than a decade in Australia and now am on my 5th year in France. Confused? Perhaps. I don't feel at home in any of the countries except the one I'm currently living in. One good thing is that I'm pretty sure I could set up home in any country work takes us to.

Saretta said...

Love your site! Fascinating issues addressed. Can I put a link to it on my new blog?

wwm said...

Sono una mamma globetrotter. Io e mio marito siamo italiani e viviamo negli States, per ora.
QUesto posto mi ha fatto riflettere. Per noi casa è l'Italia ma ormai ci stiamo talmente poco...
Mio figlio per ora ha 2 anni e inizia a parlare un misto tra inglese, italiano e spagnolo (spanish speaking nanny)...Vediamo come andrà!

Anonymous said...

I always find these kind of things fascinating. As a kid of two cultures I can indentify with certain aspects - but also find it really interesting to explore how people come to terms with ideas of identity and nationality and "where are you from" when there are additional countries in the mix.