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August 30, 2011

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New kid on the block - How third-culture kids fit in

It's always hard being the new kid on the block, but even harder for a third-culture kid (TCK), who frequently finds himself or herself in a new country, starting over with a new school and new friends. Kerri Pang should know. She's a TCK.

Before she even learned to walk, 3-month-old US citizen Amanda Child, now age 16, was on an airplane flying across the world to Shanghai. Child, who was born in New Hampshire, spent some time in China and then moved back to the States and lived in two places with new sets of friends. The family returned to Shanghai when she was 12 and that's where she has stayed, so far.

"When I'm in China, I say I'm from the US, but when I'm with other kids like me, TCKs, I say I'm from China," says Child, who was home schooled for many years until the family settled in Shanghai to spare her some of the wrenching experience of parting from school friends.

"I'm definitely American, but I have a lot of Chinese culture ingrained in me, and I get culture shock every time I return to the United States," she says.

TCK, which trips off her tongue, refers to third-culture kids, or trans-culture kids, children who spend a lot of time in one or more cultures than his or her own passport country and integrates elements of those cultures and their birth country into a third culture. They often have a sense of not belonging when returning to their passport country, according to the US State Department's website.

A lot of research has been done into these culture-spanning young people and they even call themselves TCKs, and they often stick together, finding more in common with each other than with children from their "home" country or the country they are currently visiting.

The term "third-culture kid" dates back to the 1950s when sociologist Ruth Hill Unseem coined it after her second year-long visit to India with her three children whom she watched as they adapted.

Those who seem to enjoy Shanghai more are more willing to step out of their comfort zone to try new things - like Chinese food.

TCKs are often multilingual and accepting of other cultures, though moving between countries can be difficult and adjusting to their passport country can be the most difficult of all after years overseas.

As a new school year starts, third-culture kids in Shanghai are beginning to ease into their new environments - both academically and culturally.

For some, this isn't their first tour in Shanghai. While they have the advantages of global experience and the diversity of international schools, they, like every new kid on the block, have to struggle to assimilate into local culture or to be assimilated.

Adapting is difficult, and it can be especially difficult for TCKs. But is inability to adapt a product of dissonant cultures and environments, or an unwillingness to accept the new cultures?

"A lot of TCKs here live in an expatriate bubble - it's almost as if they're not even in China. They go to Western restaurants, international schools and shop at Western groceries and stores. They don't have anything to do with the local life," says Carrie Jones, Shanghai Community Center's counseling coordinator.

As one of the world's fastest-growing global cities, Shanghai is home to over 150,000 expatriates, many with children (the number of TCKs isn't known).

According to Jones, the people who enjoy Shanghai the most are more willing to step out of their comfort zone to try new things.

Since these third-culture kids are far from their home country, they often miss home. If they are not experiencing anything new they end up in an in-between world that's very limiting.

"I've met some kids who've lived here for years and they don't speak a single word of Chinese," says Jones.

Given that the local culture is unchangeable and parents can only help to a certain extent, it is up to the young people themselves to foster a positive attitude.

"I advise these young people that they don't have to claim from only one culture, and not to be too scared of the local culture," Jones says. "If language is hindering you, then brush up on Chinese."

Having spent her formative years away from her passport country, Amanda Child was reared in a blend of American and Chinese cultures. If she lived elsewhere for a while, say Indonesia, she would assimilate that too into her outlook.

She reads, writes and speaks Chinese with precision and fluency.

"My manners are very Chinese in terms of giving gifts, treating guests, and laughing when I'm embarrassed. I love Chinese food and I'd rather have jiaozi (dumplings) than ice cream. I also have the Chinese studiousness and self-drive," the 16-year-old says.

Since they are generally broad-minded, trans-cultural young people have a lot of personal potential to develop into global citizens who are culturally aware, adaptable, multilingual and familiar with global issues that transcend borders. These traits are crucial to "success" in a globalized world where people move easily beyond borders and cultures.

Nineteen-year-old Lei Nuo Yee holds an American passport, but spent most of her life moving around in Indonesia, Singapore and Shanghai. The college sophomore is now back in the US and has realized that being a TCK gave her a useful global perspective that most of her peers lack.

"People who've never been to China still have an image of the country being farmers and fields," says Lei, who graduated from the Shanghai Singapore International School in 2010.

"I'm also more adaptable. I find home in different places - like bubble tea in America and H&M in China. Since TCKs travel so much, settling down would probably bore us all to death. I can't imagine doing it," she says.

However, Carrie Jones from Shanghai Community Center has also seen how this mobility and lack of stability has had a negative impact on a child's emotional growth. When farewells are bidden every year, it's always sad, and some TCKs may be less willing to put effort into building future friendships.

"Since relationships are short-term, TCKs are not willing to invest as much. The hardest challenge I've seen them face is when their friends move away," Jones says.

She says that she once counseled two girls who had a disagreement but did not see any point in patching up because one of them was leaving soon.

Nevertheless, the community counselor still sees the TCK experience as a positive one. She says parents play key roles in easing their children's transition and encouraging them to reach out and experience a new culture.

"Many parents are sent over by their companies, so it's not a choice for the kids who start to think their parents are authoritative," Jones says. "It starts with small things, like giving them choices in daily life to show that you, as parents, do not dictate their lives."

While environments change, the nuclear family does not - and hence is the only constant support a child receives through drastic environment changes. After moving around with her family in Hong Kong, Singapore, Michigan in the US and South Korea, stay-at-home mom Fei Wong settled in Shanghai in 2006. Wong has three children - aged 13, 20 and 23.

"Every time we move, the biggest concern is for our children - and our prayer was always for each of them to find a best friend in each new school. My husband and I can adjust, but it's the hardest for the children," says Wong, who is Taiwanese.

She believes strongly in involving her children in decisions about their schools and homes.

"When we moved back to Shanghai, my husband and I respected our son's decision to attend the Shanghai American School, although we wanted him to attend another school in Pudong. But it benefited him and we did not regret that decision at all," Wong says. "As parents, we have to encourage instead of rebuking them for not adjusting."

Besides being inclusive of different cultures, international schools are also academically rigorous, says Jones. She explains most expats who are posted to China hold senior positions and project their high expectations on their own children.

"Students here tend to make academics their priority," says Jones.

"My personal opinion is that the pros outweigh the cons. The TCK experience offers so much that it's worth it - the kids are more independent and become more willing to take risks and accept challenges."

You know you're a TCK when ...

? "Where are you from?" has more than one reasonable answer.

? You feel odd being in the ethnic majority.

? You think in the metric system and Celsius.

? You haggle with the checkout clerk for a lower price.

? You think that high school reunions are all but impossible.

? You sort your friends by continent.

? Your life story uses the phrase "then we moved to ..." three (or four, or five ...) times.

? You speak with authority on the subject of airline travel.

? You have a time zone map next to your telephone.

? You realize what a small world it is, after all.


Expert's tips on how to ease adjusting to new cultures

? Learn the language.

? Explore local culture through food, activities and even grocery shopping.

? View change as going on a great adventure.

? As parents, involve children in decision making.

? Accept it is possible to identify with more than one culture.

? Cherish and invest in friendships, even though they will be short-term.


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