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March 17, 2010

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Third Culture Kids

MANY cross-cultural expat kids have an abundance of gifts and opportunities, but they may have complicated childhoods and face issues of identity and loss. Nancy Zhang looks at Third Culture Kids.

In the age of globalization, a new tribe is emerging. Deeply multicultural and multilingual, this group started their global education at an early age, following their parents on postings to foreign countries for multinational jobs.

They are termed "Third Culture Kids" (TCK).

TCK refers to almost all Shanghai expat children living here with their families. And with the right encouragement, these kids can grow up to be uniquely advantaged adults.

How to nurture their gifts while coping with potential issues (identity, loss, fear of attachment) is the subject of Ruth Van Reken's book, "Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds."

Van Reken is in Shanghai tomorrow to speak at the Concordia International School Shanghai.

TCK gifts can be numerous. Distinguished TCKs include US President Barack Obama; Henry Luce, founder of TIME magazine, whose early China experiences inspired him to start a magazine for global news; and CNN news correspondent Christiana Amanpour.

But before success there is often pain - and TCKs struggle with their unconventional status.

Van Reken, a TCK herself, says the book stemmed from her own confusing rites of passage.

Born and raised in Africa until the age of 13, Van Reken returned with her parents to the United States. Finding it impossible to explain her early experiences to American peers, she "put it away," never telling anyone she had lived in Africa.

"While that allowed me to fit in, it was as if I had cut off a precious part of my life experience and I didn't know how to use the many gifts I had received from it," she tells Shanghai Daily in an e-mail interview.

Identity crisis

Together with Dave Pollock, Van Reken was one of the first to popularize the term coined by sociologists in the 1950s. It is still a very young and fast-changing field, and is little known even to TCKs themselves.

They are a subset of cross-cultural kids, an increasing demographic in a highly mobile world of immigration, multinational companies, and inter-cultural marriages. Consider Americans: In 1946 it was rare for anyone to live abroad for extended periods, other than diplomats, military personnel and missionaries. By the 1990s the figures had risen to 3 million, and by 2007 to 4 million.

The "third culture" refers to the shared expatriate culture among dislocated kids, the first being the parents' home culture and the second being the overseas hosts' culture.

One of the major challenges all TCKs share is confusion surrounding identity and unresolved grief over the inevitable losses of friends and roots that come with frequent moves.

According to Van Reken, the parents' positive attitude is crucial for the child's successful development.

The Gerays are a German family with two sons living abroad for the past 10 years, and in Shanghai for the last three. Though the kids struggle with classic problems of identity crisis, mother Marion Geray is convinced "the opportunities of being a TCK outweigh the risks."

"We're a very pro-China family," says Geray. "I think the kids will really appreciate being multilingual - they learn English, German and Mandarin Chinese. It will benefit them everywhere, they can be part of local society, and have no prejudice against other cultures."

The Gerays were posted abroad for an international semi-conductor company. Both their sons were born abroad. Lennart, aged 9, was born in Hong Kong, and Laurenz, 6, was born in Singapore.

In time, the Gerays found they had trouble answering the question, "Where are you from?"

"Lennart would answer, 'I was born in Hong Kong, once lived in Singapore, and now I'm living in Shanghai.' But he had no strong sense of being German even though that's his passport nationality. He has never lived there," says Geray. "We worried that they can live anywhere but have no deep understanding of where they are. We give them private German lessons, but it's difficult - they don't want to learn."

According to Van Reken, the crucial times are pre-teen and teen years. With peer approval and relationships becoming important and their identities not yet formed, changes in cultural context can present overwhelming challenges of adjustment.

As a result, "TCKs can struggle to understand which of the many cultural worlds they have experienced define their identity, which can take time. Delayed adolescence may result as it takes longer than the traditional norm to learn how to assimilate the values and beliefs by which they will operate as an adult," says Van Reken.

Parents can help by creating family traditions that are portable and repeatable, and helping kids explore new environments, learn new languages.

The Gerays are trying to balance internationalism with a German identity. They visit Germany every summer and winter for weeks at a time, and they enjoy hiking, horseback riding and other fresh-air activities they can't enjoy here.

But they don't send their kids to a German school. Instead they want them to make the most of their international surroundings. They go to the British International School Shanghai where English is the dominant language. Geray feels "it is more international. They will benefit from English as their major language, and the teachers see being in China and learning Mandarin as a positive thing."

Geray says resistance to learning Mandarin is a major problem among expat families and TCKs. They are often separated from the local society in big expat compounds, which Geray says "does not make use of the opportunities here."

A related TCK problem is taking privileges for granted, like having a driver and ayi. "We don't want them to become arrogant with so many languages and privileges here. It's not normal, and we want to bring them down to earth," says Geray.

Expat life means a great deal of transience, which is one of the hardest aspects of being a TCK. There are many cycles of loss and separation inherent in the globally mobile lifestyle, and even if they stay it's likely a best friend will move.

For the Gerays, every summer there are farewell parties. "The boys tell us they're glad they're not the ones moving. But when best friends leave, we can tell Lennart really struggles. All we can do is to encourage him to keep in touch on Facebook, by e-mail or meeting up in Europe."

According to Van Reken, one characteristic that adult TCKs share is "the fear of pain and loss. It can keep them from taking the risk of deep relationships, or pushing away relationships they already have."

Again, it is up to the parents to help the child grieve, giving them time to go through the normal processes of accepting sadness. Then show the kids that it can be positive and that "they can never lose what they have."

But when challenges are surmounted, the rewards can include multiple languages, the ability to negotiate different cultural environments, being true cultural bridges in personal as well as professional lives, adaptability and flexibility to change and challenge, and thinking outside the box.

Geray's advice to families new to this highly mobile lifestyle is two-fold. "Wherever you are based, learn the language and interact with local society. Also always keep in touch with home. Those two things make a stay abroad successful."

Ruth Van Reken's talk

Date: Tomorrow

8:30am "Culturally complicated childhood: bane or blessing?" (parents only)

7:30pm "From surviving to thriving - how to live your best life abroad"

8:30pm Author reception

Address: 999 Mingyue Rd, Jinqiao, Pudong

Tickets: 100 yuan per person

Tel: 5899-0380 ext 6000



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