I raised my family while living abroad in seven different countries. That doesn’t include the countries I lived in or visited before having kids, or places my children and I traveled to during their childhood, it’s only the places we called home. That can have a peculiar effect on your family, and the way your kids relate to the world.
My children’s mother tongue, English, wasn’t the native language of any of the countries in which we lived. Consequently, some of them feel it’s easier to text in Chinese than in English, and figured out how to use that to their advantage. They worked out a secret code amongst themselves using Chinese characters to substitute for the pinyin phonetic pronunciation of English words when spoken with a heavy Chinese accent. (For example, the Chinese characters for the pinyin sounds, ‘du yu lai ke tu pu lei hei lou’ = ‘Do you like to play Halo?’) I have to give them credit for ingenuity, even if I don’t endorse their game choice.
The effect on my family ranged much farther than language. We’ve partaken of a cultural buffet, picked and chosen bits we especially liked, then claimed them for our own. For instance, we find it infinitely more practical to eat with a spoon and fork, one in each hand, like in South-east Asia, rather than with a knife and fork, like in the United States. That is, when we’re not using chopsticks, as we do in China.
We’ve become cultural chameleons and adapt to where we are. My kids accept, though find it odd, that people in their passport country (America) request separate checks in a restaurant and don’t vie over the privilege of paying the bill in a good-natured fight, like in China. They understand that you shouldn’t point at someone with your feet or reach out to shake hands in Thailand, and that you should always leave a tip or wait your turn when in line, while in the United States. They answer oui, gracias, xie xie, etc. and know there is more to it than just a word, that there is a certain way of thinking that comes along with it. They change cultures and customs the way some people change clothes, according to the event or climate.
Their taste in food has been seriously impacted as well. Most of my kids agree that Skippy peanut butter is not all that impressive when combined with jelly on bread, but works splendidly in a spicy sauce spiked with chili and garlic, served over chicken and rice. They’ve been known to hide durian somewhere in the house for birthday treats, and a few (not all) of them prefer drinking hot water in cold weather.
Like water seeping deep into the ground, international habits have permeated our lives. To this day my American son-in-law, who grew up in the states, wonders why my grown children still mysteriously line up only at the right side of his parked vehicle and use a single door to get in the car, scooting across the seat, one after the other. Chalk it up to too many years of relying on public taxis in China where it’s illegal to enter on the left, which opens to the street.
Their childhood perception of the world was, perhaps, different than some. Like all kids, they were grilled about ‘stranger danger’ and not going off with people they did not know. But my children grew up thinking there was nothing ominous about taking candy from strangers, as that was how most everyone treated children in the countries where we lived. Foreigners (us) received a double dose of such attention. People unknown to us would snap endless photos and ask to pose together with the kids wherever we went. Like the queen of England, my children grew up considering it a tedious but necessary part of their public duty, so they smiled and waved obligingly most of the time. Once, while staying in a large urban area where expats such as ourselves were a dime-a-dozen, my kids experienced for the first time what it is like to be invisible. My seven year old son blinked in disbelief when we went out and everyone ignored us. He wondered aloud what was wrong.
My grown sons, who still live in China, give and receive business cards with both hands. They smile and nod a whole lot, especially when things are tense. I grew up in America but have lived away for decades, and when we all visit “home” (I put italics around that word for a reason) none of us quite catch everything that’s going on but we try to fake it. Paper or plastic? (Is that cash or credit card, or are they asking if we want a paper bag or a plastic one?) Social security number on the form? (Um, yes, but I’ll have to look that up, it’s never really been used much.) Oddly, nearly everything comes in some kind of a pumpkin flavor, and pizza is served with generous amounts of real, actual cheese on top. Rich people weigh less, poor people weigh more, young men are inclined to wear their hats backwards, and jaywalking – get this! - is a crime.
The list of adjustments to life in America may seem trifling, but they are endless. Getting carded is not a request for a business name card. Soda is cheaper than bottled water and refills are given for free at fast food joints. Fresh vegetables, straight from the ground, are expensive, but processed snacks are cheap. Very few people sleep in the middle of the day, not even those working in government offices. Shoe stores carry large sizes! (I was so vocally appreciative of that fact once that a sales rep almost called security on me. I think she figured I had to be high on meth to be so excited over two rows of assorted women’s size 11’s.)
My daughters, who have lived in the U.S. for years, snicker at their brothers and me, and spend a lot of time over-explaining things to us when we visit. They try not to sound patronizing or roll their eyes too much, for they remember what it was like when they first went there to live. We look like everyone else, speak with the same accent, but we are the hidden immigrants. We may claim citizenship, but we don’t claim to understand how things work, or why people do some of the strange things they do.
Yes, we are a peculiar people, but we aren’t alone. Third Culture Kids (TCK’s), children who spend a significant amount of their developmental years outside their parent’s passport countries, and Global Nomads, people who live a mobile international lifestyle, are both growing phenomenons. The United Nations reports that 232 million people worldwide are currently living outside the country of their birth. For Americans, it is a nothing short of a diaspora. The U.S. State Department estimates that in 2016 over 9 million Americans lived abroad; that’s like the population of Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, and Washington D.C. combined. Over a million Australians live overseas; that’s 5% of the country’s population. In the UK, a country of 65 million, over 5 million have emigrated.*
Are there advantages to growing up abroad? Yes, certainly. An expanded worldview, greater cultural intelligence, and an extensive exposure to languages are only a few of the more obvious perks. Of course, there are also challenges. Children who grow up abroad often have an ignorance of their home culture, can suffer from confused loyalties and wonder, “Where is home?”
Thankfully those problems are being recognized and addressed more readily these days. International schools focus on educating parents and children on the effects, both positive and negative, of TCK life. There is a good amount of reading material on the subject available, and counselors and coaches specializing in global transitions are helping families adjust to the inevitable bumps in the road. Most research, however, suggests, that TCK experiences are largely positive. ** Many ATCKs, grown adults who were raised as Third Culture Kids, are finding that traits such as cultural competence, language ability, experience in problem solving and mediating conflict, are all factors that serve them well in their careers. Those who grew up between worlds often find that they maintain a competitive edge in today’s global job market, especially in international fields of business, education, and development.
So, maybe you, like so many others, have been offered a job abroad. You wonder if you should take the leap, and whether it will be a worthwhile experience for your family. I can only echo what my kids would say: “Wai na te?” (Why not?)