The ups and downs of being a third culture kid

The offspring of expatriates – so-called ‘third culture kids’ – not only have an edge over their home-grown contemporaries when it comes to education but when it comes to career prospects, too, according to a new report.

The ups and downs of being a third culture kid

Garden International School, Malaysia

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The late Dr Ruth Hill Useem, an American sociologist and anthropologist who coined the term ‘third culture kids’ (TCKs) more than a half-century ago, found that children of expatriates were four times more likely to get a university degree compared to others and that 40 per cent of them went on to earn advanced degrees, compared to the average of five per cent.

Benefits of an expat lifestyle

According to a report in the Gulf News, experts are now finding that TCKs have better employment credentials, not just because of their educational qualifications but also because of their early life experiences.Taqleed Syed, a human resources specialist in Dubai, is quoted as saying that certain attributes and experiences of these youngsters work in their favour when it comes to employers’ considerations of job applicants.“My basis for recruitment is the job requirement based on the position we are looking to fill,” she said. “But while I say that, it is true that I would prefer people who are more tolerant and adaptable. Tolerance, adaptability and flexibility are expectations from any employee, in general, and in many ways a third culture kid is very close to these expectations.”School search and education advice - connect with our in-country expertsVineet Pabreja, owner of a Dubai marketing agency, told the newspaper, “If you are in a communications-based job, being exposed to a variety of ethnicities, religions and cultures make your experiences and insights much broader. A freshman applying for a marketing job that only grew up in one city would naturally come with lesser insights into various communities. It’s not their fault but it is just a practical consideration.”

Cultural richness that comes from travel

UAE-based anthropologist Dr Joanna Seraphim added, “They (TCKs) are clearly more open-minded and tolerant because they have seen and experienced things that are different from the people in their own country.“For example, a person in the UAE has tried lugemat (fried dumplings) from the UAE, masala chai from India, attended the Chinese New Year festivities and had iftar with friends. They would have all these experiences that they don’t have in their own country. Culturally speaking, they are getting richer.” Another clear advantage the Gulf News found was that many TCKs were able to speak at least one other language, citing an online survey conducted by Denizen magazine, a publication for expat offspring, found that 85 per cent of them were multilingual.American sociologist Ruth Van Reken, co-author of ‘Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds’, found that TCKs were not only more likely to speak more than one language but had a broader world view and were more culturally aware.

The downsides of expat life 

But she found a downside, too, with life as a TCK liable to create a sense of rootlessness and restlessness, where home is “everywhere and nowhere.” On one hand, she says, experiencing different cultures leads to “comfortableness with cross-cultural interactions, often multiple languages, 3-D awareness of the world and friends in many places and from many backgrounds”.On the other hand, though, moving frequently gives rise to identity struggles, as TCKs lack full ownership of any one culture, and chronic grief due to experiencing recurring loss. “After living through so many cycles of separation and loss from friends, family and places they love, the accumulation of loss is high and, wherever there is loss of something you love, there will be grief,” she told Southeast Asia Globe. “But in the TCKs’ world, grief is often not recognised or dealt with as the losses are often hidden. Also, often there is no permission or time to deal with [loss], because others will point out the blessings of their lives. TCKs know this is true for the most part and so to say there is loss feels almost disloyal.”

An international school's perspective

International schools are well practised in dealing with the needs of TCKs as explains Mariella Vittetoe-Castillo, head of counselling at Garden International School in Kuala Lumpur. “Parents and international schools have significant roles to play in supporting their children to make sense of their international and cross-cultural identities.“They need to be open and accepting that ‘loss’ will be a feature of their lives in a way that it might not if their family was not based internationally. Living internationally can offer a rich, multifaceted experience as long as we engage with the inevitable change.“Schools such as ours work constantly with our families to support them in understanding this – ensuring that we don’t avoid the awkward nature of loss and to celebrate the fluid nature of the international identity.”
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