Cross-cultural families and Third Culture Kids today

Transitions care and developing rootedness in globally mobile families has never been more important. Fiona Murchie welcomed TCK author and expert Ruth Van Reken to our latest webinar to talk about why.

student group being welcomed by teacher
With international mobility and multi-cultural families more commonplace than ever, fundamental questions about “who am I?” and “where do I belong?” are critical for young people and children growing up in an international context and their development as globally minded citizens.

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Children who transition well into new school environments are best equipped to learn and practice the skills needed to thrive, now and in the future. This is why transitions care for third-culture kids – children growing up outside their parents’ cultures – is a key focus for international schools around the world.Global employers are also recognising the importance of transitions care for internationally mobile families, particularly since Covid-19. Social and emotional wellbeing is linked to engagement, performance and ultimately more sustainable international assignment programmes.In this webinar, Third Culture Kids Today, Relocate Global’s Fiona Murchie talks to Ruth Van Reken, co-author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds (3rd edition), and the co-founder and past chair of Families in Global Transition (FIGT).Ruth Van Reken is also currently Chairperson of the governing board of Safe Passage Across Networks (SPAN), a non-profit organisation dedicated to people and schools committed to healthy student, family and staff transition.Here, Ruth Van Reken shares her story about the progression of Third Culture Kids (TCK) to where it is now and its importance for the future.

Developing a language for transitions

Ruth Van Reken was one of the original TCKs. Born and raised for the first 13 years of her life in Kano, Nigeria, to American parents, she was part of the first phase of western international mobility after the Second World War.It was on her return to the USA at age 13 that she realised “like so many TCKs who thought they were from a certain place, when I got there I found out I was probably the most ignorant person in the world.” Nevertheless, Ruth Van Reken found her way, adapted and went to high school and college.In common with many adult TCKs, it was later in life that Ruth Van Reken experienced a delayed sense of loss that was at first hard to understand. “By the time I was 39, there was this part of me that while I had this absolutely wonderful life that I loved, there was another part that struggled with depression,” she explains.“I never could understand what this thing was that didn’t have language for me because it didn’t make sense. So, I started journaling for the first time at 39 and started to understand that all the goodness of my life stopped me from looking at the losses. I loved Nigeria and when I left it at 13, I didn’t realise my whole world died day. I began to understand this story.” Ruth Van Reken’s personal journey to understand her own experience is now helping TCKs and adults to tell their own stories and develop a language for talking about transitions. These stories and the lessons learnt are also being developed into essential practice for schools and organisations that work with and support today’s cross-cultural and third-culture kids and their families.

TCKs and cross-cultural families – then and now

Ruth Van Reken’s recognition of the need for language to talk about issues of identity and loss is as fundamental to good transitions now as it was then.Explaining why, she says “What’s interesting is that we’re different and yet the foundational issues remain the same. When we were growing up, mostly it was westerners going someplace else. That really was the first cohort studied: colonial days, post-World War 2 and no internet.“Now of course when I’ve gone into international schools it’s vastly different. Today, we have the difference in baseline cultures that we didn’t have before. The children are from countless countries and many times local children are going there and so people think they are not really TCKs, but they really are living a cross-cultural experience.“The complexity of what’s happening in today’s world is mind-boggling. If we think about this, the complexity that’s in schools, the complexity that’s in the corporate world, is huge.“But the problem that I see is we’re still doing a lot of diversity and inclusion by old standards. It’s more the obvious things of culture, the things we can see. That’s obviously where we have to start because that’s where discrimination starts, no question.“But I think the next stage is how do we hear people’s stories and exploring how we look at this dynamic of the hidden cultural pieces that so many people have that are not traditionally part of the story for people from this country or that? That’s the challenge and it’s also a great opportunity.”

Developing and supporting self-identity

Transitions care is therefore increasingly as much about settling children and families into a new host country and school environment or repatriation and change as it is about supporting self-identity. This is as true now as it was when Ruth Van Reken returned to the USA.“The main issues for TCKs of the past that remain are the questions of identity and the questions of loss,” says Ruth Van Reken.“So, the questions of identity – where am I from? – become the big challenges, even while the great benefits are I got to see the whole wide world and I got to do all these wonderful things. Our losses are hidden. I didn’t realise my world died when I left Nigeria; that with one airplane ride I lost everything that was my life because I didn’t have language for that.”The work of Ruth Van Reken, her colleagues and organisations like SPAN – Safe Passage Across Networks – and Families in Global Transition, as well as academics and researchers around the world, have been instrumental in making visible this unseen side of international mobility and developing a language to talk about loss and transitions.“There are very clear patterns of how we respond emotionally when we are saying goodbye and saying hello,” explains Ruth Van Reken. “Too often, we have not allowed the process to be named or we go through it without language.“SPAN has been teaching and developing these great online training programmes for schools to help the people working in them develop and put them in place, so that no matter which school kids go to they will be in that same programme.“But I want to say also I have seen fabulous programmes in schools where the teachers, the educators, staff and parents understand the process,” continues Ruth Van Reken.“They’ve studied the common things kids experience when they are being raised cross-culturally – these issues of identity and belonging – and they’ve put them in their curriculum. They’ve put at their very core ways children can find language for their experience; ways kids can find out, ‘oh, I’m not the only one that doesn’t quite know where my home country is.’“We aren’t going to change the trajectory we are on. We are in a global place where the world is moving and we’re only going to do it more. What we need to do and are doing is finding ways to name it and finding maybe even new ways to define belonging, finding out about new ways to learn the whole. I have much optimism.”

Connecting to places and people with language

Continuing to describe the differences today from her own experience, Ruth Van Reken says “what’s become much more complicated are the issues of language. So many people go to school now in a language that’s not their home language.“They go to school and they are in the school culture, which is often western, but they go home to a completely different cultural world and different language and a different expectation. This is part of the new discussion that’s going on for schools and for the whole topic.”Home languages connect us to people, cultures and the places we feel we belong. They help us express ourselves fully in ways others can understand and therefore support a sense of belonging. As well as from the all-important diversity, inclusion and equity aspect, this is why many forward-thinking international schools are now keen to offer many as many native and home languages to as many children as possible.“Schools are starting to teach the local language and using more resources, so we’re really at a wonderful place, I think, of awareness,” says Ruth Van Reken. “When we listen to each other in that way, we grow and we can do better. I think we can speak to each other with kindness and explain who we are, and we can listen with kindness and as much understanding. Then we have conversations that take us someplace.”

The wider relevance of transitions for global citizenship

The issue of transitions and what it means to belong and be from somewhere while on the move globally has been put into sharp relief by the coronavirus pandemic, believes Ruth Van Reken.“One thing the pandemic has done is make us understand why transition is so vastly important. Transition isn’t just about physical relocation. It’s about life experience. Transition is the process we go through when there’s change.“When the pandemic happened, we all wound up in that middle stage of transition without going through goodbyes. It was really a confusing time for all of us because we didn’t have time to prepare. We’ve all experienced now why transitions are so big.”Of the future, Ruth Van Reken is hopeful, particularly on the subject of being globally minded and TCKs, cross-cultural families, schools and perhaps global organisations having something very valuable to offer the world.“All of these topics that we’ve talked about with kids and schools are turning out to be completely global topics and relevant to the adults as well,” says Ruth Van Reken. “We learned to code switch and switch cultural interactions without knowing we were doing this.“As TCKs, we see the world. Many kids have learned multiple languages. These gifts are many. That’s why we want to work with the challenges. When you can use the gifts, you have a vision for what’s going on and a capacity to see beyond something local.“I also know it’s important we do it because I’ve also realised that people if they don’t see the ‘biggerness’ they become afraid. Maybe that’s the challenge now: to listen to each other and to try to understand: ‘I want to know your story. It’s different to my story, but I bet there’s places in both our stories where we can connect.’“That’s where I see TCKs and CCKs. They relate in the stories, even though their experiences are vastly different. In the emotional spaces, they do relate, and I think that’s where the hope comes for us all. If we can listen to each other and learn about our stories about who we are, we can have joy then in what the differences are because we’re not afraid.”

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