My 8 and 10-year-old boys, Nolan and Liam, speak with an indiscernible accent. Liam was born in Malaysia, and moved to Germany when he was just 3 months old. Nolan was born in Germany. As a family, we also lived in New Zealand for a year while the boys were little.
Recently, the boys and I moved to Malaysia. They speak English with me, and German with their German/Kiwi dad. We are, in a nutshell, today’s multicultural, multi-racial family.
The modern family
I met the children’s father in New Zealand, when I was working there. Born and raised in Germany, although his father is a New Zealander, he was also in the country for work. We lived there for a number of years, before getting married and moving to Malaysia when I was pregnant with Liam.
With the rise of globalisation and the increasing opportunities that comes with it, our story isn’t such a rare one. Globalisation has transformed the lifestyle of numerous families today. But when your mother is from Malaysia, your father from Germany, your parents lived and were married in New Zealand, and you yourself have lived on three continents before you were even 10, your identity becomes quite confusing.
Third Culture Kids
“Third Culture Kid”, or TCK for short, is a term coined by US sociologist Dr. Ruth Hill Useem in the 1950s, for children who spend their formative years in places that are not their parents’ homeland. More recently, the term “cross-cultural kids” has gained more acceptance as an inclusive description of the many cultural influences children can experience.
These children can often have difficulty establishing a cultural identity of their own. For many, my children included, the question “Where are you from?” is a loaded one and can be difficult to answer. If your child is in a situation where their cultural background and where they’ve lived have not been a straightforward experience, how can you talk to them about their identity and help them to understand what it means to be a third culture kid?
Here are some things that have personally helped us:
1. Let them tell their story
Ask them questions and offer support as you listen. Where have they lived before? Where were they born? Which country feels like home to them?
Because their story is often not a straightforward one, by asking and listening you are already supporting them and letting them know it’s okay to be different. Taking some time to let them tell their story will go a long way into helping children know it’s okay to be who they are.
2. Help your child to strengthen their sense of identity
TCKs can struggle to form a clear sense of identity. Many TCKs won’t know how to answer the question of where they’re from. Is it the country they were born in? The country they’ve lived in the longest? Or the country they have just moved to? My 8 year-old who speaks English as a first language because that’s our family language at home, identifies as a German and calls Germany ‘home’ because that’s where he’s lived the longest.
Designing activities that explore identity—family tree, discussing country and culture of origin, personal likes and dislikes and where it comes from, can help kids develop a further understanding of belonging and identity.
3. It’s great to be multilingual!
Many TCKs may speak more than two languages, especially if you and your partner speak different languages and a third is spoken in the country you are living in. My children spent most of their formative years in Germany, but their German is not as strong as their English, which we speak at home. This has caused some frustration in terms of education and social life in the early years, although they are now bilingual.
We have recently moved to Malaysia, where they are hearing Malay and Chinese being spoken for the first time. Whether or not they adopt these languages will come with time, but it is important for TCKs to know that it’s great to speak many different languages (even if they may be more fluent in one than another), or to not know a language at all, especially if they’ve recently moved to a new country.
4. Realise that the word ‘home’ may be loaded and confusing
The concept of home is confusing for many TCKs well into adulthood. Many TCKs are deeply confused about where home is (and what “normal” is) or where they belong, and are deeply unsettled by that confusion. ‘Home’ suggests an emotional place – somewhere you truly belong – but many TCKs never quite feel at home anywhere, or perhaps call more than one place their ‘home’, due to their personal experiences.
5. Help your child to make friends and connections
It’s important to be aware that being or looking different in any way can sometimes make it hard for kids to connect with their peers, whether you’ve recently relocated or even if you have spent all of your life in a certain country. Nolan, even though born and raised in Germany, was often seen as an outsider there due to his Asian looks.
Create opportunities for your child to have fun, connect with, and learn about their peers in small-group or one-on-one settings. Since making friends may be harder for TCKs, help them find groups of peers through shared interests and passions, which can make it easier for them to feel like they belong and fit in.
6. Be aware of the challenges
TCKs are all unique and their experiences are unique, which means that growing up away from their home culture, or simply being different from the ‘norm’ in a culture they’ve lived in all their lives, can impact them in different ways. It’s important to encourage your kids to share with you how they are feeling, and what they may be struggling with. Find ways to support them and make living between two or more cultures, an enriching and positive experience.
The wonderful thing about TCKs is that they tend to develop an expanded worldview, with a sensitivity to intercultural situations as a result of being exposed to a variety of lifestyles and cultures early on. This sensitivity or cross-cultural competence can open up a wealth of opportunities in both work and life later on, perhaps allowing TCKs to adjust better than others in a colourful world with more open borders and increasing diversity.
By Jo Lene Mahon
Jo Lene is a single mum with two rambunctious boys, who have recently moved back to Malaysia after living abroad in New Zealand and Germany for nearly 20 years. She’s a special needs advocate for her son with Williams Syndrome, loves traveling, writing, books, and ending the day with a glass of Riesling.