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Think. Discuss. Act. Third Culture Kids

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Anecdotal Family Typologies Of Third Culture Kids

Fletcher, A. (1995). Anecdotal family typologies of third-culture kids. S. Hamilton, MA: Center for Youth Studies.


I was born in Switzerland

I lived in Spain, Sweden, and Brazil

My dad’s Swiss

My mom’s American

I’m not Brazilian, Swiss, American, Spanish

I’m eighteen

I’m lost

i speak portuguese, spanish, english, and some german

i play basketball

i run track

i act in plays

i was Student Council vice-president

i was editor of the Manifesto

i was Jennifer’s boyfriend

i love art

i love film

i love my dad, my mom, and my brothers,

i love spain and brazil

i believe in truth

i believe in lie

i don’t believe in peace

i’m an idealist

i’m an anarchist

i’m just another student

i’m lazy

i think we’re living “the lost generation” part II

i don’t drink

i don’t smoke

i hate mass education

i hate to prove things

i hate cool people

i read comics and Borges

i’ve seen Star Wars twenty six times

i believe in the third world

i believe the wet is dying

i believe in innocence

i’m sick of stupidity

i believe in passion

i believe in God

i believe in Zen

i believe in irony

i’m eighteen

i’m lost

i have no idea how to write a self-description

‘Where are you from, Isabel?’

Isabel answered in American-accented English, ‘Well, my mother is Spanish and my father is French.’

‘What do you speak at home?’

‘I speak Spanish to my mother, French to my father, and English to my little brother.’

-John Gautschi, 1990 graduate of the American International School of Zurich, excerpt from a poem in the Alumni Newsletter

Isabel is not a refugee or an immigrant. Her father is a diplomat, living in a beautiful home in Geneva, Switzerland. Isabel and her brother attend the Ecole Internationale de Geneve, the International School of Geneva, a bilingual school with four campuses and a student population of 2500. Though Isabel has never lived in the United States, her English is perfect. Her Spanish and French are perfect as well. At the time of the conversation above-her senior year in high school-she was virtually living with her boyfriend, who would drop her off at school on his way to work.

Also consider Natalie, a missionary kid also living in Geneva. Her mother is from Venezuela; her father is from Ecuador. Natalie attends an English-speaking school in the United States, a German- and Spanish-speaking school in Ecuador, and a French-language school in Switzerland. She acquires and sheds languages with ease. During her time in Europe, she spoke both Spanish and French fluently, though she originally arrived in Switzerland without any French-language background. She studied Italian at the Swiss school, and began to lose her German and English. She now attends college in the United States. She has recovered her English; yet, her other languages are fading.

And then there are Mirwais Zekrya, Nandan Sampatkumar, and Omar Odeh. Mirwais’ father is from Afghanistan and his mom hails from El Salvador. But Mirwais has never lived in either country. Mirwais’ English reveals combinations of British and American accents, forming a seemingly international English accent. Nandan’s father is an Indian Hindu; his mother is Danish and blond, though she wears the red dot on her forehead. Nandan’s English is similar to Mirwais’. Combined, Nandan and Mirwais speak Afghani, Spanish, Hindi, Danish, and French. Omar’s Palestinian parents who met in Kuwait. Omar and his sister were born in Canada, and they speak English (and Arabic and French) as though they have lived in metropolitan America all their lives; yet, they have never been there.

A list of similar kids could go on for pages. Blonde and pretty Helena has never lived in her native Denmark. Instead, she has grown up in Kenya, Uganda, and Switzerland. With a sister in California and parents moving to Pakistan, Helena attends a United Kingdom university, speaking American English, Swahili, French, and Danish. Christina has a Swedish father and Laotian mother. Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, with a Camerooni father and American mother, has lived her life in Cameroon, Burundi, and Switzerland. Karma Worpa is a stateless refugee from Tibet living in Switzerland. Defne Saral, with one American and one Turkish parent, is called, “Daphne,” and speaks English with a soft, North Carolina accent. Samar and Reem, Lebanese friends who were refugees from Liberia, returned, for the first time, to their home country to attend college. Laura, a vivacious white, curly-haired South African born in Zambia, is growing up in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and Switzerland.

What do these kids and families have in common? They all speak English. The parents work in the international community, employed in multinational businesses, diplomacy or United Nations work, relief and development, journalism, university education, or missions work. The families’ lives have been peripatetic; that is, they move frequently from country to country, averaging eight moves by age eighteen.

As you can tell, they are polyglot, speaking several languages fluently and others in varying degrees of ease. Many times these kids, known as third-culture kids, have several citizenships, though they may never have lived in any of their home countries. The parents sometimes come from completely different parts of the world, speaking languages which bear no resemblance to each other. In these instances, the parents often must speak English at home, even though it may not be anyone’s native tongue. These parents will likely practice different religions, creating challenging situations with regard to raising the kids. An eclectic mix of faiths within a family can be confusing. Placing that family within a third culture which follows another set of religious traditions adds complexity to the already difficult situation. Finally, recognizing the fact that the family lives on the tangent of that third culture, in a fourth, international culture representing a variety of faiths, makes passing on one’s faith within the family tricky indeed.

Although some non-English speaking international schools exist, third culture kids tend to attend international schools in English. However, due to the high cost of international schools, many of these kids must attend local schools. Due to socialization in school and work, both kids’ and parents’ ties to their motherland(s) weaken over time; none is quite sure where he or she belongs. Graduation is particularly interesting. Graduates often leave the family to attend university in their “home country”-a place where the only loyalties are on paper, and the only familiarities are through vacations and time spent with relatives. At this time, graduates begin to wonder where they will live, what will be their home, what will become the language they will speak to their own children?

Within the families, peculiar tensions may arise. The question of religious faith emerges when children are born and, unless both parents share a strong faith or one parent is willing to switch his or her (most often her) faith for that of the other, the issue is resolved by avoidance. One mother of girls in an Argentine family of Latin American Catholic heritage, taught at an international school. Since her beliefs were not very strong and religion was not discussed in the home, she allowed her girls to attend Christian youth events because she “wants to let the girls make their own decision” about faith. A British “mum” with an ardent Libyan Muslim husband applauded her sons’ involvement with Christian youth workers because it was the only way they could learn something of her own religious background. The one true religion of the international community is tolerance of other beliefs, and silence on the whole subject. Ultimately, few of the kids know anything about their own, or any other, faith.

Stresses within the marriages are unique, as well. A marriage mixing contrasting cultures (his, hers, the local culture or cultures in which they lived, and the culture of the international school and community) survives best in a culture different from both his and hers. If both parties are not flexible and adaptable in their expectations of each other, one will have to mold to the expectations of the other, or the marriage is doomed. Particularly difficult marriages involve husbands from rigid male cultures (such as Japanese, Middle Eastern, and some Latin American) and wives from assertive female cultures (American, Canadian, north Western European). International communities are littered with the corpses of marriages such as these.

Wives typically bear the family pain. The kids may also struggle with transience, losing friends, changing schools, countries, and languages, and dealing with the host culture’s antagonism toward foreigners. Moms generally have to respond to these issues. In addition, the wife/mother has to periodically learn anew how to shop, drive, talk to plumbers and dentists, and function normally in a totally new culture. These women constantly work through the complications of cultural transition and language acquisition, while quelling stresses in the home. The husbands, in contrast, generally work in nice offices with bilingual secretaries, travel regularly to exotic locations, and live on expense accounts. A traveling husband with a large expense account easily finds attractive company for an evening. The husband/dad has little need to interface with the local culture. He is often impatient or unsympathetic to his lonely, bored, isolated, frightened wife, who is not allowed to work, cannot find friends, and cannot talk to the butcher. As one might expect, the strain and trauma of the transition and adjustment to daily life can quickly break a marriage.

Added to the difficulties experienced by the women are their own characters and backgrounds. These couples are high-achieving couples, well educated, and financially secure. The women have college degrees and many have had impressive careers in their home country. They are bright, well read, widely traveled, and polyglot. Suddenly unable to gain a work permit, prevented by local laws from working, and isolated in a foreign culture without the local language skills, these women may enter a vicious downward spiral, sometimes resulting in “culture shock freeze.” In these cases, an individual will have such fear of the surrounding culture that he or she is unable even to leave the home. Shopping is done by household help, the kids are taken by buses to school, and some moms/wives may refuse to enter the culture alone, preferring to stay at home behind locked doors and bolted windows.

Another potential danger for families is misbehaving children. When kids get into minor scrapes with the law in the home country, everything happens within an understood framework. Internationally, the repercussions resound into the schools and the rest of the community. When Michael Fay committed his acts of vandalism in Singapore, the story circulated worldwide. Had he spray painted a car in his American hometown, no one would have cared. But a misbehaving child can ruin a father’s international career. Today, both parents often travel internationally. Older kids may find themselves left alone for weeks at a time; younger kids are often left with babysitters or au pairs. This kind of parental neglect can cause trouble for the entire community.

Nonetheless, benefits of the international lifestyle are many. Families are often closer, with tighter relationships, less time spent watching television, and more time spent together. Constant moving brings kids closer to parents, and parents closer to each other. If a family survives, as most do, that family will be healthier and happier at a much deeper level, and the kids will have higher self esteem, incredible language skills, and the ability to live in and travel around the world, comfortable with people of all nationalities and religions. These parents run the world; their kids will do likewise, with the skills and maturity to do so.


  1. How might the process of discussions be different if third-culture kids were involved in the negotiations over a border dispute between neighboring countries? Trade talks between rival industrialized nations? Emergency relief talks aimed at dealing with a natural disaster in a third-world country?
  2. Discuss the benefits and dangers of a belief system based on tolerance.
  3. What can a western woman do to develop more security if marrying someone from a rigid male culture?
  4. How can a youth worker help women living in an international community?
  5. Knowing the potential for embarrassment to the entire community if a kid gets into trouble, what could a youth program offer to engender community-wide support?


  1. Families are less likely to suffer from divorce, more likely to have children living away from home.
  2. International communities are far less likely to be racist, xenophobic, or nationalistic.
  3. Adult residents of international communities who are not associated with churches or religious organizations often consider religion primitive and religious people ignorant. Yet they espouse tolerance toward all beliefs as the highest good, as long as tolerance includes silence on religious topics. Kids will tend to be affected by the adult attitudes and widely ignorant with regard to belief systems, even their own.
  4. Counseling offered in English will find a large but reticent market among the women. In general, people are afraid to get counseling for several reasons: (1) the community is so small, one will see one’s counselor in social situations; (2) to admit the need for help can shatter what little pretense of control one has managed to retain; (3) careers may be threatened by family strife; (4) the hope always exists that a marriage can last while on a foreign assignment-to talk about it might doom it, and no woman wants to go through a divorce in a foreign country.
  5. Television frequently does not offer much variety or interest, and is seldom in English. In some countries, movies are subtitled, but more often they are dubbed into the local language. Even videos are dubbed. So, kids tend to be bored and are more than willing to participate in weekend activities.
  6. Summers are silent, as the international community empties and travels for extended periods.

Andrew Fletcher cCYS

Center for Youth Studies

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