Tag Archives: third culture kids

12 Things I Learnt at the Washington Conference

Just back from the wonderful FIGT (Families in Global Transition) Conference in Washington DC http://www.figt.org/2011_conference and I am sitting in groggy but rapt contemplation of all that I have seen, heard, encountered and learnt.   I feel somewhat like a boa constrictor who has just swallowed a very large animal and now needs a bit of time to digest.

Conference logo

Washington DC. March 17-19

Here are just a few of the small and big revelations of the past five days, in no particular order:

1) American conferences are slick, well-organised and colour-coordinated, even when run by volunteers.  But yes, the air conditioning is fierce…

2) With concurrent sessions, there will always be clashes between two or even three or four sessions that you really, really want to attend.  Resign yourself to the fact that you cannot possibly see them all.  Or, even better, go with a friend, divide up the sessions and ensure both take copious notes.

3) Interculturalists love to talk and meet people!  It was the friendliest atmosphere I have ever experienced at a conference.  The emphasis seemed to be upon collaboration rather than competition (which, having been to some academic conferences, is not always the case).

4) Despite your good intentions, you will come home loaded with books.  Yes, I could have bought them afterwards on Amazon and had them delivered to my house, but what would I have read on the plane?  And how else would I have got the authors to sign them?  Expect some book reviews shortly.

5) You’ll get a lifetime’s worth of memorable quotes.

6) Everyone hates the term ‘trailing spouse’.  Thanks to Jo Parfitt, writer,  publisher and global nomad http://www.joparfitt.com/ ,who suggested that maybe we should refer to this category as STARs (spouses travelling and relocating) and STUDs (spouses transitioning under duress).

Now, excuse me while I settle back to digest some more….

Ah, I hear you say, but where are the remaining 6 things you have learnt?  There will be another blog post later this week about this, I promise!


1 Comment

Filed under Globalization

It takes a global village to raise a child

Traditional mountain village, Romania

Romanian village, from aboutromania.com

The title of today’s blog is a good example of globalism. The origin of the saying ‘It takes a whole village to raise a child’ is disputed – generally attributed to ‘Africa’ (as if a whole continent would have the same proverb), it has also been claimed as a Native American Indian proverb, and it was recently popularised by Hillary Clinton, as well as being the title of a book by Jane Cowen-Fletcher.  Regardless of its origin (which can probably be ascribed to more than one source), we can all understand its sentiments and wish we could recreate that village for our own children.

Certainly, when I was a child and spending the whole summer in my grandmother’s village in the Sub-Carpathians of Romania, my cousins and I roamed freely throughout the village.  Everyone knew us, ‘the daughter of the son of the wife of So-and-So’, and my Gran would get regular status updates of our whereabouts and activities, as good as anything that Yahoo or Facebook can offer nowadays.  All of this was detrimental to our fruit-stealing ventures in the church orchard, but it allowed us to fish and swim, climb and hike, taste honey fresh from the hives and dried prunes fresh from the ovens, while hearing fascinating gossip and stories of war-time bravery.

Those idyllic villages have gone.  Yet even as we move between the big cities of the world, we would like to build new, safe villages for our own children.  Except these villages will be ‘communities of the mind’ rather than have real physical presence.  What do I mean?  Well, imagine the following scenario.  Country A national (who is, however, a third culture kid and grew up in 3 different countries) meets Country B Dad in Britain – they marry, have children, live for a while in Countries C and D.  Then come back to Britain, perhaps with the grandparents coming over to help out with childcare for extended periods of time…  What parenting advice, style, values are that family going to adopt?  Can they create a ‘best practices village’ scenario, choosing the most promising approaches from each culture and what really resonates with them personally? 

So what is it to be?  A village replete with a rich variety of rituals, colourful people, diverse stories, curiosity and transparency?  Or will those poor children be confused and overwhelmed by the conflicting attitudes and pressures?  When is choice too much choice?  And when do we start building walls around our village in an effort to protect it?

Leave a comment

Filed under Globalization

Homesick for a place to call home

We are gearing up for a ski trip to France in less than a month.  Which in our household not only means getting the ski suits and gloves out of the loft, but also practising French so the kids can understand the ‘moniteurs de ski’.  So the other day I had a CD with French songs on and found myself suddenly overwhelmed with homesickness for our little flat in Geneva, for the view of Mont Blanc from our balcony, for the chat with the boulanger as I buy those essential croissants…

I started musing how my whole life seems to consist of being really happy in some wonderful places – and then having to tear myself away from them.   I love exploring new places but I also like settling in, making those places my own, getting that intimate connection with them that can only come from repetition and routine.  When it’s time to move on, I am excited about the new adventures I will have, but I am also sad to leave a certain part of myself behind.  With each encounter with a different country and culture, I become richer in experience, but somehow also poorer when I leave.  Does anybody else feel like that?

It’s difficult to explain – but it’s like my soul has been bereft to a certain extent.  I keep the experience locked up somewhere tight within and remember it with such delight from time to time.  But the experience is unrepeatable.  Even if I go back to that country, it will never feel the same again.  If you go back as a tourist to a country where you were once resident, it can be exhilarating as long as you don’t think about it too closely.  Or you can feel shut out, a stranger once more.  It will certainly never again feel like home.

I was very lucky a few years ago to return for a couple of months to Vienna in almost exactly the same conditions I had lived there before during my childhood.  I stayed with a friend who had known me since I was three, she lived just a few streets down from where I had grown up.  Vienna itself is a city that changes subtly rather than rapidly, so I found myself remembering even the tram routes and little shops.  I met up with old friends and slipped easily into dialect.  And yet… I am not that same person, I am not the same age, I do not have that same attitude and innocence.  Vienna was lovely, welcoming, filled with nostalgia for me…   All the externals were right, but it was no longer home.

People do ask me:  ‘Don’t you feel bad about having no place to call home?’ and I often laugh it off, saying: ‘But I feel at home anywhere!’  And I certainly do believe that and consider myself very fortunate to have been able to call so many beautiful places home.  (Also, any place that is home becomes beautiful, even if it didn’t look so promising to start off with – that includes you, Drumul Taberei!)

But sometimes I do wonder if, by leaving little chunks of my heart in so many different places, I will end up in smithereens.  And why I couldn’t  spend more time in those places where I have been happiest.

What place do you call home?  Do you feel you can repeat your experience of living in a certain place, or is it best to just wallow in unfulfilled nostalgia?


Filed under Globalization

St. Nicholas Is an Unfair Racist

In our (very international) house St. Nicholas arrives in the early hours of the 6th of December and puts chocolates and fruit in the neatly-polished shoes of the good children, while the naughty children get charcoals and sticks.  If the shoes aren’t polished and tidy, he may not leave anything, so it’s a good strategy to get children to confront the scuff marks on their school shoes at least once a year.

This is the Central and East European heritage in our family.  Since we have a number of Christmas traditions to choose from, we do a real pick and mix, to the utter enjoyment of the children and complete exhaustion of the parents.  In addition to St. Nicholas on the 6th of December, we put up our tree on Christmas Eve and  get a visit from Santa during the night of the 24th of December, find a figure in our galette on the 5th of January and have to take down the decorations by the 6th of January, when the Three Kings finally make their appearance.  We have renounced the Austrian Christkind on the evening of the 24th for obvious going to bed reasons, and the Greek Agios Vassilis on the 1st of January, but only because it coincides with a family birthday.

Normally this works well, although we do get the occasional protest that everyone else seems to have their tree up and outside lights on for weeks before us.  On the whole, the children enjoy having more than one set of celebrations to look forward to.  This year, however, my elder son (the one who is getting suspicious of Santa’s ability to be in multiple places simultaneously) conducted a survey among his school friends and discovered no one else had received treats in their boots from St. Nicholas.  ‘Not even Jack, Mummy, and he is a really good boy.’

So how to explain?  Surely I couldn’t get away with saying that all British children had unpolished boots?  I tried to suggest that St. Nicholas only checks up on Continental European children to make sure they are behaving and then hands over the list to Santa, while Santa deals with the British children directly.  (Amazing what proficient liers we become just to boost the reputation of a bearded fellow dressed in red, whom we would nowadays ban from playgrounds if he started handing out sweets to our children!)

‘But that’s not FAIR!  That’s not very nice of St. Nicholas at all, to ignore children here in Britain…’  Apparently, having to deal with Santa directly, without the benefit of a mediator, is not a bonus, but a raw deal.

So there we have it, St. Nicholas is a racist, Santa is a scary, excessive multi-tasker and why can’t we write Christmas cards for our friends Indu, Aman, Raja, Fatima, Karim…?

How do you explain different Christmas customs to children without destroying the magic of Santa?  Or the fact that some children do not celebrate Christmas at all?  Or should we just forget the whole ‘naughty and nice’ thing?

Leave a comment

Filed under Globalization

Speak to me…

My four-year-old said the wrong thing again to me today.  No, he didn’t swear or forget to say please or call  me ‘Egyptian Mummy’  (which is his favourite nickname for me at the moment).  He just said: ‘Can I use blue to colour this in?’  But what upset me was that he said it in English.   Although I was the only other person in the room.  And he knew all of the words above in Romanian.

Since the birth of my older son we have tried to be consistent:  I speak Romanian to the children, my husband speaks Greek and, even when we are all having dinner together, there are three languages going on around the table at any time.  (My husband and I speak English to each other and if the children share a story with both of us simultaneously, they will say it in English too).  On the whole, the strategy has worked well, and the children speak all three languages reasonably fluently.  Recently, however, they have taken to speaking English not only among themselves (which was to be expected), but also to us the parents.

I grew up in a trilingual environment myself, so I thought I had it sussed, but I find myself surprisingly unrelaxed about the whole thing.  I don’t want the children or us to get lazy and revert back to English, because it will be so hard for them to communicate with their relatives and grandparents in Greece and Romania.  I also want them to have the flexibility to live and work in these countries should they choose to do so at some point in the future.  I want them to be able to engage with other cultures at a deeper level, as you can do when you speak other languages.

But at the same time, I fear I may be doing them a disservice.  That, by insisting so much on speaking Romanian, I am actually putting them off using this language.  That, by refusing to speak English except for the purposes of homework, I am putting my son at a disadvantage, not building his vocabulary, not conveying all the tricky nuances of the English language, and – saddest of all – not sharing with him my love of the English language.

Because, if I am honest, it is English that is the language of my heart, even if it is not officially my mother tongue.  I live, dream and write in English;  I clothe my thoughts and feelings in English words.  I have taught English to hundreds of other children… but am not teaching it to mine.  My head tells me it is the sensible choice.  While they are living here in the UK, English will be their dominant language anyway, and I can always explain the mysteries of punctuation and grammar to them.

But my heart is always a little torn when they say something in English and I reply to them: ‘Speak to me in Romanian, please…’

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

So… where do you come from?

How I dreaded this question when I was younger! It always meant going into far too much detail or turning the question around: ‘Do you mean where I was born or where I am living now or…?’

But now I relish it, as I find that more and more of my friends are in a similar position. We are what is known as ‘third culture kids.’

Personally, I don’t like that phrase. First of all, many of us are no longer kids (although we probably were when we first got exposed to foreign cultures). Secondly, many of the people I know are actually fifth or sixth culture individuals, that is, they operate within more than just two cultures (their parents’ culture and the culture of the country they are growing up in). I much prefer the term ‘global nomads’ (although that makes us sound a bit shifty and feckless) or ‘global citizens’.

James Gannon, 13, who has personal experience of growing up in several cultures, argues that it is a very different experience from growing up in a multicultural environment. There has to be more than just some influence from other cultures, it has to be complete immersion in one culture after another to the point where ‘the differences don’t matter any more and what becomes most important are the similarities’.

As I look around at the growing number of second-generation nomads that I am meeting, I think the definition needs to be expanded. First of all, many of these children are growing up in households where the parents were exposed later to different cultures, but have nevertheless wholeheartedly embraced them and can never go back to being monocultural.

What do I mean?

Well, a lot of us went to study abroad and met our life partners there (who were also from a different country). So we got married, settled in the country where we met or perhaps yet another country, and had children who belonged to perhaps 3-4 cultures simply by virtue of their birth.

What do I call the daughter of a French father, Chinese mother, who is growing up in England but spending her summers in France? What about the children of the half-Spanish, half-Australian mother and German father, whose household language is English, but are now living in Greece?  Maybe these children are even more immersed in the local culture than the children of diplomats and other expats, because they do not attend expensive international schools and grow up in gated communities. They have that immediate relationship with the local society, warts and all, that only having relatives and friends in that society can confer you.  And they spend quite a good portion of the year in other countries as well.

Perhaps the best way to test if someone is a global nomad is by asking the question: ‘Where are you from?’.  If they hesitate and launch into lengthy and complicated explanations, then they probably are.

So I tested this on my own children.  OK, they are only 4 and 6, but they weren’t sure what to answer, other than their current street and house number. I know they will never view Greece or Romania as tourists, but as insiders. They also feel a special attachment to France and Switzerland, where we lived for nearly two years. They are British citizens and speak English among themselves.

Oh, they may be restless and footloose later on in life… (Then again, they may crave stability and become really conservative.) But they will have choices. They will love several countries and be able to mediate between different cultures. They may be a bit stumped as to which national football team to support in the World Cup.  Then again – more choice, less chances of going out in the first round!. But I am pretty sure they won’t be brainwashed by nationalistic rhetoric and will always be able to see the other side in an argument.

That’s got to be worth something, hasn’t it?


Filed under Uncategorized