Near Yellow Mountain

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Third culture adults

Nov 23 2010

As parents of ex-pat kids, my wife and I had the concept that we were raising "third culture kids" explained to us many times - by the international school staff, long term expats and any number of  "experts" in the business of living overseas. The concept is that the longer they live away, your child is not really "at home" in your native culture nor are they "at home" in the culture in which you are living in. They are really living in a mixed or hybrid culture hence the name "third culture kids". This is not really good or bad but for long time ex-pat kids, it can complicate their return to the home country.

Our younger daughter, Cailin saw her first football movie ("Friday Night Lights") after we had lived overseas about four years. Technically, she saw the movie in the US - we were in Guam on vacation. Cailin had never been to a football game. After the movie she said: "football is a lot like rugby" her frame of reference being much different than a child growing up in the US. Cailin did not see her first football game live until this year - her freshman year at the University of Southern California.
"Football is a lot like Rugby" said my younger daughter
I visited her in LA a few weeks into her freshman year. I was a little surprised when she commented that the "local English" was different from the English spoken at the International school in Shanghai.

Fortunately she is adapting quickly to her "new world". She did not feel that she was coming "home" to the US when she left Shanghai in August. Asia is "home" to Cailin.

It is a well accepted that kids are greatly impacted culturally by extended time overseas. Certainly this is not an earth shattering concept - it seems quite natural. What is not appreciated is that adults can become "third culture adults" if they live overseas for an extended period. Ex-pat literature talks about the "repatriation issues" of long term adult ex-pats" but tends not to attribute the difficulty to the third culture phenomena. Rather experts talk about being "forgotten" by the home office, the lower standard of living when ex-pat perks go away, etc.

Update from November, 2014 Actually, for the most part, I liked being "forgotten" by the home office and focusing on the business in Asia which is probably why I don't work for the same company now but that is another story.

My experience was that after being overseas for about four years, I related much more to Asia than the US. I did not try to become "Japanese" or "Chinese" but I tended to interact more with locals than ex-pats especially in Japan. I was sneered at by many Americans when they would see me out by the "artificial river" where we lived socializing with local residents in Japanese rather than drinking beer with a cluster of of ex-pats on the "other side" of the uniquely Japanese ersatz river.

Rokko Island Japan - a "fake" river runs through it
After living outside the US for over a decade when I was told I would be moving back, it was a very unattractive thought. I felt that I didn't want to leave "home" for the US. Last week as I entered my last few days as a resident of China, I had a very uneasy feeling about my return. I didn't feel like I was going home. I felt like I was going to a new country where I was fortunate enough to be completely fluent in the language. As I get ready to celebrate my first Thanksgiving since 1999, I am interested to see if I feel "at home" or not. Fortunately, it feels good to be back in the US and I hope to feel "at home" soon.