People living in another country are not simply called expatriates. Depending on their age, familial status, or occupational situation, they’re called expat assignee, trailing spouse, TCK –Third Culture Kid, ATCK – Adult Third Culture Kid. The list is not exhaustive.
What about those of us who are parents raising children in a foreign land? We also have our share of challenges and rewards.
We have to navigate through several cultures, tinkering to include new sets of beliefs to our own culture, giving up traditions, making up new rituals. We have to invent a third culture, a culture different from our own and different from any host country we’ll ever live in.
Raising children in such a context makes us Third Culture Parents!
A few weeks ago we explored the 10 traits Third Culture Parents often share.
Here are 10 more!
1. Being a Third Culture Parent may start by giving birth in another country. It can be awkward and lonely!
Giving birth is an amazing experience. The first time is even more special. You’re discovering everything. But in another country, in another language, with other standards, it can feel awkward and scary.
In some places, you can’t choose your doctor. In other cases, the customs are at odds with your expectations. In France, giving birth at the hospital under the supervision of your gynaecologist is pretty standard. In the Netherlands, delivering your baby at home with the help of a midwife is the norm if the pregnancy shows no complication. I’m not implying that one method is better than the other. They’re different and this can be deeply unsettling in a moment of your life where you need a complete trust in the healthcare professionals around you.
Moreover, you can’t benefit from your mother’s experience or your best friends tips to guide you through the process. They have no idea of what’s to expect in your new country. Your parents may not even be able to be around for D-Day. At least, you don’t need to worry about the visits at the hospital. I could count mine on the fingers of a single hand.
2. You have to think twice as hard about the name you choose for your child
After the birth comes the choice of the first name. What do you do?
You may want to settle for a name compatible with both your own culture and your host culture.
But you can’t think of all possible meanings and pronunciations in every language. And what if you move 2 years later in a country where it’s impossible to utter?
When you’re in a cross-cultural relationship, you have at least 3 cultural background to consider. It becomes really tricky. Just for this reason, you may decide to stick to your own preference regardless of any other culture. Be mindful however that this can be heavy to bear for your child. A “funny” first name in the host culture can trigger endless teasing among children.
3. You juggle with school systems whose teaching principles are completely different
Mon who commented on the previous article mentioned the discrepancy between schools’ educational programs.
As parents, we have no choice but to accept it with one thought in mind: how are the children going to manage it when moving back “home” or changing country again in a few years’ time?
Let me give you an example. In Belgium, the school system is extremely strict. Children are taught cursive handwriting in grade 1 and must know their timetables on the tip of the thumb by grade 2. There is homework each evening. Marks are given out of 100 with a precision of 2 digits after the comma.
In Australia, working in teams, making exercises, learning by doing is the rule. In primary school, children in grade 1 learn print writing. They’ll eventually have a try at cursive writing in grade 3 or 4. There is no homework till grade 5. You never see a test. On the report, you have letters A, B, C.
Don’t get me wrong. Both systems have their advantages. But the more advanced you get, the more difficult it becomes for the children to bridge the gap.
When you send your children to a new school in a new language, you cannot expect them to come back with straight A’s after 2 weeks. How do you know how to support them best? How do you know when you should become stricter? How do you know if you encourage them enough?
4. Helping your kids with homework is twice as tricky, even for maths!
If you don’t understand the school language, the task is daunting.
Some outsiders may think: “Well that’s true for the subjects in which language is key like writing, spelling, history, biology, geography. Not for maths”.
I found out that the reality is more complex.
Even in maths I’m struggling to teach my children the basic operations because they learn with other methods. Try to explain yours and they get completely confused.
You want to train your kids to memorize their timetables. You’d better learn them yourself in their school language first. Otherwise, by the time they convert the numbers, their answer is too late.
5. You may have to deal with racism or discrimination targeted at your children
An American friend of mine grew up in Australia thirty years ago. He was between 7 and 14 years old at the time. He remembers that Americans were not very much appreciated where he lived. As a consequence, he had to face severe bullying. He did apply some defensive strategies like speaking with an Ozzie accent to avoid standing out. But how far does this issue come up to the parents? How are you prepared to deal with it?
I realize that parents don’t need to be expats for their children to be victim of discrimination and bullying – whether it’s because of their skin colour, their religious faith, their parents sexual orientation or simply with no obvious reason.
But when you’re a foreigner, you increase the probability to face this type of issues.
Note that there’s also an perverse side-effect to discrimination: your child can become the teacher’s pet because he or she is coming from the same country or speaks the same language! Be mindful that all classmates will be extremely resentful against him/her.
6. You need to manage entry and departure of your children from school at random times
Most of the time, a relocation occurs within a few weeks, a couple of months at most. This often involves to take the kids out of school in the middle of a school year and to have them arrive in their new school while the classes have already been made.
You also have to deal with the anxiety of having the children being accepted into your preferred school. Some institutions have long waiting lists and may not always accommodate expat families applying “out of the blue”.
Another case in point is if the main bread-earner loses his/her job. The family may have visa issues to remain in the country or financial difficulty to continue paying an international program previously taken care of by the expat employee’s company.
When children study in grade 11 and 12, they suffer to go through major changes. The disruption caused by the move combined with the difficulty of the studies can lead to a significant setback. A friend of mine moved when her son was entering grade 12. He was completely demotivated and it cost him 5 years of struggle before getting back on track. In this case, the parents may decide to live apart – becoming orphan spouses – until the child completes his studies.
7. You have to face and accept the influence of foreign values on your children
One of my son’s friends, coming from South Korea, had a big fight with his parents when he turned 17. He couldn’t accept any more for them to rule his life. Indeed, the Korean culture is collectivist. It means that individuals have to conform to the interests and the well-being of the family. In Australia, this is a fundamentally different story. Children are encouraged to live their passions and choose a career reflecting their own interests. What matters most is happiness of each person as an individual. Needless to say that this is a reason for a major clash.
What do you do as a parent when there is such a gap in your expectations and those of your children who have been heavily influenced by the host country?
8. You need to think twice as hard about where your children will go to college and plan for it!
Children don’t stay little forever. One day, quicker than you think, they finish high school and go to university. And here may come the big dilemma: should they study in your passport country where they may have never lived? Can they at all study in the host country? How do you support them at a distance when you struggle yourself with empty nest syndrome and when they experience “reverse culture shock”?
You need to think about the financial side as well.
University fees can vary in great lengths between countries. While Belgium, France, Germany offer studies at nearly no cost (a few hundred dollars at most), Australia proves to be extremely expensive. As an international student, be prepared to pay between 30 and 45 000 dollars a year only for the cost of the study. Accommodation, food and travel is to consider on top.
If you become permanent resident, the cost drops to 8 to 10 000 dollars a year for the studies only. Accommodation, food and travel remain the same. To give you an idea, accommodation in college is 25000 dollars… per year.
How can you plan? For which amount of money? This is a radical change in lifestyle.
9. You’re used to long distance relationships
Living abroad, we have to manage long distance relationships with our own parents and siblings, our extended family, our friends. And then we may have to face this very same situation with our own children, whether they go to boarding schools or decide to study far away. Needless to mention that this could end up in long-distance grandparenting!
10. You’re facing a great deal of losses
Last but not least, in the course of an expat life, you’ll have to let go of material goods, career plans, family events. You may not be able to keep the “family house” where all the children would have spent their summer holidays with cousins and nephews. You may lose or break pieces of furniture that have been passed along in the family for generations. You may need to give away dear objects because of lack of space. You may have to leave pets behind. You lose the proximity of family and close friends. You may have to resign from your job and give up a professional identity.
All those losses trigger grief. When this grief is not acknowledged, it grows stronger. It’s particularly difficult because in many cases there is no closure: you can no longer enjoy the presence of loved ones but they’re not dead. This type of loss has been studied by Pauline Boss who named it “ambiguous loss”. Here is what she writes in her book Ambiguous Loss “It feels like a loss but it’s not really one. People plummet from hope to hopelessness and back again. The symptoms affect the individuals first but can radiate in a ripple effect that impacts the whole family as people are ignored or worse yet abandoned. Family members can become so preoccupied with the loss that they withdraw from one another.” As a parent, it’s important to be mindful of this type of behavior for ourselves and our children.
Being a third culture parent is challenging but as mentioned Helen Keller “The marvelous richness of human experience would lose something of rewarding joy if there were no limitations to overcome”.
What has been your rewarding joy in this endeavour? Speak your mind in the comments!