Their parents – we (!) – don’t!
At least, not that I know of.
Why bother? You’ll ask.
Barbara Schaetti, who studied Third Culture Kids, found that those who best navigated through the challenges of a childhood spent abroad were the ones who had heard of this terminology. Those who could relate to like-minded individuals. Those who knew they belonged to a well-defined tribe, even if each of them has a different story.
So what about the parents?
I propose to give us a name too.
Not for the sake of it but
1/ for helping us identify and address the particular challenges linked to raising children in other cultures
2/ for sharing and maximizing the benefits of such a parenting mode
3/ for having a place where we belong, where we can vent our doubts, our joys and everything in between along the way.
Because we’re living in another culture, we’ve had to give up some of our traditions, modify our values, change our beliefs, adopt other myths. We’ve created a new culture different from both our original one(s) and the local one(s): we’re the “inventors” of a third culture.
We’re Third Culture Parents.
Here are 10 signs shared by third culture parents.
1. We’re struck by culture shock – like our children – meaning we can feel destabilized, unsettled, depressed or overexcited for a period of time ranging from several weeks to several months or even years!
We have to deal with a high level of stress, a reduced ability to communicate (due to language barrier but also the lack of understanding of non-verbal cues) and a modified sense of identity. This has an impact on the children. We are less available, more irritable, less patient.
We may experience mood swings: being extremely frustrated because we’re lost in the street and can’t even find someone to help or being completely ecstatic in front of the impressive Great Wall of China.
2. We are facing – sometimes extremely deep – modifications of our identity.
But we’re supposed at the same time, to help our children develop their own! It’s challenging when you’re yourself struggling.
In some cases, it can be heartbreaking to see our children deny the identity linked to our home country. This can be due to several reasons: trauma lived in the country of origin, negative image of the home country in the host country. My sister-in-law changed her name from Jasmine to Cathy to blend more easily in the French community.
In other cases, the opposite reaction can occur. A friend of mine with a French mother and a Chinese father had Frédérique as first name. She proudly chose to use her middle name Siu Lan instead in her daily life.
3. We can be strangers in our own house.
If our children go to a local school, they may become fluent in the local language before us. This is both a blessing and a curse: on one hand, we turn them into our private translators. They correct our letters and our official forms. They have a feel for idioms and subtle nuances in vocabulary. We don’t.
On the other hand, we are lost when they invite their friends or talk between each other at dinner time. Impossible to follow the conversation!
Another case in point is the opposite situation: our own children can’t understand us because they don’t master our mother tongue! Isolated in an English speaking community and married with an Australian, a Japanese friend of mine gave up teaching Japanese to her children. The pressure from the dominant language is too high. The children refuse to make the effort. As a result, the contacts with the grand-parents and the maternal extended family are more limited.
There may be also an additional motivation behind giving up the practice of our mother tongue: we want to practice the new language! My mother-in-law didn’t speak kabyle with her children because she wanted to improve her French.
4. Our children may be ashamed of us.
Because we speak with an accent, because we struggle to understand what local people say, because we have the wrong skin colour, because we’re slow to pick up the cues of the local culture.
5. We’re experts at multi-tasking.
We can’t rely on family and friends (at least in the beginning of a transition) to give a hand. We’re used to do everything on our own. We are the mother, the entertainer, the auntie, the grandma, the cook, the nurse, the teacher. And sometimes even the father because he’s too often absent!
6. The funny part is when we’re taught by our children about cultural references or local and national history.
They learn it at school. They’re a great source of information. Sometimes, it takes you by surprise. I had never thought of looking up the national anthem. My children sing it every fortnight during assembly. They taught me the Australian anthem!
7. We’re supposed to help our children participate to the social life around them but we’re discovering it at the same time.
Parents are expected to explain to their children values, myths, beliefs of the local culture. How do you do when you don’t have a clue?
Note: Not everything is written in a manual!
We also want to keep some of our traditions but it’s like paddling at countercurrent when you’re not supported by a community sharing the same customs. Holidays at “home” are normal working days in the host country. Not always. But when it’s the case, it feels awkward, out of place and requires a significant effort to keep some rituals.
8. We may have less rights than our children
A Greek friend of mine got his son when he studied for his PhD in the US. He then emigrated to France. His son born in the US has got an American passport. His father doesn’t have any rights in the US any longer.
A German friend has Permanent Residence in Australia while her daughter got a passport because she was born there. Technically when turning 18, her daughter will be able to vote while her parents won’t.
9. We have even more reasons to be proud of.
Our children are multilingual. They have learnt to adapt to several cultures and to blend like chameleons. They are global citizens.
We, as parents, are more open, more flexible, more knowledgeable. We’re showing by the example what it means to take risks, to be bold and to make quick decisions.
Very often, you have to take the opportunity when it arises and sometimes this means putting your life upside down in 24 hours.
Friends of us left Australia for the Netherlands with 3 children. Between the offer, the decision and the move, there were only 3 weeks’ time!
10. We have more reasons to feel guilty.
When everything goes smoothly (see #9), we are thrilled by our choices. When there are bumps along the road, it’s easy to blame the move, the uprooting, the culture shock, the language barrier and ultimately ourselves. Our children are unhappy: what if we went too far this time?
Especially when it’s reinforced by our own parents or in-laws who always lived in the same town!
Last but not least: we will most probably have to deal with a foreign daughter or son in-law and cross-cultural grandchildren!
And you, what makes you tick as a Third Culture Parent?