Raising a third culture kid in Malaysia

Which country do you call home? For most of us it’s a straight-forward question but if you are a third culture kid, it’s more complicated. A what? I hear you ask…and it was my first reaction too, but chances are, if you are an expat, you are raising a third culture kid. So what exactly does it mean? 

Basically, it describes children growing up in a culture different to the one their parents grew up in. The term was first coined by an American sociologist Ruth Useem who studied expats living in India. Although there are no official statistics, it’s a growing group and it is now estimated that there are over 220 million people who are third culture kids. It even includes Barack Obama who has a Nigerian father and American mother; Barrack spent four years of his childhood in Indonesia. 

Benefits of being a TCK

But what exactly does this mean for those of us raising these kids? Being part of this group myself, I started to research the pros and cons of this type of upbringing which I have to admit is very different from my own. 

First off, there are many, many reported benefits of being a third culture kid, most of which I have personal experience of. These kids get to interact and learn about other people from all sorts of different backgrounds and as a result they are often able to connect and converse with pretty much anybody.

third culture kids 3 - Happy Go KL

I’ve seen this with my own kids. They easily make new friends and seem to be able to strike up a conversation with others even if there is very limited shared language. Currently, my daughter, who goes to an international school has friends from all over the world including Italy, Japan and Korea. There is a mutual curiosity about each other’s cultures and as an added bonus it has improved her geography!

Alongside this, I have noticed that my kids have become much more adaptable and resilient to change and they are generally very good at travelling. Packing up all your belongings and moving halfway around the world certainly means that you have to adapt quickly to new surroundings. That’s not to say they have found it easy, but they have an understanding of how to accept and embrace change. 

They have also had opportunities to experience things I could never have imagined as a child. A trip to the beach in the UK when I was young involved dipping your feet in a freezing cold sea pretending that it wasn’t really raining. In comparison, my kids have been snorkelling with tropical fish, and swum with turtles, something they are very privileged to experience. And which we remind them about frequently!

Where is home?

Now, of course, it’s not always a smooth ride for the expat kid. Living in a country that is not your own can sometimes be unsettling and many third culture kids report feeling uncertain about where ‘home’ really is. Friends often come and go all too quickly, and this is definitely the downside of this type of lifestyle. My kids have got used to saying goodbye to people more often than I’d like and this gets harder the older they get.  

third culture kids 4 - Happy Go KL

Having said that, there are ways to support children through these times, and I have been surprised by how resilient my kids are. When we were leaving the UK, we were definitely faced with some anxious and tearful kids at times, but being open and honest with our children really helped. As parents we explained why we were moving and why it would improve all our lives.

Yes, there would be times we felt homesick and would want to go home. Yes, we would miss our friends. But rather than try to ignore this, we tried to embrace it as part of the experience and set ourselves realistic expectations about our new life in another country. All I can say is that it worked for us.

After all my research I came to the conclusion that a third culture kid is the same as any other. They need love and security, and as parents we aim to give this the best way we know how, whatever country or culture we grow up in. 

third culture kids 2 - Happy Go KL

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