As careers in international companies become more common, so do expat parents who shepherd their children across continents in search of the next paying gig. Some of these kids will have lived in more countries by the time they are teenagers than most expats will in a lifetime. While this may be intriguing to adults, it comes with a unique set of obstacles for these kids whose lives will forever be determined by their early years as nomads. Chris Mueller sits down with some of them and finds out just what it’s like to grow up expat. Photo by Alex McMillan.
It’s hard to put a label on them. Some were born in their parent’s home country, before spending the rest of their lives moving around the world. Others have spent their whole lives in a foreign land, but foreign only to their parents.
Since the 1950s, the children of expats have been called third-culture kids, a term first coined by sociologist Ruth Hill Useem. The label refers to children of expats, almost always from the same passport country, who spent most of their formative years living abroad, usually in one foreign country. The first culture is their parent’s, the second is their host country’s, and since they are not fully part of either, these children form a third.
Originally the term implied that many of these children lived in a sort of limbo between cultures and identities. With so much exposure to ways of life different from those of their parents, many of them were thought to have emotional and attachment issues, and difficulty fitting in.
Julia Simens, a, Bangkok-based child psychologist and author of Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child, calls them a different name: invisible immigrants.
One of the biggest problems these kids face is that many of them might look like they belong in their adopted country, especially those who have spent years there, but they don’t really understand the culture around them, she says.
“It’s expected of them to know what’s happening,” she says. “But 80 percent of their lives are in international schools.”
This means these kids are neither here nor there. Many don’t really have a home country, and though they may feel comfortable in their host countries, few ever truly assimilate.
Expat kids in Ho Chi Minh City tend to live sheltered lives, staying within the confines of posh areas like districts 2 and 7. They take private cars to their expensive international schools and on weekends hang out with friends from school, most of whom live similar lives.
But underneath this shroud of privilege, many of these expat kids have become more mature than the local peers in their passport countries and view the world in a completely different way. “They tend to be far more worldly and not prejudiced,” says Simens.
The generation of third-culture kids that Useem first studied in India has now grown into adulthood, and many are now in positions of power and influence. One notable example is Barack Obama. As an increasing amount of companies and jobs move overseas, third-culture kids are becoming more common and the international environment they are raised in is viewed as an asset. But this doesn’t mean life is always easy for them.
Finding common ground
Katla Nefstead works in the admissions and marketing department of an international school in Ho Chi Minh City, and if anyone can relate to expat kids, it’s Nefstead.
She grew up hopping around the globe with her parents, who taught at international schools. Now 27, Nefstead spent her childhood in Thailand, Ecuador, Pakistan, Colombia, Cambodia and Honduras.
After spending her early years abroad, Nefstead moved to the United States in 11th grade and enrolled in public school for the first time, in small-town Michigan. Back then, no one thought of her as a third-culture kid, or even as child to expat parents. “I was just a spoiled army brat to everyone,” she says.
Despite her globetrotting youth, Nefstead says her parents were never wealthy, but friends and family back in her native US struggled to understand this distinction.
She says the far different experience in her new high school shocked her more than anything she had seen in her travels, including the drug culture of Colombia and the dire poverty of Cambodia. Immediately upon arrival, she noticed how much hatred many of her classmates had towards different races and cultures, and the exclusionary cliques that would form at lunch tables.
“Before I went to public school, I had never heard the term nigger before,” she says. “We just never saw race that way because I didn’t really grow up with white people.”
This was long before Facebook and Twitter, so she had lost contact with most of her friends in other countries. But Nefstead was an expert at making new friends. The ability to easily relate and speak to different types of people is the most common asset of kids growing up in an intercultural environment, Simens says.
While it is still easy for Nefstead to meet new people, especially with an outgoing personality probably formed out of necessity, she has trouble in her adult life keeping long-term connections.
“It’s difficult for me to get attached now because there is always this sense that the relationship is not real, like I’m going to leave anyway,” she says. “Settling down is the future, it is the goal, but I don’t even know how to begin getting there.”
This, according to Simens, is the other overwhelmingly common attribute of third-culture kids and adults. Living a life in which friends constantly come and go eventually burns many of them out, and they become reluctant to make any new ones.
Rachel O’connell, 16, came to Ho Chi Minh City two months ago from her native Pakistan with an American father and Pakistani-Swiss mother. This is her first move abroad and she says so far it has been a surprisingly easy transition. The diversity of cultures at her school has been the most interesting part of grappling with a new country. But everything is still fresh and she hasn’t had to say goodbye to many friends.
But 16-year-old Vincent Bacac, who recently moved here with his French parents, knows that much of his effort to get comfortable in Vietnam will be in vain.
Before coming to Vietnam, Vincent and his family already had lived throughout Asia, so he knows what it’s like to pack up and take off. “At first I kept asking, ‘Why am I different, why am I leaving?’” he says.
He adds that transitioning can be difficult, but at this point it’s just part of life. “You have to make new friends every time you move and you just seem to forget about your old ones; you try to cling on to them but they get erased from your memory.”
Lukas Schmelter, a 17-year-old German student who lived in the Middle East and Asia most of his life before arriving in Vietnam two years ago, has always found making new friends in a new country easy. But as with Nefstead, finding relatable friends in his passport country has proved to be a challenge.
During a return to Germany for an internship, Lukas tried to explain what life was like in Vietnam and the places he had been, but most of the other interns couldn’t grasp it. “I feel like I overwhelm people if I talk about all the places I’ve lived in,” he says. “I found it better to just tell them where I’m from and move on.”
Of course, finding friends is just the beginning. Simens, the psychologist, says what can be more detrimental and difficult to notice is that these kids are wrestling with complicated notions of who they are and where they are from.
But these questions are easy for Ford Baker, 15, who feels more Vietnamese than American. Born in Hong Kong to American parents, Ford has spent nearly his entire life in Vietnam.
When asked where he considers home, Ford answered without hesitation. “That’s easy,” he says. “Vietnam is definitely my home”
Like many expat families in the country, the Bakers left their young son in the care of a Vietnamese, who would teach him the local language while his parents were away working. His first word was English, but in his early years he spoke far more Vietnamese. Now, however, he has forgotten much of the language.
Sung Won Lim, 17, also has spent most of her life in Vietnam. Born in Korea to Korean parents, she has lived here since she was 4-years-old. But, like many expat kids, she has difficulty coming up with an answer when asked to identify her culture. When asked to describe it, she pauses for a moment before settling on a response: “unique”, but then elaborates. “My culture is like a sandwich,” she says. “The bread would be Korea, but the thing that makes it interesting and different would be the ingredients inside — the experiences and the different people I meet.”
Unlike Ford, Sung Won has a more difficult time finding her place in Vietnam. Despite having grown up here, she still sees herself as more of an outsider. In Korea, too, she doesn’t quite fit in.
“I can be a bit more open-minded than my cousins in Korea,” she says. “Everyone there is just focused on one path, which is to get into university, instead of looking at the path they want to take.”
A privileged upbringing
Although living under these circumstances can be difficult, there is no denying these children have privileged lives, not just in a monetary sense, but also for the unique opportunities living abroad has afforded them.
All of the teenagers interviewed for this article are current students at the International School Ho Chi Minh City, one of the most expensive schools in the city, which has a diverse range of nationalities. Both Ford and Sung Won realise how fortunate they are to have grown up in this international environment, a stark contrast to the poverty they often see around them.
Vincent agrees that he lives a privileged life, but not just because his family is better off than others. “The diversity you have to adapt to is incredible,” he says. “I’ve seen all these cultures and places, and it has helped me to grow up.”
Lukas also feels that growing up as a third-culture kid has given him not only unique opportunities, but also a world perspective unmatched by his peers in Germany. “They talk about things they’ve seen on television and I can say, ‘I’ve visited that place,’” he says. “I’ve had the opportunity to see things they haven’t, or may never see. They see it as very abstract, but it’s normal to me.”
Many of these kids still struggle with making new friends and a few are worried about what it will be like to go to university, where they may have trouble connecting with their classmates, but they all agree that they would never choose a different life.
“I think with the way the world is developing, it’s increasingly important for people to be tolerant and aware of other cultures and the mentality of other people,” Lukas says. “I think it’s a great privilege to have grown up like this.”
Unlike the teenagers, Nefstead has had time to reflect on her childhood and says she has experienced and learned so much that there is now a world of possibilities.
“So many doors are open,” she says. “I know so many things are out there, I just have to decide what I want.”