Why life isn't easy for third-culture kids

February 20, 2016 08:03
Third-culture kids often endure more stress than the average child. Photo: HKEJ

So you've met someone nice and responsible... A dark and handsome stranger, or perhaps a pale visitor from the northern edge of the world! Before you go and marry that fine-looking exotic candy, you might want to consider what it'll be like for your children.

This is not meant to scare you. I mean, I'm always happy to see new little mixlings running around, but let me remind you that there are advantages as well as disadvantages in being a third-culture kid.

First of all, what do we mean by third-culture kid?

Well, it's that wonderful thing that happens when two cultures collide in a marriage and gives rise to confused children running in circles while not quite knowing where they belong.

Appropriately managed this can be a wonderful and rewarding experience for everyone involved, but there is also no doubt that third-culture kids are also bound to endure more stress than the average child.

In my case I am half Norwegian and half Hongkonger. I grew up in a missionary family, and my formative years were a flurry of moves. During the first two years of my life I lived in Hong Kong and my father spoke to me in Norwegian and my mother in Cantonese.

As linguists have discovered, the majority of children can learn to understand multiple languages simultaneously as long as each parent communicates with the child in one specific tongue consistently.

However, getting the child to communicate back in a minority language can be extremely difficult. Notwithstanding the ease of using what they're comfortable with, children instinctively prefer to be a part of the majority. They also hate change.

In my case, while the next two years after the first two were spent in Norway, for the first couple of months I refused to speak in anything but Cantonese. However, with the weight of kindergarten society leaning on me I eventually relented.

Children aren't too keen on playing with you if you're weird after all. Eventually Cantonese disappeared -- first in kindergarten and then at home.

But interestingly enough this process did not repeat itself when we returned to Hong Kong. The moment I saw my grandparents I immediately reverted to Cantonese! Children may hate sudden change, but the patterns laid early lie deeper than others.

Overall our first few years were smooth. This is something most third-culture kids have found when growing up. It's not difficult to negotiate new locations and languages if you have at least some familiarity with them, especially when your life still revolves around your parents.

However as children continue to grow they need increasing stability. Having returned to Hong Kong when I was four we stayed till I reached the age of 10.

During this time we were well integrated in the Norwegian expat community in Hong Kong, which effectively served as a constant reminder of Norway in most day-to-day interactions, while at the same time I was submerged in an extended Cantonese family and surroundings.

This was an excellent way to stay in touch with my Norwegian half while remaining rooted to the familiarity of Hong Kong.

However as time wore on, the expat community evaporated. The missionary society wound up operations as the handover approached, and all of us in the family came to believe it would be in our best interest to live in Norway.

The last year before we too returned, there were too few Norwegians and the school ended up re­branding itself as the Norwegian International School and changing the language medium of most subjects to English, with the exception of Norwegian classes for the remaining "natives".

If anything, I have to say this was the ideal part of my childhood. In a short year I was exposed to English and the wider world. It was a wonderful experience that opened my horizons while remaining rooted in good old Hong Kong.

The other third-culture children, while sometimes frustratingly different, were refreshingly diverse while understanding the experience of being mixed culture.

The next eleven years in Norway would be far more difficult to negotiate. Rarely does emigrating work out well for kids beyond the toddler age, as growing accustomed to new places and people becomes more difficult with years.

But there is a gem of a memory I want to leave you with.

It was at Kai Tak Airport with my family, as we were preparing to jet back to Norway. Frustrated with being torn between Norwegian and Cantonese, and entranced by this delightful new English language I had grown comfortable with (through ample Calvin & Hobbes comics available to me), I asked my father if we could primarily use English in our family when we settled down in Norway.

The idea was we would grow more and more fluent in a third language, which would be useful, but now, many years later I think I actually just wanted an attractive middle ground.

My father said yes, and ever since then I've been reading English books and playing English games and eventually working with English media and thinking in English, in Norway as well Hong Kong, to which I returned to semi-­permanently in 2006.

These days we instead make the effort to speak in Norwegian to stay in touch with that part of ourselves.

It's all been quite an adventure, for better and worse!

-- Contact us at [email protected]


A Hong Kong-based writer from Norway