top of page

Raising Third Culture Kids

Updated: May 8

This is the English translation of a talk I gave in Tokyo on March 12, 2016 to Chinese parents regarding raising their bilingual, sometimes trilingual (with English) Chinese children in Japan.

The term "Third Culture Kid" (TCK) was coined by sociologists David Pollck and Ruth Hill Useem starting from 1950 when they began to refer to kids who grew up with this background in their seminal book "Third Culture Kids". This is a must read book for all parents of international school kids.

After reading through this book, I began to slowly understand many of the struggles and confusion I had while growing up, and to understand the reason for these struggles and confusion. That's when I understood that the phrase "East West Fusion" that I grew up hearing from my parents is actually a TCK behavior! Let me share with everyone the "official" definition of Third Culture Kid from the book:

"Third Culture Kids are people who were raised in a culture other than their parents' or the culture of their country of nationality, and also live in a different environment during a significant part of their child development years"

TCKs can often naturally and instinctively build relationships with people from different cultures, but at the same time feel that they don't belong to any culture. Although elements of various cultures are integrated into the life of a TCK, his/her sense of belonging comes from relationship with other TCKs with similar background.

TCKs typically come from parents who need to move to live in a foreign country for the following reasons: missionary, business/commerce, government/diplomatic/foreign service, military, and others. Ever since sociologist Ruth Hill Useem began to use the term TCK, it has become a hot topic of discussion amongst scholars and researchers. TCKs typically are more affirming and positive of people from different backgrounds than them, regardless of nationality, more than their peers from the same nationality but who are monocultural. Maybe you already know quite a few TCKs, because many world famous people are TCKs.

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, known as the father of modern China, is a TCK. After finishing elementary school, he grew up in an English speaking environment in a Hawaiian high school to complete his high school education. After he returned to China to lead the revolution, he spent a significant period of time living in Japan. His revolutionary ideals are all from his cross cultural background and originate from his reflections on these experiences. For example, the famous 3 People's Principles that both Mao from communist China and Chiang from Taiwan claim as their heritage (民族 nationalism ,民權 democracy,民生 livelihood of the people) actually originated from his becoming a baptized Christian during his high school years in Hawaii.

Barack Obama is probably one of the most famous TCKs in America.

Obama is a mixed race child. His father is black Kenyan and mother is American Caucasian. He was born in Hawaii, and grew up in Indonesia and later Chicago. This is a very typical TCK upbringing. It also explains why the majority of his first term cabinet as an American president are also TCKs.

The topic of raising TCKs is one that many people have not yet become aware of, but need more people to become aware of, because more and more leaders in our age are TCKs, and more and more TCKs are being positioned into places power and influence. They can use their own cross cultural experiences as a superpower to solve many difficult problems, because they are more capable than most people from a monoculture background to think outside the box. Monocultural people are often limited by their perspective from one perch/angle while TCKs have developed the habit of looking at a topic or problem from multiple angles and perspectives. They are also more likely to develop creative ideas and thinking as a result. TCKs are able to quickly develop rapport and relationship with people from different backgrounds, resonate with them, and thus are adept at building relational networks and solving conflicts between people who have difficulty understanding one another. They are natural diplomats, because they are more capable of leaving subjectivity and bias behind to look at an issue objectively and rationally. The future belongs to TCKs, because the world is quickly globalizing and becoming a global village, thus needing more TCKs to solve all the challenges that inevitably arise from the clash of cultures. TCK is the model future global citizen. A TCK's background is in itself an advantage -- provided that the challenges and obstacles faced by TCKs growing up receive adequate treatment so that they don't become limitations rather than the advantages that they should be. Next, I want to explain why I am so intensely interested in this topic, why I resonate so deeply with it, and why I spent so much time and energy understanding this topic and thinking about it.

My Story

I am a TCK, moving from Taiwan to Canada with my two younger sisters when I was 11 years old. My husband is also a TCK, immigrating to America with his parents after graduating from elementary school at age 12. The degree of integration into our new culture differed greatly because of our feelings and reactions to our new home. My sisters and I were the only Chinese to attend our elementary and high schools in Vancouver. Our classmates were mostly Caucasian descendants from Great Britain, most of whom are racially prejudiced towards people with yellow skin, because most of the ones they had encountered up to that time were lowly railroad workers from Souther China with little education or culture in their upbringing. At the time my sisters and I were different in ages, and responded very differently to our circumstances. I reactively negatively towards this prejudice and decided not to integrate into my new culture, clinging to my Taiwanese identity with pride. I listened to Taiwanese pop songs, read Taiwanese love stories, and watched Taiwanese soap opera and cartoons. My sister Evelyn was cared for by her teachers, and as the more neglected middle child amongst the three sisters, loved her new environment. She decided to wholly embrace her in identity as a 100% Canadian, and enthusiastically jumped into creating such a new identity with her peers, especially her friends from the drama club at school whom she built sets for. My youngest sister Vivian was ashamed of her identity as a "chink" and tried to deny this part of her identity. Whenever we walked together as a family on the street, she will deliberately walk on the other side to separate herself from us, because she didn't want others to know that we were related. Same sisters from the same family, but three very different responses towards our new culture and environment because of our different circumstances even in the same schools, resulting in three very different decisions about our identities. Therefore even though I retained a little bit of the Chinese I learned in Taiwan, both my younger sisters forgot every single bit of it, even the easier task of speaking to other adult friends of my parents in Chinese. However, after arriving in college, my youngest sister Vivian suddenly developed a strong desire to reconnect with her roots, because all her classmates were intensely fascinated and admiring of her Asian background and identity. She decided to major in East Asian Studies and learned Mandarin for four years in college. After getting her law license in Canada, she returned to work in Taiwan using her now fluent Mandarin. Not only was she able to function as a lawyer in Taiwan, but she never lost a single lawsuit that she argued during the two years that she worked in Taiwan. This made us look at her in an entirely different way, because of the three sisters, she was the one who went from a foundation of zero to the highest level of fluency of our native language. On the other end of the spectrum, my sister Evelyn never looked back. After graduating from MIT with her aerospace degree, she has busied herself with her career as a consultant and high level manager, spending her time in the C-suite as one of the rare Asian women in America to do so. Her fluency in Mandarin is practically zero now.

As for me, I followed my husband back to China, and as a result of our kids going to local Chinese schools and learning along with them, and because of having to manage my own Weibo accounts and write blogs and books in Chinese, my Mandarin proficiency continues to improve day by day. And my husband David? He was more like my sister Evelyn. When he landed in Minneapolis, he was surrounded by friendly and curious friends and volunteers who taught him English. Right then and there he decided to jettison his Chinese identity and became a true banana (yellow on the outside and white on the inside)! Not until he went to work as a manager in China did he begin to recover the Chinese language and culture that he had lost years ago.

Both my husband and I were the only Chinese in our high schools, immigrated to North American at around the same age, and very rapidly developed native accent-free fluency in English (within 1-2 years). However, our motivation was entirely different. I was motivated to lose my Chinese accent to avoid being laughed at and looked down on by others, while David wanted to emulate his peers and also had the help of a kind old lady who volunteers to come to his home twice to week to help them to learn English more quickly and naturally.

My children are also TCKs. My eldest son Caleb moved to China with us at the same age I moved to Canada, at age 11. Jonathan was 9 and Stephen was 3 at the same time. Again, because of their different circumstances at school, they also responded very differently and integrated differently into their new culture in China.

My eldest son Caleb met friendly and curious teachers and classmates at school, and embraced the difficult process of learning Chinese from zero foundation in grade 6 with enthusiasm. Caleb really desired to be accepted by his friends at school as a Chinese, and worked hard to embrace everything Chinese. Second son Jonathan met a teacher who insisted that he wear the red scarf (symbolizing revolutionary communist youth ideals. This was a daily requirement to score points for the class). Jonathan deeply remembers the Pledge of Allegiance he recited daily in school back in the US, and refused to wear the scarf because of his previous heartfelt pledge. This refusal brought on anger and ill will from teacher and classmates, whose standing in the grade depended on their cumulative points each day. His teacher felt that Jonathan had a superiority complex and made life difficult for him, often calling him to stand up in class to answer unreasonable questions designed to shame him and make an example out of him. Jonathan's response was to dig in his heels and resist even harder, clinging ever more tightly to his American identity. His adjustment into local Chinese culture became traumatic and very difficult, because he rejected his new identity as a Chinese in local Chinese school. This rejection also stems from his desire to not betray his American identity and culture, which he treasured and loved. However, he excelled in school and later went to a key school (US equivalent of a magnet school) which made his Chinese the most fluent of all three of my sons. Despite the fluency and knowledge of the Chinese culture, Jonathan never embraced his Chinese side and after returning to the US for college, joined a fraternity and became a popular figure amongst his Caucasian American brothers. Stephen had a very difficult time when he joined his kindergarten class with zero Chinese, but later on became a native Chinese speaker and for a long time identified himself proudly and "patriotically" as a Chinese. This made his struggle all the more difficult when he returned to the US for high school and became active in drama and music which had very few Chinese in it. Now he considers himself a fusion chef, creating new menus and mixed drinks drawing on his various cultural backgrounds and memories growing up straddling different worlds.

From the two generations in my own family, you can observe how a TCK responds to a new language, culture, and environment differently, and can observe our various responses to our first and second languages and cultures in different stages of life. The obvious part is that no matter how old you are, it's never too late to acquire a new language or adapt to a new culture. As long as certain factors are in place, even those with the lowest of IQs can learn a new language. Due to limited time today, I want to share some unique characteristics of TCKs. These characteristics can give TCK advantages, but will also bring challenges. If we can embrace our unique identities as TCKs, these advantages will empower us to change the world for the better, to bring new and different viewpoints and perspectives to the cultures that we encounter, to resolve misunderstandings, and build bridges of mutual understanding. However, if we are unable to overcome our challenges, we will continue to drift to different places, unable to find a place of rest or belonging.

TCK's Challenges

Two words can be used to describe the challenges facing the TCK: Rootlessness and Restlessness.

The first challenge is Rootlessness. Many TCKs dread being asked: "Where are you from?" and "Where's your home?" because they don't feel that they belong to the home of their parents, and neither do they feel that they belong in their new country. Therefore, many TCKs struggle with identity while growing up. They can look at an issue from the perspective of their parents' native country, and understand how they feel. At the same time, they can also understand the viewpoint and feelings of their new country. As a result, they can easily become the ideal bridge between the two cultures and nations. However, at the same time, they feel that they neither belong to their parents' home country nor their new country. This is where their challenge of feeling rootless springs from. A TCK does not have a country that s/he completely belongs to.

A monocultural person has a very simple and fixed definition of "home" which is intimately tied to a geographical location. However, to TCKs, the definition of "home" is not tied to a specific location because they might have moved many times or be shifting between several physical locations. Therefore TCKs need to derive their sense of belonging and definition of "home" from a network of relationships. However, this type of struggle with identity is life long. Just like my youngest sister Vivian, her identification with certain cultures will evolve along with her relationship and feelings toward a particular culture. This is what prompted her to seek to delve more deeply into her parents' culture later on in life.

The second R is Restlessness, due to the lack of roots. Some TCKs discover that just as they are becoming attached to a place or group of people, it was time to say goodbye and move on. After awhile, they try not to become too attached to a new place or people in order to adapt to more frequent future moves. They often feel that the place where they are at is a temporary place, "until they graduate, find a job, get married, buy a house, etc....", then they can finally settle down. However, this kind of "settledness" often does not happen. "Now" is often not stable enough, because they are often overly attached to the past, or keep expecting that the next place will finally feel like home. Therefore, out of this place of restlessness, TCKs will often keep moving and saying goodbye to go to the next place. Frequent farewells enable TCKs to quickly build new friendships, but deprives them of the time needed to cultivate the kind of patience needed to push through shallow conversations in the beginning stages of a friendship. After too many incidences of inability to connect over anything too deep or important, they too quickly and easily become bored and move on prematurely from potentially deeper and lifelong friendships, because they don't know when they will need to say goodbye to them again.

TCK author David Pollock says: "when someone asks us that despite the many advantages of growing up TCK, what are the major challenges, we will answer with: "maturing in their their identities and processing unresolved grief." So we will begin our discussion with these two key challenges.

First, TCKs have completely immersed themselves in at least two cultures (some TCKs have more than two cultures). This kind of person is able to get an insider's view to understand the nuances of both cultures, but is unable to completely affirm either view. My son Jonathan is a classic example. He had regarded himself as a patriotic America since he was a little kid, to the point of being willing to endure ridicule and isolation for it when he arrived in China and refused to put on a red scarf. However, when he returned to summer camp later and met some Americans who were biased against Chinese, he would angrily argue with these American friends in an effort to correct their prejudices. oftentimes he would get upset at how ignorant some people are at cultures other than their own. After returning to China, the biases of his Chinese friends against Americans would also drive him crazy. I remembered he returned from school one day asking why America invaded North Korea, because he had learned in history class at school about Chinese war heroes that were defending North Korea against the imperialistic American invaders who were helping South Korea to attack their friend and neighbor North Korea. When he went to Taiwan with us to celebrate Chinese New Year, he would be confused from hearing relatives describe the historic event that he learned in school as "liberation" being called "sinking".

The confusion caused by these kinds of conflicting characterizations of the same historical fact or event, plus their own doubts and denial of their own identities, all contribute to TCKs' internal confusion and contradiction. They may be shocked at the ignorance and bias of monocultural people while simultaneously continue to question themselves and their own identities in the midst of struggles through these conflicts and contradictions: "Who am I?", "Where is my allegiance?", and "If China and America went to war, which side will I stand on?"

TCK's Social Needs

In her book "Atlas of the Heart", Dr. Brene Brown states that humans have three basic psychological needs: belonging, to be known, and connection. TCKs can quickly adapt to a new environment, but have a hard time feeling that sense of belonging entirely to one culture. They easily understand and resonate with others because of their enlarged worldview and experiences. However, it's very difficult for them to be completely accepted by any group as completely their own, because most people cannot see or identify with as many of the perspectives and experiences as the TCK. TCKs connect easily with others, but they have also experienced more goodbyes than most people. TCK researcher David Pollock says: "A TCK has experienced more loss and grief before the age of 20 than most monocultural people do in an entire lifetime."

Precisely because TCKs value relationships and friendships, they are quick to become friends with new people. An unchanging reality in a TCK's life is the never ending flow of goodbyes from ending old relationships and formation of new ones. Because of the need for these frequent goodbyes, the biggest psychological need in TCKs is to process the loss of these relationships and to grieve these losses. However, most TCKs are have not learned to grieve these losses properly, and are not adept at it. In 7 Spot-on Ways TCKs Deal with Grief, author Taylor Murray describe 7 ways TCKs deal improperly with grief through stuffing, denying, numbing, dwelling, forgetting, faking, and toughing it out.

Through these coping mechanisms, many TCKs become experts at NOT processing grief. We often forget that processing our grief actually HELPS us to remain connected to what we lost in a healthy way. We also often forget that only by facing the pain brought on by grief, learning to embrace loss, feel the sadness, and processing these painful negative feelings is healing possible.

A very popular Pixar movie "Inside Out" is a classic story on grieving loss, and how sadness needs to be embraced and processed before joy can take on a deeper meaning. There are two articles analyzing this movie that can help parents to discuss their own experiences with loss with their children after viewing this movie together:

Why do people find ways to NOT process grief when it's the best thing to help them heal? Facing your grief head on means facing and feeling those painful feelings that will produce hurt, acknowledging that this pain is there and real, experiencing the pain, in order to heal and emerge from this pain. That takes an enormous amount of courage, but the end result is that we discover that the capacity of our hearts are enlarged, capable of embracing and entering into new seasons in life. In my book "Rossana on Motherhood", I shared about my own period of processing grief, and how Dr. Jerry Sittser's book "A Grace in Disguise" helped me tremendously in this journey of healing.

In the book, Dr. Sittser described how he passed through the darkest period of his life:

"though east and west seem farthest removed on a map, they eventually meet on a globe. What therefore appears as opposites—east and west—in time come together, if we follow one or the other long enough and far enough. Later my sister, Diane, told me that the quickest way for anyone to reach the sun and the light of day is not to run west, chasing after the setting sun, but to head east, plunging into the darkness until one comes to the sunrise...I decided from that point on to walk into the darkness rather than try to outrun it, to let my experience of loss take me on a journey wherever it would lead, and to allow myself to be transformed by my suffering rather than to think I could somehow avoid it."

So the first step in processing grief is to choose to face our pain:

“Choice is therefore the key. We can run from the darkness, or we can enter into the darkness and face the pain of loss. We can indulge ourselves in self-pity, or we can empathize with others and embrace their pain as our own. We can run away from sorrow and drown it in addictions, or we can learn to live with sorrow. We can nurse wounds of having been cheated in life, or we can be grateful and joyful, even though there seems to be little reason for it. We can return evil for evil, or we can overcome evil with good. It is this power to choose that adds dignity to our humanity and gives us the ability to transcend our circumstances, thus releasing us from living as mere victims. These choices are never easy. Though we can and must make them, we will make them more often than not only after much agony and struggle.”

As I read through the book, I began to examine my own life. Whether it's before or now, my tendency is to avoid pain and not face it. However, this book encouraged me to face my pain head on, overcome it, and grow from it. Dr. Sittser said:

“The soul is elastic, like a balloon. It can grow larger through suffering. Loss can enlarge its capacity for anger, depression, despair, and anguish, all natural and legitimate emotions whenever we experience loss. Once enlarged, the soul is also capable of experiencing greater joy, strength, peace, and love. What we consider opposites—east and west, night and light, sorrow and joy, weakness and strength, anger and love, despair and hope, death and life—are no more mutually exclusive than winter and sunlight. The soul has the capacity to experience these opposites, even at the same time.”

 So, where and how do we process this grief? Lauren Wells, author of "The Grief Tower" and "Raising up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids", and founder of TCK Training, in her article 7 Ways to Teach Your TCKs to Process Grief suggest that we begin by naming the past and anticipate losses coming up. The best way to process grief is to Bring Your TCK's "Hidden Losses" Out of Hiding.

You will discover that many TCKs are good at writing. This could be due to the fact that there is so much going on inside that they need to find an outlet to share and process when no one is around to listen, understand, or empathize, and journaling becomes a necessity and an outlet to deposit the secrets of the heart while developing the habit of using journaling as a means to process thoughts. My eldest son Caleb developed such a habit. As a result, he published a novel, completed two more unpublished additional novels, and wrote hundreds of poems. "The Boy on the Red Bike", a semi-autobiographical book about his own coming of age in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics period, sold several thousand copies in China. In saying goodbye to a good friend when he was in high school, he wrote a poem and a song entitled "Icarus", which he shared with me. I share the poem here which records his process of processing the pain of saying goodbye.

So the greatest need for TCKs is to process grief, and the greatest need of parents of TCKs is to understand the process of grieving, its different stages, and how to help their TCKs process what they lost, how they feel, understand why they feel those emotions, and allow their TCKs to express the pain inside. Maybe watching the movie "Inside Out" is a good start.

TCK's Language Learning

We know that for TCKs, the definition of "home" is closely tied with relationships. We can therefore use this same line of thinking for the process of language acquisition for a TCK. From all the questions I've received from parents for today's seminar in Tokyo, a very obvious observation is that over half of these questions are related to how to help children become fluent in and retain both Japanese and Chinese. Some Moms even want their toddlers to begin learning English while their brains are plastic enough to be in the ideal age range to learn multiple languages! However, we've actually spent very little time to think through the purpose of learning languages. We invest vast amounts of time to learn little techniques to increase our children's language learning skills, but seldom think about the meaning behind why people learn a language. Why should a person spend the time and effort to learn new languages?

Before we discuss this question, I recommend people can have a look at my other article "You Can Learn English in Any Western Country?". This article discusses a common misconception of Chinese parents when deciding to send their children away from them to learn English in the West. In the article, I mentioned three factors related to the learning of a new foreign language: relationship, immersion, and use. In another article where I discuss the five layers of communication (greetings, facts, thoughts, feelings, and care-frontation), I talked about how most of our communication does not deepen relational connection despite the volumes of words exchanged -- unless your words are beyond the feelings level. When we combine the three major factors in learning a new language with our understanding of the 5 layers of communication in building and deepening relationships, we will realize that the deeper the relational connection, the more effective and better motivated the language acquisition will be.

Many people mistakenly think that learning a new language faster depends on mastering better techniques, which indeed help people to score higher on tests and get better grades. However, without an environment or need to continue using the language, the student will quickly forget what s/he has learned. Whether it's gaining an advantage by using the right skills, applying effort, or even having a natural talent for learning new languages, if you don't have a need to use this newly acquired language, all these advantages will do you no good.

My parents used to be in the same Japanese class. My Mom is a great student and test taker, so her test scores are often 100% throughout her student days, keeping her at the top of her grade every year. So her Japanese test scores are the same -- always 100%. My Dad is lazier, so his test scores are neither good nor very stable. However, he has tremendously thick skin, and is constantly looking for Japanese people to practice his not very good Japanese on. He will talk about anything and everything in Japanese as soon as he finds his "victim". As a result, he made many Japanese friends. My parents really loved Japan and travelled to Japan frequently for shopping trips and tours. Every time they go, my Dad would shamelessly use his Japanese to talk to people and make new friends. Therefore, his Japanese was constantly improving, reaching fluency within a few years. On the other hand, my more perfectionistic mother didn't want others to know how little Japanese she had mastered yet, so never had the courage to open her mouth to talk to anyone in Japanese. She was highly embarrassed by my Dad's Taiwanese Japanese, and this embarrassment drove her to clam up even more. After a few years, even though her test scores and class ranking was always at the top, no one ever knew that she even knew Japanese, because she never opened her mouth. Every time they traveled to Japan, it was always my Dad who navigated their way around, so all these years growing up, my sisters and I always thought that it was my Dad who knew Japanese, and that my Mom did not.

This is also the case in real life. Even though if someone was looking for my Mom to translate a Japanese article into Chinese, she would do a great job, no one would say that she was very fluent in Japanese. From their example, I would say that a language unused is the same as not having a language, and any knowledge acquired is more of theory, without the practice to make it useful. Another example of motivation for language learning is described in my "Can You Learn English in any Western Country?" article, and that is the second factor of desire. In the article, I used the example of a man in love with a women who spoke another language and how that affects his speed of improvement. We have similar examples in our own family. When my youngest sister Vivian arrived in Canada at age 7, she had very little foundation in Mandarin Chinese. Add that onto the fact that in most of her elementary and high school days she struggled with being ashamed of her Chinese identity, she basically forgot or discarded whatever Chinese language or culture she had, living out her earlier years as a 100% English speaking Canadian. However, when she arrived in college, her strong desire to return to her Chinese roots enabled her to acquire Chinese to a level where she was proficient enough to work in a profession that required a high level of fluency in the Chinese language as a lawyer working in Taiwan. This level of proficiency greatly astounded her family, because we saw the power of motivation.

My 3 sons had similar experiences. After local Chinese school, they decided to learn yet a third language as soon as they had the choice to do so in international school. Caleb learned French, and went to France during his gap year, living there for a period of time. After his return, he often talked about how much he loved the language, the culture and the cuisine of France. Caleb is Stephen's hero, so when the brothers are together, they liked to cook, especially French cuisine. This influenced Stephen's attitude towards learning French. After he transferred to international, even though his French teacher was not very good, Stephen's interest in learning French never diminished. In our travels as a family, Stephen's favorite city was Tokyo. While visiting Japan, Stephen fell in love with manga and the Japanese culture. So when he knew that his high school in Seattle offered Japanese, he immediately signed up for it. Again, although his Japanese teacher was not very good, he continued to learn Japanese in private through YouTube videos and other means, because this is his interest, not just for a grade in school. Stephen's desire and motivation is to be able to watch a Japanese mango from beginning to end in Japanese. I think that as long as his love of manga doesn't change, he will learn Japanese sooner or later. This is the power of inner motivation.

My good friend Caroline Huang, who received her masters of education from Harvard with a specialization on English as a Second language, homeschooled her four kids in San Diego and Beijing. She was also instrumental in helping the homeschooling movement to get off the ground in China. In her 2014 talk with Sohu Education, Caroline answered parents' questions regarding the principles behind the acquisition of a second, third, fourth, etc. language. It boils down to motivation and an environment for use in the context of relationships. I suggest to all the Chinese parents present today who are interested in helping their children acquire multiple languages to follow her suggestions. For those parents who also have the ambition for their children to learn English in addition to Japanese and Chinese, my suggestion is the same. Unless your child's daily life includes a good friend who speaks English and is willing to use English in their daily conversations involving deeper emotional connections, who spends time regularly with your child playing and interacting with him, teaching your child English at such a young age simply will not be effective. And if you force your child to memorize all this vocabulary, you might as well not have him learn, because the use of force against his wish will only inoculate him against wanting to learn English on his own. Children's motivation in learning a language should be to be able to communicate and connect with someone they like, or to use the language to learn about a subject of interest in its original language. Unless we help our children to desire to learn a language through their senses, interaction with the environment and culture, and emotional connection, forcing them to use rote memorization to acquire vocabulary, raise their test scores, repeat and correct pronunciation, or use special learning techniques to learn better and faster will only lead them to resist learning and lower the effectiveness of their language acquisition speed and retention.

TCK's Educational Choices

The last challenge TCKs face is education. Actually, a TCK's cross culture life is in itself an unique education. When a TCK takes the Tokyo subway from Ueno Zoo to Sangenjaya to have dinner with his classmate and his family, this experience itself is already education. When a TCK goes to the airport to welcome her grandparents who are visiting her from China, or get on a plane during summer vacation to visit her parents' relatives living in China, this experience in itself is already education. We need to expand our definition and understanding of education to beyond the classroom, because educational opportunities are everywhere. The question is whether or not we are focused on capturing and capitalizing on all those precious educational opportunities to help our children learn through their own life experiences, which are internalized through their own senses? The knowledge our children learn is not merely dead knowledge from books and words, but internalized three dimensional life experiences turned into their own insights. When their relatives in China discuss with them about the public civility of the Japanese, their etiquette, history, or geography, what these TCKs think of is not mere facts their relatives can only read about in books regarding the importance of order, or dates and names of places they memorized for an exam, but real life memories that they've acquired through what they had smelled, touched, felt, heard, or tasted. The effectiveness and impact of this type of learning will always be greater than mere facts learned from reading a book or Wikipedia article.

Parents of TCKs need to remember that the primary educator of kids will always be family, not schools, because schools are unable to help a child to with the more critical work of clarifying his identity, values, attitudes, perspectives and life directions. Parents are the ones who can through their own examples pass on these important life lessons onto their children. Often, the educational choices facing monoculture children are a lot simpler, to be split into public or private education, and in some cases, homeschooling. However, a TCK has many choices: homeschooling, online schools, company sponsored schools for their employees' children, international schools, or public or private schools in the local language and culture. There are pros and cons to each choice, but can be very confusing because of the abundance of factors to consider with each of the choices. Here are the main questions parents need to answer:

  1. How deeply do the children affirm their parents' culture, and how much do they already speak in their parents' mother tongue? How deeply does the family desire their children to integrate into the local society and culture? How much do parents desire their kids to regard themselves primarily as people of the parents' culture? The local culture? These are all basic questions that each TCK needs to answer for him/herself.

  2. Do you want your children to be in contact more with your own culture, or the local culture?

  3. Are you able to afford the choice of your children's education over the period of time needed to complete it?

  4. How long do you plan to live in the country? Before you leave, what level of the local language proficiency do you desire or expect your children to achieve?

  5. How will you use your own language proficiency and educational background to complement rather than pull or compete against your children's school ?

  6. The choice of your TCK's education will inevitably bring with it stresses and pressures. Have you and your children discussed this in advance and made a decision to accept, embrace, and work with them?

  7. Will the values of your family be affirmed in your TCK's school? How much work do you need to plan on doing to supplement or do additional education on top of what they learn at school?

  8. After your TCKs enter certain schools using curriculum that will not contribute towards their college preparation, how much will this impact their options or competitiveness for college choices back home?

  9. Many TCKs don't want to learn their parents' native language because they want to be just like their peers in the local culture. How will you convince them or affirm in them the value of having a second language so that they will desire to learn your native language?

  10. Because of limited time, rather than discuss the pros and cons of each educational option, I will share them through the following tables. They are not exhaustive lists, but hopefully are enough just to get your own thought process started:


Online Classes:

Company Employee School:

Local Public/Private School:

International School:

Parents may also choose to send their kids back home to a boarding school, but because kids have to leave their parents early, this is not the best choice, and also requires considerable financial resources. Because of the rare occurrence of this option, I will not discuss it here, even though I have other written articles discussing the pros and cons of boarding school. There are many excellent sites and online resources about TCKs, for TCKs, and for their parents -- all in English. I am in the process of developing more in Mandarin Chinese. I hope that this body of knowledge will spread to the Chinese diaspora, as more and more of us are residing in places and cultures outside of Greater China. It is my hope that Chinese TCKs will grow up with a greater desire to learn Chinese and have a greater sense of pride in their parents' culture.

Here are some useful English language websites for TCKs and their parents:

26 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page