The hidden currents of cross cultural education

Cross cultural schooling happens when a child’s education is conducted in a language their parent is not a native speaker of, or is based in a culture their parent did not grow up in.

There are several ways that this can happen. A family (whether local or expatriate) may enrol their child in an international school that follows the curriculum of a different country, or conducts classes in a language the parents are not familiar with.

When local families enrol in international schools, they create Educational CCKs (EdCCKs). EdCCKs live in their passport country but attend a school of a different language/culture. Educational CCKs cross cultures every day. They operate in one culture at home, and a different culture at school.

Alternatively, an expatriate family may enrol their child in a local school, in the local culture and language. (This was my experience as an Australian teenager in the US.)

22% of the 750 TCKs I surveyed for Misunderstood were educated in a language they did not speak natively; 7% were educated in a language their parents did not speak. Those figures double, to 40% and 15%, for TCKs who attended local schools.*

“I attended local school at a young age, and adapted well. Studies were more difficult compared to local students as my parents didn’t know the language – homework took longer etc. I did essentially keep up with the class for the two and a half years I was there.”
– Jeremy, as quoted in Misunderstood

There can certainly be linguistics difficulties when it comes to cross cultural schooling. Some families (and schools) do a better job than others at supporting students with this. Language is an aspect of cross-cultural education that is more obvious on the outside – but it is only part of the equation.

Adaptation to school culture

Schools teach more than academic information – they teach values and worldview. In a cross cultural educational setting the teachers and/or school administration may hold very different educational values than students or parents.

At the start, a new student must pick up a new school culture. In a cross cultural school, both obvious and hidden cultural expectations may be very different from the CCK’s last school. Over time, however, the child adapts to the school’s cultural expectations. And since the child spends more time in the school, and in its worldview, than the parents – a gap may begin to develop between parent and child.

The student may have to translate school expectations according to a parent’s different cultural expectations – even if they speak the school’s language.

Parents may be surprised by a child’s changing attitude, as they absorb elements of the school culture.

But these changes are natural, and perhaps inevitable. Cross cultural schooling means your child is being trained to see the world differently than you do.

Impact of cross cultural schooling on families

Many parents enrol their children in cross cultural schools for practical reasons. Perhaps there are no good school options in the family’s language/culture. Perhaps the family shares the schools values, even if they are not in line with norms of the family’s native culture. Perhaps the parents see the school as a pathway toward better educational and vocational options for their child. Whatever the reason, few parents are prepared for the long term impact cross cultural schooling will have on their family life.

Values are not always taught in obvious ways; often we simply absorb them as what is “normal”. Children in cross cultural education are absorbing more than academics when they are at school – they are absorbing values. Most children spend more waking hours in school than with their parents. In addition, if an expat they may not be exposed to their home culture at all in daily life outside the home. It’s possible that the school’s cultural values may become what feels most “natural” to the child.

Down the track, this can result in conflict between parent and child. Each judges the other according to their cultural values – and when the child has absorbed the cultural values of the school, this leads to a culture gap.

A child may perceive their parent’s expectations as unreasonable.
A parent may perceive their child’s actions as rebellious.
A child may perceive their parent as uncaring about their education – or too involved.
A parent may perceive their child as lacking in scholarly ambition – or outside interests.

These misunderstandings can lead to much heartache – both for parents and for their children. They stem from a parent judging the child by the parent’s cultural values – not knowing the child has been trained to see a different value system as the “norm”. This can be extremely frustrating for a child, who is only doing what their school has taught them to do in order to succeed.

So what next? I’m planning to write a series of posts considering different aspects of cross cultural schooling experiences. There is so much to consider! So stay tuned for more thoughts – and please, share your own, too.

Recommended Reading: June 25th, 2018

Welcome to this week’s edition of Recommended Reading! This week includes posts that capture a range of expressions of the inner conflict that comes with living between places, languages, and people.

This Man’s Twitter Thread About Being A Young Immigrant In America Is Incredible
Distractify
The writer of this post, a child of immigrants, reflects on an experience shared by a Korean immigrant. The series of tweets telling the story are explained and expanded in a helpful way. As a newly arrived immigrant child, this person was in a science class that was taking a quiz (which he wasn’t expected to complete). He knew the answers – but not in English. There are so many valuable reflections here on what it means to be new, to feel incompetent and stupid because you can’t be the articulate and smart part of yourself in a new language and culture. Most expats and immigrants have felt this; that experience should compel us to grace and kindness to anyone going through it – no matter where we are. The best part of this story, however, is what happens after that moment of frustration. I won’t spoil it. Go read it for yourself – it’s worth it!

How to Make – and Keep – Expat Friends
Wine and Cheese (Doodles)
A wonderful post on navigating the difficulty that is balancing friendships around the world. How do we keep making new friends, and maintaining them, with all the change going on? Lots of great stuff, but I particularly like what she says about knowing that while you can maintain a friendship long distance, it will be different:
When you’ve moved on or have friends that have, the original bond that held you together, being in the same place at the same time, is broken. You’re not experiencing the same endless shitty winter or worries about math class together. . .Your conversations will flow differently because you’re experiencing different things. . .But that doesn’t mean the friendship can’t or won’t survive. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that expat friendships can’t – or shouldn’t – evolve. They can.

Why international days and celebrations are difficult for true internationals
Expat Since Birth
Ute does a wonderful job explaining the inner conflict that “international days” (as celebrated at many international schools) can stir up. For some TCKs I know, these are the days they are dressed up in clothes that represent their parents’ country of origin. For others, there is the stress of which country to dress up as. For still others, there is the conflict of knowing which country they are expected to represent, but feeling much more connected to somewhere else.

Returning Home
Velvet Ashes
In this post missionary wrestles with the concept of home – what happens when you have added another place to your heart? While not everyone will identify with the author’s Christian worldview, her reflections on the tension of “home” are poignant:
I can’t go home…because I have more than one. Someone else has said, “Home is where the heart is.” Where is my heart? Is it in the states with my family? Yes. Is it here in Germany? Also, yes. . .Returning to the states for good would mean giving up everything here – leaving the home I have built here. I do love my home here. But returning here after a visit home to the states means leaving my family, the people I care about most. Home will always be where my family is. But home is also the life I have built here.

Is cultural knowledge more important than language skills?
BBC
This is a really interesting piece, considering the impact of linguistic fluency and cultural fluency for expats in different parts of the world. There are a lot of vignettes from expats all over the place, but no sweeping conclusions. The general theme seems to be that for short term living, speaking the basics of a language are enough. But to really adapt long term, both cultural understanding and fluency of local language are important.

Saying Goodbye… Advice For Expat Teachers On The Move
Intentional Learning
On the surface this is a short post with good advice about leaving well – like many others. But there is one point in it that stood out to me and made it worth mentioning: “Thank the ‘lead locals’ in your life. As expats we come and go, but how intentional are we in expressing our thanks for the hospitality (and tolerance!) shown to us by those whose country it is in which we live?” I suspect for too many of us this isn’t the top of our list of things to do when leaving, especially those of us deeply engaged in expatriate communities. Definitely worth a second thought…

Third Culture Kids – Stone and Water Work
Life Story
In this piece Dr. Rachel Cason uses the metaphors of stones and water for work that we do in order to process our lives. The image is of a bowl of coloured stones in water. The stones are all the pieces of self to be identified and expressed. The water is the space in which those pieces are heard – equally important, but easily overlooked. This is why I talk a lot about the importance of TCKs having space in their lives – space to work out who they are. Without this space, there is no way to process all the pieces.
Water work is the piece of work that allows the stones to be heard… it is the precursor of active sorting out and shaping, it is active stillness. . .Water work is the part of therapeutic work that is often the most challenging. The stone work feels more pressing, more active, more ‘doing’. But the water work is where we learn about our selves

5 stages of adapting to your new country’s culture when studying abroad
Study International
To finish up, I’m sharing this lighter piece outlining common stages students go through during a study abroad program. Expats in general may well recognise these! And a few silly GIFs never hurt anyone ;)

 

Recommended Reading: June 18th, 2018

Welcome to this week’s edition of Recommended Reading! The posts I’m recommending this week concern parenting. I think it’s worth pointing out that posts about parenting aren’t just for parents. They have lessons to offer others, too. A lot of these posts aren’t specifically for expats, but they have a lot to speak to the expat experience. I’m not a parent myself, but I often find that parenting posts have a lot to offer me, too. They help me understand parents’ perspectives, and as I work with young people a lot that is helpful too, but they also can have helpful messages for me personally in my own situation. Each of these posts are worth reading no matter what your individual situation is.

Two Challenges That Homeschooling Families Face on the Field
A Life Overseas
I love this post by Elizabeth. She starts with a quote and idea from the homeschooling section of Misunderstood, then expands and explains it beautifully. Honestly, if I ever release a revised edition of Misunderstood I’ll probably want to quote this article in a revamped homeschooling section! I thought this quote was particularly telling:
I had sufficient time to home school, I felt equipped to home school, and I wanted to home school. We still needed more support than we had been receiving.”

A Sense of Home: Raising International Children With Irish Hearts
Huffington Post
I had a bittersweet feeling as I read this post. I appreciate so much the work of parents like these to help their children connect to their heritage country. I love that this mother recognises the power of experiences, sights and sounds and tastes, to create a sense of home. I love that she recognises that “home” is multi-faceted for her international children. But I can’t help but hope that she also knows that the oh-so-important experiential connections she is fostering between her children and her homeland will be different to hers. I hope she understands that yes, she is ensuring her children “will always know that they are Irish and that Ireland is their home“, but that this might mean something very different to them. It’s such a tricky balance! TCKs benefit so much from strong experiential connections to their heritage cultures, but at the same time, those connections don’t add up to the same experience as growing up in that one place.

10 Things to Expect When You Take TCKs “Home”
Taking Route
I really appreciate this insightful and sensitive piece by Emily Jackson – and it is an appropriate follow on from the post I just mentioned. Emily writes about what happens inside TCKs when they go “home” to a passport country they haven’t lived in for a long time. Everything on the list is good, but number 3, “Pop-up Processing”, really stood out to me:
“They were probably too young to form it into words when it was happening, or it was so much a part of their everyday life that they never stopped to think if they liked it or not. Once you’re out of the culture a bit, those thoughts and emotions have a chance to bubble up and get processed, and might pop out when you’re least expecting them.”

The transition we travelers rarely talk about
Lola Akinmade
Award winning travel photographer Lola Akinmade discusses the struggle to balance the need to travel with the need to spend time with family. She comes to a lovely conclusion – that travel is about attitude to place, and that this attitude of curiosity and discovery can be applied wherever we are, on short trips and during long stays: “Wherever I find myself for extended periods of time. I don’t just exist in a place. I need to get beneath it, understand how it flows culturally, and learn from it. I don’t just quietly exist in Sweden. I explore it deeply.

Be Fearless! Pass On Your Heritage Language and Culture To Your Children
Multicultural Kid Blogs
As I travel and speak to parents in different countries, I am frequently asked about engaging children in the parents’ language/s. Some worry that this could be a hindrance to their kids. Others are disappointed in their kids’ lack of interest in learning a heritage language. The main piece of advice I give is that it always helps for kids to have access to their heritage languages (looking back they may regret not learning them, or may try to go back to them) but forcing a child to study something against their will always backfires. Therefore, the best thing you can do is find ways to make the language part of family life. This post is a great encouragement to parents who want to engage their kids linguistically, but feel unsure of how to do this. Amanda “Miss Panda” gives lots of simple, practical advice. She also points out that language is not just language – it is about culture, about ways we connect to a cultural community. Helping your child absorb a language is about so much more than the words you speak.

Should I Stop Speaking my Native Language with my Children?
Bilinguistics
And on that subject, this article lays out a lot of research related to bilingualism in children, aimed at giving solid advice to parents who are worried about the impact of language on a child’s development. Lots of references to different research in the area – fantastic resource!

Expat parents in Belgium: how to help your children with homework when you don’t speak the language
Expatica
For many families, the choice to live internationally means children will not be educated in the family’s home language. This can add an extra stress to parents who feel ill-equipped to help with their kids’ school work. This stress can also build up over time, as students begin to do more advanced reading and writing, with linguistic quirks beyond the parents’ grasp. This article is based in Belgium, but the concepts and advice offered are applicable beyond Belgium.

Parents, Know Thyselves In Your Child’s College Admission Process
Forbes
While the article itself is not expat/TCK specific, this is an important topic for a lot of expats. There is a high expectation that TCKs will go to university, often in different countries (where parents are less familiar with the system). Both TCKs and their parents can feel a lot of pressure to apply to (and attend) the “best” schools. This article has some good tips for parents about how to engage with the college application process – and how not to. Advice includes working with (not against) guidance counsellors, and stepping back to allow kids to own the process, and the decision making. I found this quote particularly helpful:
It all comes down to trusting that you’ve done your job as a parent up to this point. Of course, you’ll have doubts and worries, moments of panic and a sense that you’re losing control of your student. And in a genuine sense, you are, but not chaotically, just in the natural process of separation.

Recommended reading: May 27th, 2018

Wow I’m behind on sharing my recommended reading! But I’m in transition and, as I tell everyone else, that takes more time and energy than any of us give ourselves credit for. So I’m going to go ahead and post these thoughts I wrote a month ago and managed not to post at the time and I’m *not* going to feel bad about that delay. One day I will find myself some sort of regular routine, but since this week is my first chance to BEGIN that process, it’s totally fine that a routine doesn’t yet exist!

So, without further ado (or excuses for lateness) here are some great posts I read last month!

Two suitcases, maybe three… and the gift of lettuce
Notes on a boarding pass
Poignant reflections on leaving – the overwhelming list of farewells and changes that add up; thinking through what will be left behind, and lost; the extra stress in not knowing what will happen next… This is wonderful writing, the kind that helps the reader see and feel another’s experience. I ached with the familiarity of my own recent transitions and months spent living out of suitcases.

When you’re a local again, don’t forget the expats
The expat partner’s survival guide
A lovely vignette, and a good point! We who know what it’s like to be the new person, the outsider, the one struggling in a new place, language, or culture – we above all others should be quick to reach out and welcome others.

For the least of these
Velvet Ashes
Beautiful piece from missionary mum (and adult Missionary Kid) Joy, writing about the importance of connecting with her kids, not letting them get lost in the pressures of ministry life. Many MKs I interviewed spoke of feeling less important than their parents’ work, and in this piece Joy focuses on something so important for these kids: “It shouldn’t be a surprise that MKs struggle with our relationship to God. After all, God is the one who is responsible for the repetitive losses throughout our lives. It is essential that I am intentional in building the foundation of attachment and trust, so that, when the time comes to question their faith and their God, they will be absolutely assured of their value.

Expats beware: losing confidence in your mother tongue could cost you a job
Conversation
Interesting piece about language attrition, and how this impacts adults. A key point is that language changes over time. Our use of language, especially spoken, changes rapidly. If you have been away 20 years, the rules that govern what is appropriate may well have changed. This is a concern for immigrant kids, too – many learn an “outdated” version of the language, based on how it was spoken decades earlier when the parents left. I particularly appreciate Monika’s first tip for those concerned about manage attrition: “”Always have all documents you submit checked by a fully competent native speaker who is currently living there.” That last phrase is key – check your command of the language against someone currently living in the place, with that instinctive knowledge of how it “feels”.”

Smells like home
The New York Times
A lovely little piece considering the powerful trigger of smell in conjuring up a sense of ‘home’. I love this quote in particular: “I remember my mother’s comment about how the smells of my childhood would remind me of home, and home, I now know, is a place that exists not on a map but in my mind, ready to appear in its full, smelly glory at any moment.

How To Connect With Your Multicultural Community
Multicultural Kid Blogs
I loved this piece on connecting to multicultural communities, wherever you live! Johana points out some key reasons we don’t do this: “I have noticed that it is actually quite hard. For one, our cultures can seem very segregated, by languages, color, or social class. Secondly, we are constantly busy with our everyday lives and obligations. It is easy to go home after a hard day and immerse yourself in only the things that are immediately around you. It is a comfort zone.” Then she outlines some great practical advice on how to get out there and broaden your (family’s) horizons.

A History of Nomadism
Colorado Review
I don’t remember how I stumbled upon this longform piece by Megan Harlan, but I am oh-so-glad that I did. In it she reflects on what it means to be a nomad, both in the traditional desert-dweller sense, and in the modern TCK sense. She makes fascinating comparisons – similarities and contrasts. She expresses poignant thoughts on the impact of her own nomadic childhood. She ponders the nomad’s dilemma: “how to sculpt from rootlessness an identifiable, meaningful universe? Or, put more unnervingly: how do we attach meaning to constant change?” It is a long piece, and worth making the time for a long, slow read, considering and savouring the different elements she identifies and reflects on. Here are a few quotes to whet your appetite:

Like traditional pastoral nomads, my sense of home was as temporary as a campsite. But unlike them, my family’s “campsites” — our homes — were never revisited. No seasonal structure directed my family’s movements; no terrain was deemed ours. . .So like any nomadic child, I learned to apprehend places differently than settled people. During all the travel, as each of my homes was replaced by another, again, another, again, those seventeen times, the world loosened for me into flexible components: the view from another kitchen window, shadows cast by unfamiliar trees, my self refracted through more strangers in a new classroom. Patchwork, scraps, jumble—these fragments pieced into a perspective that lacked a solid middle distance; that place we take for granted to be “real life” kept disappearing on me. . .When people ask where I’m from, my answer is always in some way a lie, not that I mean it to be. I don’t know where I’m from, but who wants to hear that?

Recommended reading: April 9th, 2018

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Now that I’m getting back into the swing of thinking and writing in the TCK/expat space, I’m also doing more reading around the internets. Here’s some of the best stuff I’ve read lately.

Alone in a Crowd (Again) — The Second Wave of Expat Isolation
The Culture Blend
Such an important post by the always great Jerry Jones. I’ve seen this pattern in my own expat life and in so many friends’ experiences. There’s great advice here for the expat who feels alone after all their friends have left. Again. “The inevitable cycles of a cross-cultural life naturally bring seasons of deep connection and unexpected isolation — if you’re feeling stuck in that — try something unnatural. Intentionality moves the needle.”

Unresolved Grief – Hidden Losses of a Third Culture Kid
Jezmeralda
Poignant reflections on the hidden griefs that come with international life, especially as a child. “My lifestyle brings the wildest opportunities; nonetheless, unresolved grief has been one of my main challenges along the way.” I particularly appreciate that she addresses the difficulty of processing grief when “there are no recognized ways to mourn these hidden losses – primarily because most people don’t see them.”

Taking the Hypocrisy out of Home Ministry Assignment
A Life Overseas
This is an important discussion for the mission world, by fantastic MK advocate Michéle Phoenix. She tackles the pressure many missionaries feel to present a perfect face when visiting on home assignment – and the negative consequences this has for their TCKs.

An Overseas Assignment: Are You Doing the Right Thing By Your Kids?
Globally Grounded
Great piece by Jane Barron from Globally Grounded discussing lessons she’s learned from various greats as well as her own experience. She goes through three important things for expat parents to know/do in order to strengthen their families. The short answer to the titular question is that creating a strong family is what is best for your kids, wherever you are. A strong and healthy family unit who communicate well support kids through the difficulties of life – whether at home or abroad.

The Other Expats: Chukwudi Barrah – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
The Black Expat
Great interview with Nigerian expat Chukwudi Barrah in Malaysia, who started a platform for the “Other Expats”. I really appreciated his insights, and saw similarities with things African friends have experienced in China. It’s a good read, and always so important to remember that there are many different expat experiences out there.

The Hierarchy of World Language – My experiences from the expat trail
And Then We Moved To
An old post, but new to me. Linguistics is one of my fascination topics, and I love this post from the perspective of a multilingual expat family and how EIGHT different languages are part of their shared global experience. Mariam mentions the “majority language outside, minority language inside” rule which I’ve come across in other multilingual families and find a really helpful tool. She also learned German in a direct method classroom (where only the target language is spoken) which is something I found daunting but extremely when helpful learning Mandarin in China.

Even if you’ve forgotten the language you spoke as a child, it still stays with you
Quartz
Another post on language, this time from a few months back. The piece talks about first language attrition – losing full command of your mother tongue. The discussion ranges from the emotional consequences, to what’s happening in the brain, and the journey to recapture a language you were once fluent in.

Amphibians, Chameleons, and Cross Cultural Kids
Communicating Across Boundaries
A lovely little piece by the ever wonderful Marilyn Gardner, reflecting on “amphibians” and cross cultural kids: “Cross cultural kids can be active negotiators – taking both sides of a story and finding space for agreement. It can be a lonely space, but it’s a vital one.”

How knowledge about different cultures is shaking the foundations of psychology
The Conversation
Interesting piece pointing out the impact of culture on psychological studies, and our understanding of human psychology. “Clearly culture has a massive effect on how we view ourselves and how we are perceived by others… The question is to what extent it will inform psychology as a discipline going forward – some see it as an extra dimension of it while others view it as an integral and central part of theory making.”