What Puts the “I” in NICS?: A Closer Look at Third Culture Kids in NICS schools

December 14, 2010 | Featured
By Whitney Hale

What Puts the “I” in NICS?: A Closer Look at Third Culture Kids in NICS schools

Ashlyn Burch is a high school junior enrolled in NICS’ NorthStar Academy and serves as the Student Council President. She was born in America, her parents are American, and she is currently living in Moscow, Russia. Ashlyn has lived in Russia since she was 3 years old and recalls the following story from her childhood:

When we first came to Russia, as a training tool for learning the Russian language, my parents had to speak Russian all the time… Therefore, for us kids it was really easy to start speaking the Russian language when we thought we were speaking English. One time my grandparents flew over to Russia to see us after we had been there for a while. During the time of their visit, they would play with us and talk to us [in English]. But there was one time that I looked up at my grandmother and asked her, "Mema, I can't reach my toy. Will you please get it down from the shkaff?" She looked down at me dumbfounded. "What is a shkaff?" she asked. And then it was my turn to look surprised. I asked, "You don't know what a shkaff is? Shkaff! Mema, a shkaff! You know!" And at that point, I had to pull her by the hand into my room and point to what I was talking about. She, of course, mentioned the English word that we had not used in so long: closet. I will never forget that day!

Ashlyn, along with a large percentage of NICS students, is a Third Culture Kid (TCK). TCKs are individuals who spend many of their early years of development in one or more foreign countries. Elements of both the foreign culture(s) mixed with elements of the individual’s homeland create a third culture which sets the individual apart so that they do not feel complete “belonging” to any particular culture. Most TCKs share humorous stories and experiences like Ashlyn’s, but also share common traits such as confusion regarding the definition and labeling of “home,” a comfort with individuals from other cultures, and a more global perspective and approach to life.

In the 20 NICS schools, there are over 100 nations represented. Because every school is so diverse, every student is exposed to nationalities, cultures, and heritages which are not their own. This diversity often creates many challenges for TCKs. For example, because of the nature of the parents’ jobs (military, missionaries, government, etc.), students regularly move from country to country. For many,this results in unresolved grief because friends are constantly departing. Along with this challenge, TCKs also face home confusion. Because they are global nomads, TCKs often have a difficult time answering when someone asks them where their “home” is. Home often changes for TCKs, and it can be difficult for adolescents to find friends, hobbies, and their niche in a new place.

Despite these challenges, there are many positive traits exhibited by TCKs. They learn very early that they are different from other kids who are born and raised in one place, but their unique lives lead to both resilience and an incredible global perspective. Ruth Hill Useem conducted a study of over 700 TCKs and found that “…[TCKs] adapt,find niches, take risks, fall and pick themselves up again. Many indicated they feel at home everywhere and nowhere… An astounding 88% reported they can relate to anyone, regardless of differences in race, ethnicity, religion, or nationality. They generally credit their third culture background with positively influencing their adult lives.” (21)

Ashlyn confirms this positive influence and claims that living overseas has changed the way she views other places and cultures. “When different aspects of different cultures appear in front of me, I tend to have a more open mind and could easily situate myself in that culture if so needed. It would not take me long to adjust in a different place now that I have experienced different cultures. When looking upon cultures, I tend to look at them with a wider perspective because I base what I see on the many different cultures I have experienced.”

Many other NICS students are thriving because of their unique experiences overseas. Joone Wang is 15 years old and is a Korean student enrolled in NorthStar Academy. He was born in Korea, moved to America with his family when he was 3, and moved to Costa Rica when he was 14. Joone knows 3 languages, plays soccer, and has friends all over the world. He admits that when he first moved to Costa Rica, he had a difficult adjustment period. He says:

The first few months were torture, the school was new, hard getting used to, and I could not speak Spanish. I was having a hard time and so were my parents. But, as I learned more Spanish and was able to talk with people more, like in church and such, I learned that Costa Rican people are extremely welcoming, nice, and warm people. [At first] Everyone looked scary to me, even in the church. But after I got to know them, they were so nice.

Similarly, Sydney Rhine’s dad is a safety officer for the U.S. Army. Because of his position, her family moved from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Germany when Sydney was 9. She is now 15 and a junior at NorthStar Academy. Since her family’s move, Sydney has had to make new friends and find her niche in a new, foreign place. She has thrived on the change and has grown profoundly because of the experience. An accomplished graphic artist, Sydney is a hired apprentice alongside professionals on a military base in Germany. She has acquired so much expertise that the Arts and Cultural Center in Heidelberg has asked her to put together curriculum for a Photoshop class. Sydney also rides horses and takes part in a Christian camp for thousands of international youth each summer. It is here that Sydney has found camaraderie with other students who are also TCKs. Sydney’s mom, Jeanette, says, “I am very proud of Sydney...but it's God that has given her a quiet wisdom, and living in Germany for 5 years has changed her view of who she is and who God is.”

Both Joone and Sydney had a difficult time moving overseas, but both have overcome numerous obstacles and are thriving in their new homes. Their experiences with cultures foreign from their own have given them a common humor and openness regarding differences with other cultures, friends from all over the world, and a global perspective which is unique to TCKs.

My 6 year old nephew, Gabe, who attends Yongsan International School of Seoul, recently visited us in Memphis with his family. While he was here, we attended church in Downtown Memphis where Gabe met a local boy, Razon, and befriended him. After church, I watched as Gabe attempted to hold Razon’s hand. Gabe’s new friend was vigorously trying to pull his hand out of Gabe’s grasp but Gabe continued to laugh and hold on. In Korea, holding hands is a sign of friendship for both boys and girls, while in America, holding hands is not “cool” for boys. The two boys’ cultures were clashing, but Gabe is learning valuable lessons. He is learning about two different cultures, and he is gaining a global perspective which is different from both his Korean and American peers.

Because of their experiences and worldview, TCKs have valuable lessons to teach. My own husband, Jed, and his three brothers (Americans) are TCKs. They were raised in Korea where they lived until my husband was 9 and then moved to Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, and finally back to America when he was a freshman in high school. Because he shares experiences like those of Joone, Ashlyn, and Sydney, he has a global perspective unlike most of our peers. He approaches relationships and decisions differently, is drawn to cultures different from his own, and considers the needs and views of the world on a regular basis. Jed, like other TCKs, has a wealth of knowledge about world history, geography, religion, and politics. He is able to approach personal and local issues—from relationships to city government and church missions both locally and abroad—with respect for differing viewpoints and a unique global perspective. He views racism and bias as ignorance, respects other’s beliefs without sacrificing his own, and can befriend and respect those who are different from him. Like my husband and nephew, TCKs have been forced to understand those different from them, and they have gained wisdom, mercy, and understanding that can be taught to those around them. TCKs are each unique while sharing some commonalities but all in all, they’re an enriched and informed group of potential world-changers.

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