Contributed by: Jim Peterson
Our college-senior daughter reported an “aha” moment. Having grown up as one of the “third culture kids,” she had just discovered both the term itself and the book of the same name.
The label refers to young people who spend material portions of their formation in cultures and languages not of their birth and origin. Coined decades ago, it was then applied to parental relocations for military, missionary or diplomatic reasons. It now extends as well to émigrés and children of corporate expatriates.
Our daughter fit the mold precisely: in preparation for my European transfer, she had attended a Chicago-based grande maternelle and CP, and then had a thorough language base for her seven years in the French curriculum of a small école privée in the Paris 16th.
There were consequences both beneficial and complex. Chiefly, she is fully integrated in both countries – indistinguishable as a native either side of the Atlantic. And more broadly, she grew to be at ease and adaptable to the vast variety of experiences available to a child accumulating a passport full of border stamps.
But she is – for better or worse – not fully a member of the cultures of either her origin or her adopted second country. She has broken through the limits of vision that confine the perspectives of those not privileged to have her eye-opening experiences; at the same time, however fluent and comfortable abroad, she will never fully plumb the DNA-depths of a non-native environment.
Hence the “third culture” – the large and expanding community of young people with that in common – whether the daughter of an American corporate expat in France, the son of a Japanese diplomat in Sao Paolo, or the Franco-German girl who followed her French lycée with university in Scotland.
Any family planning an expatriate assignment, or puzzling through the consequences of one, would profit from exposure to Pollock and van Reken’s book – at the least, to anticipate and manage what will otherwise be a shock of recognition.
More broadly, it’s been my recent pleasure to confer and counsel with three young adults, each contemplating the enticing but slightly intimidating step of an extended overseas adventure.
Two Americans, one French – all in their mid-20’s, university trained, and already mature beyond their initial forays into the workplace. No less than with children still living with parents, they have the prospect of evolving into true citizens of the world:
- A young American banker, offered a two-year assignment in his company’s European headquarters – with the likelihood of further global exposure and a climb up the professional ladder never available to those taking the safe path of staying in the home base.
- A French business major choosing between two job offers – a safe and attractive post with a local industrial giant, or a work-study opportunity with a global professional services network, with whom he can achieve both higher-level credentials and experience in a true multi-national environment.
- And an American with a previous grounding in study abroad, uncertain as to her future path but optimistically clear that a broader set of opportunities lies in experience far from home.
To all of them I have said two things, drawing on our family experience and without reservation:
First, acquisition of “third culture” status is inevitable with the kind of choices they are preparing to make.
Second, both they and the world of the future that they will inhabit will be enriched by their broadened perspective and their wide-ranging scope of engagement.
And I wish them the best.
 “Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds,” David C. Pollock and Ruth van Reken, 2d Ed. 2009.
 By way of a post-script of acknowledgement and credit, in fact, Julie’s reaction to an early draft of this piece was to advise that her source was a school-mate from Kyoto, who is having the life-expanding experience of college in California’s Bay Area – doubly complex both because of his relocation to an American campus and because he shares the ethnic background but not the language or the culture of his Japanese-American counterparts born and raised in this country. I thank him with gratitude, and wish him all success.
About this column:
This column looks at ways in which cross-border life and business are affected by differences in culture, expectations and communications between French and Americans. Comments and suggested topics are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jim Peterson concentrates his legal practice on international litigation and disputes. A former columnist for the International Herald Tribune, he also writes on financial and accountancy matters – see www.jamesrpeterson.com. He divides his time between Chicago and Paris.
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