Repatriation and Identity: William E. Cross

September 25, 2009

This is the last of a three part series on different theories related to Third Culture Kids (TCKs) and repatriation. Note that these are theories, not facts. As we will see, the theories all have their own merits, but they don’t always agree.

Click here for Part I

Click here for Part II

Part III

Last week we discussed Paul Pederson model, which describes five stages of culture shock. In review, Pederson suggests culture shock begins in the honeymoon phase, when a person has yet to experience culture shock, then a “cultural incident” causes disintegration or disorientation and confusion. During the reintegration stage, the individual begins to resolve the cultural dissonance. In the autonomy stage the person develops a greater awareness of herself and others, and finally reaches the interdependent stage, which consists of a new multicultural identity.

Though based on different populations, Pederson’s theory of culture shock is reminiscent of W. E. Cross’s* theory of Black identity development, called Nigrescence. The developmental theory consists of five stages:

  1. Pre-encounter
  2. Encounter
  3. Immersion
  4. Emersion
  5. Internalization

Let’s take a look at the similarities and differences between the two theories.

Pederson’s honeymoon phase, when a person has yet to experience culture shock, correlates with the Cross’s pre-encounter stage, when an individual has yet to develop an afro-centric identity. The Pederson’s disintegration and Cross’s encounter stage both involve a sense of shock and displacement, except in Cross’s model, this encounter has a racial basis. Unlike Pederson’s model, Cross includes an immersion stage, where a person immerses herself in African American culture, attempting to “embrace” the new Black identity and destroy the older, ignorant identity. We will discuss the significance of this stage to TCKs in the next paragraph. During the emersion and internalization phase (the 4th and 5th stages), an individual learns new behaviors and adopts values characteristic with being a member of Black society but develops a sense of comfort with people from all different racial backgrounds. The emersion and internalization stages align well with Pederson’s reintegration, autonomy, and interdependent stages.

There are obvious similarities between these phases, and indeed the experiences of African American and TCK young adults, except for one key phase—the immersion stage. The omission of the immersion stage may be credited to the difficulty TCKs face in achieving immersion, since strong post-repatriation communities have not existed in the United States. (Note however, that these kinds of communities are emerging, such as Mu Kappa for Missionary Kids, Global Nomads in the Washington Area, websites such as and certain groups on Facebook). One could ask whether successful autonomy and interdependence (Pederson’s terms) or emersion and internalization (Cross’s terms) rely on an immersion of some sort? Does the lack of immersion opportunities make finding a balanced identity difficult for TCKs? Some in the TCK community have written about an immersion experience in an affinity group or community, for instance, joining the Asian students’ association at university.

The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell

Let’s see how these stages might apply to Lisa’s (fictional) experience. This is the same story, with a few additions to fit the model.

Lisa, an American, Third Culture Kid, grows up in Egypt, Morocco and France. Her mother works for the American State Department. Like her mother, Lisa feels she represents the United States, and her mother often says, “You’re an ambassador as well!”

Lisa brings peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to school and wears Old Navy jeans on the weekends; she plays softball on the school team and friends joke about her American accent. Lisa represents the United States of America abroad.

The pre-encounter stage, when an individual has yet to develop an afro-centric identity.

Lisa can’t wait to return to the United States. Finally she won’t be the foreigner anymore! Her love of peanut butter, Old Navy and softball will be the norm, rather than the exception. No one will even notice her accent. Finally, Lisa will feel like she belongs—just as everyone fits in at home.

The encounter stage involves a sense of shock and displacement.

On the first day of school, Lisa meets her classmates. One girl says, “oh, you have such a cute accent!” Lisa lets it slide. Lisa has to fill out health forms, so she tells the nurse she is 170 centimeters tall and the nurse gives her a look. Lisa turns red, but lets it slide. After a short conversation, a boy says, “you’re kind of like a foreigner!” Lisa fights back tears and wants to go back to France.

Cross includes an immersion stage, where a person immerses herself in African American culture, attempting to “embrace” the new Black identity and destroy the older, ignorant identity.

Lisa joins the French club and becomes close to international and exchange students. She spends a lot of time online, learning about what it means to be a TCK and a global nomad. She also develops especially critical views of America and Americans; whenever an opportunity presents itself, Lisa separates herself from America.

During the emersion and internalization phase, an individual learns new behaviors and adopts values characteristic with being a member of Black society but develops a sense of comfort with people from all different racial backgrounds.

Lisa often tells people she’s a Third Culture Kid, but she begins to understand that her international background does not make her any less American, but does make her different from some of her peers. Lisa realizes she has many friends from many different cliques, and begins to explore how she is similar and different to her peers. This process can be draining, but is important to Lisa.

As Lisa learns what to expect from her friends and teachers, she begins to feel connected to her school community. She understands, respects and even cherishes both her American heritage and international experiences and actively keeps connections to both worlds.

* Cross, W. E., Jr. (1991). Shades of black: Diversity in African-American identity. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.


Expat Life Down The Road, Pt. 2

September 3, 2009

Last week, in Part 1 of this article, I introduced four recent college graduates who lived abroad for part of their upbringing and went to college in the U.S. Now we’ll find out in what ways their time abroad shaped who they are today. I want to offer a big thank you to Alex, Andres, Brittany, and Jessie!

Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the things that the four interviewees all blame on their time abroad was what Andres refers to as his “jet setter” traits (Brittany calls it “the traveler that’s still within me”). Jessie explains, “I think travel is a bug that infects early, and those who have the privilege to travel at a young age tend to dedicate much of the rest of their life to fitting in as much travel as possible.” Early travel exposes children to new sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and types of people. Alex says that he has “no qualms about getting around a new major city” and suggests that part of this is related to the fact that his eyes have been opened to various types of music, art, food, and the like (“I can order comfortably off of pretty much any kind of menu”).

Alex explains another thing that makes travel easier now: “Living abroad and going to an international school shrinks the world. I feel that I know at least someone in every major city in the world”. The fact is that the turnover rate for new students in international schools is incredibly quick. Andres points out that this has its downsides too, as it is hard to see friends leave. He acknowledges, however, that this contributes to an openness that students have and a willingness to make new friends quickly.

The recent graduates all spoke about issues of diversity, open-mindedness, racism, and the like. Brittany ties her open-mindedness to the people she met abroad: “You are forced to embrace others and yourself because the differences are so obvious, and at the same time trivial”. Alex seconds this notion: “I went to school with a very diverse group of students from all races and religions. I grew up truly color blind to the world, which puts me in a unique position”. Andres says that this definitely made him different from his American college classmates. He says that growing up, he wasn’t truly aware of racism. “I had never really thought about racism as an issue until the first week of [college] when we had a Cultural Diversity Workshop… It was just a completely different concept to me.”

Academically, too, these four found themselves to have had a different background during their time abroad. Brittany says that “in Jakarta, there was such an emphasis put on learning for the sake of learning, instead of learning for the sake of getting a good score on your SATs or getting into a good college”. They all mentioned the high quality of teachers during their time abroad—teachers who really were passionate about teaching. Jessie offers her reflections about one way that the French teachers and teaching system set them apart from those in America:

“[The American School in Paris] was one of the first places where I really learned to push myself academically: not to settle for adequate work (which, unfortunately, I noticed was very easy to do once I got stateside), but to strive for better. The French grading system is out of 20, but 12 or better is considered a score to be proud of. NO ONE gets a 20. 16 or 17 would be a phenomenal grade. Meanwhile I got back to America where you can earn a 107 on a test if you do extra credit—how is that pushing students? Obviously, this is something of a personal preference, but I really feel like instilling in students the idea that you can always do better is such a great way to encourage hard work (and then, of course, providing them with the resources and support necessary to realize that hard work).”

Expat Life Down The Road, Pt. 1

August 27, 2009

Most of the clients that School Choice deals with are trying to figure out schooling abroad for their young children. Their concerns tend to be limited in scope to the near-future: how to ease the transition, what school their child will go to, who their child will be friends with, whether or not their child will be granted admission to the top schools, etc. When the scope of their concerns does include the future, they tend to be worried about, for instance, what colleges their new school sends students to.

More interesting for me is the bigger concern of how their education and time abroad will have changed their children as they become young adults. While academics think about this issue, it (understandably) isn’t usually on the minds of families in transition. That said, it’s one of the most exciting parts of an expat experience, and one that parents should at least be aware of.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve spoken to a number of recent college graduates who spent time abroad as they were growing up. Hopefully, their reflections on their time abroad and the ways in which it shaped who they are now will give you a new perspective from which to view your expatriation.

I spoke to four recent college grads who had had vastly different expat experiences.

  • Alex, who just graduated from Northwestern University, moved from the U.S. to London for Kindergarten and remained there until he graduated high school.
  • Brittany, who just graduated from Syracuse University, was an American who grew up in Haiti, Jordan, London, Virginia, and Indonesia.
  • Jessie, who just graduated from Swarthmore College, lived in Paris for two years in middle school, then returned to the U.S.
  • Andres, who just graduated from Swarthmore College, studied at international school in Venezuela, even though he was a native of the area. His experience at an American college gave him perspective on the benefits of his international education.

Next week, in Part 2 of this article, read about what these four young adults had to say in regards to the influence that their time abroad had on them!