Repatriation and Identity: Craig Storti

September 11, 2009

For the next few weeks, we’ll explore three 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.

Part IThe Art of Crossing Cultures

Craig Storti[1] uses a model of adjustment to explain how Third Culture Kids (TCKs) reacculturate. Storti argue s that all TCKs have expectations of a culture, especially what they consider their “home culture.” However when a “cultural incident” disproves their beliefs, TCKs react in anger, fear or embarrassment, which causes withdrawal and/or analysis of the situation. Slowly, TCKs develop “culturally appropriate expectations” and approach situations with new insight.

Let’s apply this theory to a (fictional) story.

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.

Storti argues that all TCKs have expectations of a culture, especially what they consider their “home culture.”

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.

Being measured at schoolHowever when a “cultural incident” disproves their beliefs, TCKs react in anger, fear or embarrassment, which causes withdrawal and/or analysis of the situation.

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.

Slowly, TCKs develop “culturally appropriate expectations” and approach situations with new insight.

Lisa learns to gauge when her friends are interested in stories from her time abroad, and when she meets someone who doesn’t seem interested, she can usually engage them in a lively conversation about baseball. As she learns what to expect from her friends and teachers, she begins to feel connected to her school community.

Next week, we’ll look at Paul Pederson’s five stages of culture shock.

[1] Storti, C. (1990). The art of crossing cultures. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural 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).”

Handling Repatriation ~ Ideas for TCKs

August 28, 2009

Today, Boston College had an orientation specifically for Third Culture Kids (TCKs). Expatriate kids are finally getting the attention they deserve! I was delighted to give the key-note address. I presented some findings from my research on TCKs, which explores the factors that affect psychological well-being, but also some personal stories and some food for thought.

I’d like to share a few of the take-home points. These do not come from research or statistical analysis, but are ideas that I have been thinking about for a while.

Treat repatriation like an assignment ~ What would happen?Coming Home?

Third Culture Kids are great at adapting, except, it seems, when it comes to repatriation. Psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists all suggest that the heavy expectations of going “home”—only to find a place does not feel like home—can make repatriation very hard. I’ve often wondered if TCKs would fare better if they treated repatriation more like an assignment, even if only as a mental tool to deal with difficult situations. Maybe it would be easier to use the adaptation skills they learned on previous assignments to deal with the move. If a TCK expects Americans to be “foreign,” would it be as difficult to make friends? Of course, all the issues would not disappear (i.e. people might still wonder why he or she is using “lift” instead of “elevator”), but maybe a TCK would not mind quite as much.

National and Communal Identity ~ A Matter of Perspective

There are two aspects of identity that I’d like to highlight: nationality (in the sense of national identity) and a sense of belonging (communal identity). Obviously the two concepts overlap; nationalistic people are probably more likely to feel a sense of belonging to their country. For instance, during the last election, I was proud to be an American and felt a strong sense of community with Americans living in Canada. However, national and communal identity CAN be mutually exclusive.


Third Culture Kids may have a strained relationship with their national identity; I’ve interviewed TCKs who express feeling especially American while abroad, only to feel completely foreign in the United States. Some continue to call themselves American and really believe so, while others only call themselves American only because “it’s the easiest answer that raises the fewest questions.” Sometimes it helps to take a different perspective on national identity—some of the interviewees refer to themselves as TCKs or Global Nomads, or simply say, “I’m nationally challenged… because Americans seem to like the ‘challenged.’” They have a positive view of their background that takes into account their international experiences. A TCK’s national identity may take time to develop, and that’s okay! Chances are, their sense of national identity will be a much deeper one than most.

Regardless of their national sense of identity, TCKs can still feel a sense of belonging in their community through their religious beliefs, leisure activities or sports clubs. In this high-tech age, courtesy of Facebook and DIY websites, there are even online TCK communities. (In the past, finding a TCK community was especially difficult; after repatriation, TCKs spread out and often become invisible, or “hidden immigrants”). Finding a community, a group of people with a shared interest, can help a TCK settle in and give them a support network. The point is not to connect with other Americans or non-Americans, but to connect. At the end of the day, we are all people.

Seeking help

TCKs might need extra support, and this is nothing to be ashamed of. By the time a TCK is 19, she or he will have had more than a lifetime of experiences to absorb and process. It’s not going to be easy. More and more, counselors and advisors are becoming aware of TCK issues. TCKs should not be afraid to use counseling services offered at universities and colleges to help deal with any issues they may face.

Every person takes a unique journey… You might as well enjoy yours!

TCKs have amazing opportunities to experience the world, traveling, understanding new cultures and gaining different viewpoints, but all that can be hard to remember during difficult times. Take time to remind yourself of the good times you’ve had abroad and the benefits you’ve reaped from living a global life.

~ A special thank you to Laura Saylor and Boston College for inviting me to speak! ~

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!

Living Abroad: Does it Make You More CreAtiVe?

August 7, 2009

The Duncker Candle Problem

Look at the picture below. You should see a candle, a pack of matches and a box of tacks next to a cardboard wall. Can you figure out, using only the objects on the table, how to attach the candle to the wall, so that the candle burns properly and does not drip wax on the table or the floor?

If you’re in the mood to share (and we’d love to hear from you!), scroll down and leave a comment with your answer!

Can you figure out the answer?

Can you figure out the answer?

Now, here’s the correct solution; you need to empty the box of tacks, use the tacks to pin the box to the wall, and place the candle in the box. The box acts as a candle holder! Don’t feel bad if you didn’t get it, I didn’t either.

The Research

In a recent study, William W. Maddux and Adam D. Galinsky used the Duncker Candle Problem, illustrated above, to test creativity. (Were you creative in your answer?) Due to previous research in the field, the psychologists hypothesized that creativity correlates to living abroad. Research has already found first and second generation immigrants and bilingual individuals have comparatively high levels of creativity, and in their article, Maddux and Galinsky presented a long list of creators, including writers (Hemingway and Yeats), artists (Gauguin and Picasso) and composers (Handel and Stravinsky), who created their most famous works during or immediately after living abroad.

The Dream by Picasso

The Dream by Picasso

Maddux and Galinsky conducted five experiments, and found a strong positive link between living abroad and creativity. According to the research, the more time an individual spends living abroad the more likely they are able to solve creativity tests, like the Duncker Candle problem. While the study is not causal—meaning the research does clarify whether creative people tend to live abroad or living abroad fosters creativity—the study does offer some strong empirical evidence for a link between living in foreign countries and creativity.

Surprisingly, traveling abroad (i.e. visiting) did not have the same effect! This suggests that having to adapt or acculturate to a new culture is what really drives this creative ability correlation; living in a different culture and learning cultural norms allows, maybe even forces individuals to see life from different perspectives, positively affecting creativity.

These findings have special implications for children growing up abroad. Maybe this research provides a different perspective in looking at the pros and cons of sending expat children to local schools and exposing them to the culture of the host country? Maybe those of us in the international community can celebrate and share our creativity, a very positive aspect of a sometimes difficult life? Maybe parents can begin to foster creativity in their children, creating an “in” for them into a social network? (This references the article titled “Education Outside the Classroom.” Check it out!) One thing is for sure, this is another piece of evidence that expat kids, TCKs, Global Nomads, and the like, really are the next generation of global leaders.

A special thanks to Joseph Leahy for bringing this article to my attention.

Find this interesting? Read the whole article!

Maddux, W. W. & Galinsky, A. D. (2009). Cultural borders and mental barriers: the relationship between living abroad and creativity. American Psychological Association, (96)5, 1047-1061.