Robert L. Sharp: Third culture kids and their growing role

03/21/2009 1:51 AM

03/21/2009 1:54 AM

In this era of globalization, and according to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, the flattening of the earth, more and more Americans are being posted abroad to plant and wave the flags of their organizations -- whether business, missionary or military.

This gives rise to the phenomenon of children who are at home in two or more cultures, synthesizing them into a third one of their own. These are referred to as "Third Culture Kids," such as my children are.

Our oldest daughter, for instance, was born in Mexico City to me, her American father, and her Canadian mother. She then lived with us in the Philippines, Hong Kong and Japan.

This international experience can be seen with President Obama and his administration. Indonesia in the case of the president; White House adviser Valerie Jarrett was a child in Tehran and London; Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner was raised in east Africa, India, Thailand, China and Japan; and National Security Advisor James L. Jones was raised in Paris. We almost had a Secretary of Commerce in Bill Richardson, who grew up in Mexico City.

There has been academic research on Third Culture Kids for nearly 50 years.

The most well-known was sociologist Ruth Hill Useem of Michigan State University. This research showed that Third Culture Kids tend to have more in common with one another, regardless of nationality, than they do with children from their own country.

They also tend to come from families that are closer than other families and are often multilingual and highly tolerant of other cultures.

Our children keep in close touch with their former classmates, made easier with e-mail and social networking sites such as Facebook. Here is an example, a recent exchange between my son and his friend in Pakistan (some edits for his privacy):

From Facebook: "Hi Rob, hope you are doing well. Currently, I am working with a hi-tech group in Pakistan. The group also has interests in several other industries...I am General Manager for 2 of their companies. How about you. What are you up to these days. I miss basketball at school in Tokyo. As far as relations go, the general public is in favour of America. It is a select minority (the Islamic radicals) and the intelligence agencies that try and sway opinion. The general public would like to solve the current issue in Afghanistan and the tribal areas as we do not like or favour the Taliban. They are a nuisance.

"Basically, religion has become a money game now for these people. The army here uses these to further their own personal agendas. Foreign policy in Pakistan is basically dictated by the army and intelligence agencies. Previous governments that tried to change that were removed unceremoniously. Current pressure from the U.S. government to deal with the intelligence agencies here is good as this has to be sorted out. The previous chief justice which also tried to reign in the agencies was removed hastily.

"In any case, don't go by what the perception is given. If people were against the U.S. so much, there would not be lines at the U.S. consulates to get visas. A lot of people would prefer the U.S. to final settle the taliban issue once and for all as neither the afghan government or the Pakistani government are capable of doing, at least in the short term. Why don't you visit sometimes. You are welcome to stay with us. Regards, Mahmood."

Our children's school, Nishimachi International School in Tokyo, had students from 36 countries.

Among my boys' closest friends, besides this fellow from Pakistan, were others from Sweden, Australia, Iran, Zambia, Japan of course, and even Kalamazoo, Mich.

Besides a comfort level with new people and new situations (and an unusually good grasp of geography), I have often thought the greatest lesson learned by our children was to judge people on their own merits, rather than on a stereotype of their national or ethnic roots.

Robert L. Sharp grew up in Linden (population 1,000) and spent most of the following 30 years as an international banker in Asia including four years as a Naval officer in that part of the world.

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