When no place feels like home
US students schooled abroad often gain the world - but sometimes lose their bearings.
Sprawled on the outskirts of Thailand's chaotic capital is an extraordinary school where teenage globe-trotters trade stories of climbing pyramids in Egypt, tracking lions in Africa, and touring art galleries in France.Skip to next paragraph
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Many of the 600 Americans attending the International School of Bangkok (ISB) speak at least two languages. They have firsthand knowledge of world geography and foreign cultures. They can smoothly debate international affairs with adults twice their age.
But, like 17-year-old Rachel Wintheiser, many of these young sophisticates begin to stammer when asked the seemingly simple question, "Where are you from?"
"Ummmm, I guess I am from Illinois," Rachel says during a recent class break. "Or Wisconsin. That is where we spent our summers so it is home, more than any other place, I guess."
An American by birth and parentage, Rachel has lived in Germany, Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, and now Thailand, all before graduating from high school. Experts call Rachel and her classmates third culture kids (TCKs) - part of a growing league of young people who feel like outsiders both in the country on their passport (the first culture) and in the country of their residence (the second culture).
Instead, their greatest sense of belonging is found in a "third culture" of peers for whom everywhere, and nowhere, is home.
Such children reside in every corner of the globe, from Italy to Indonesia, Brazil to Botswana - any country where American parents are working as military officers, missionaries, embassy officials, journalists, factory managers, or business executives.
With 7 million US passports issued in foreign countries each year, estimates suggest roughly 4 million American youngsters are growing up overseas. A typical expat family is on the move every two or three years.
What is the long-term impact of such an exotic, rootless childhood? That question is debated today as new websites, support groups, research studies, and dozens of books seek to advise and analyze this expanding group of global nomads.
The experts agree that TCKs are multilingual, highly adaptable, broad-minded, often untouched by racial stereotypes, and more culturally aware than their peers back home. They are self-reliant and socially mature. In one sense, they are the ideal citizens in a globalized world. But American peers are more likely to view them as pampered misfits.
A typical American teen might watch a lot of TV, work at McDonald's, and learn to drive. Expat kids, on the other hand, may have missed out on "The Simpsons," are prohibited from working in foreign countries and - in nations like Thailand - are routinely served by chauffeurs and maids.
"In California, I didn't know how to ride the bus," admits graduate Leilani Franklin-Apted, speaking to a class of ISB students about the reverse culture shock she endured upon returning "home." "Kids thought I was stupid because I didn't know how to do laundry. My clothes came out all funny colors. I said, 'Well, I had a maid.' "
Other TCKs talk of feeling like oddities because they cannot keep up with references to pop culture or do not know how to pump their own gas. At the same time, TCKs find it hard to relate to American friends who seem never to have examined a world map.
"They say things like, 'Thailand? How long does it take to drive there?' " laughs Kristen Weir, an 11th-grader who has spent the past five years in Thailand and Sri Lanka. "They say: 'Do you speak Taiwanese?' or 'Do you ride an elephant to school?' They seem to think that all foreign countries are in the Stone Age."
For Leilani, the reverse culture shock and loneliness she experienced in America were too much to take. She ended up returning "home" to Bangkok to spend time with family and consider where to attend college.
Studies conducted by researchers at San Diego University suggest Leilani is far from alone. Of the nearly 700 adult TCKs who answered in-depth surveys conducted by Ann Baker Cottrell, 90 percent reported feeling "out of sync" with their US peers - even into their 20s and 30s.