When no place feels like home
US students schooled abroad often gain the world - but sometimes lose their bearings.
BANGKOK, THAILAND — 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.
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.
Ms. Cottrell says many reported experiences of a "prolonged adolescence." Some were unable to make decisions about where to live or what career to pursue. TCKs can be reluctant to "settle down" and they often end relationships at the slightest sign of trouble.
Adult TCKs say all the abrupt goodbyes during sensitive adolescent years left them with unresolved grief and insecurity. In addition to a new school and a new culture, each move brought a freshly broken heart.
"I've had four or five best friends," says Neils, a 17-year-old ISB student. "Every year a new friend, and then they just move. I do make new friends, but I know they won't last." So now, he says, he withdraws a little more to build an emotional shield.
Even the US State Department has recognized the potential for trouble. Its Family Liaison Office has a website that directs TCKs to a Washington support group called Around the World In A Lifetime (AWAL) and warns, "Interpersonal relationships are more likely to be left behind during a move than resolved, depriving TCK's of 'practice' in a very important life skill."
Neils is taking "Cross Cultural Communication," a course designed by teacher Jim Westgate to help prepare students for life after high school. Instead of giving tests, Mr. Westgate asks teenagers here to write essays about their feelings. His filing cabinet is stacked with papers that reveal confusion and loneliness. One student wrote: "I would like to believe enough scar tissue has been built up and that I will not feel sorrow at future separations, but in truth I know I will."
Despite the difficulties, however, adult TCKs seem to agree that the benefits of their lifestyle outweigh the negatives. Cottrell's research confirmed that TCKs are more successful in school and careers than their American counterparts. While only 21 percent of Americans graduate with a four-year university degree, 81 percent of expatriate kids go on to earn at least a bachelor's degree. Half of those will take a master's degree or doctorate. Most will also achieve higher-ranking professions and many will enter service careers with the aim of helping developed countries.
A tour of the palatial ISB campus explains these results. The school, set amid sprawling lawns and fountains, has high-tech gadgets and facilities that public-school principals in America can only dream about. More than 1,700 students (K-12) have access to classrooms with 850 computers; 60,000 books; videos and CDs; a 750-seat theater, and seven illuminated tennis courts.
There are 10 students for every faculty member. The teachers are mostly American, as is the curriculum. Field trips include archaeological digs, a visit to NASA headquarters in the US, or ecotrekking in Bhutan.
"This kind of education is not available to your average kid in the US," says physics teacher Ian Jacobs.
"We just don't see the kinds of problems that are plaguing Western education - violence, truancy, poor discipline," he says. "I wouldn't even know what to do with a student who acted out. It just hasn't happened here."
Little wonder that American universities line up for the chance to recruit students from ISB and international schools like it elsewhere. Graduates here routinely end up at schools such as Yale, Harvard, and MIT.
Parents who could not afford to send their children to a school of such caliber in the United States have access to ISB because their employers pay for - or subsidize - education costs as long as the family remains overseas. That fact alone is what keeps many parents on the move.
ISB works hard to ensure that the opulent surroundings do not leave students isolated from the country in which they reside. Each high school student must do at least 40 hours of community service to graduate - and most do more.
The volunteer work in orphanages, slums, and homeless shelters only adds to the perspective these students have already gained simply by attending classes with kids from 50 different countries.
"It is my plan for the future to help spread the knowledge I have acquired," one student wrote to Westgate in his final essay. "If the world understood these [cultural] differences, then there would have been less wars fought in the past and less lives wasted."