The challenge of growing up as a ‘third-culture kid’

By Korea Herald
  • Published : May 27, 2015 - 21:04
  • Updated : May 27, 2015 - 21:04

As the number of foreigners working in South Korea increases, so too do the number of third-culture kids ― children who spend a significant amount of their childhood growing up in countries outside of their nationality.

At international school Dwight, whose students represent 38 nationalities, three students spoke to The Korea Herald about feelings of alienation, cultural adjustments and their sense of belonging.

For 10th-grader William, who came to Korea from El Salvador six years ago, the experience of living in Korea has helped to develop his personality.

In his first year in Korea, he frequently stayed at home due to culture shock, but he gradually became more comfortable and made friends.

“I have definitely become more open to other people. At first I wouldn’t seek to make relationships with friends. Now I definitely do because it’s an essential part of adapting to the culture. Here, you have to find somebody that can help you,” William said.

“I would also say that I’m more confident in myself because I know how to express my culture and be proud of it.”

But while third-culture kids are often thought of as open-minded, adaptable and sensitive to other cultures, the challenges they face can be numerous.

Grade 12 student Sameer has lived in Korea for nine years. He has Indian nationality and has grappled with racism and alienation at school and elsewhere, such as when asking about items while shopping with his mother at a department store.

“People occasionally say, ‘Oh, it’s too expensive for you.’ They literally say that out loud,” he said.

“The fact that I’m a foreigner doesn’t mean that I’m lower than you or higher than you. You don’t really have to show that. I just don’t really understand.”

Sameer attributes negative incidents like this to the negative perception of Indian people in Korea, primarily due to the media’s portrayal of the country as universally poor. He has even been told he is lucky to have left India.

When Sameer first moved to Korea, he attended a Korean elementary school where he focused on learning Korean. But Sameer didn’t feel like he belonged and would go home crying, asking his parents to go back to India. He later moved to an international school.

Sameer stood out not only because he was a foreigner, but because Indian culture was so different. He was teased for eating “smelly” Indian food with his hands and his British English set him apart from his Korean peers. No one expressed an interest in knowing more about India.

Sameer was also subjected to a racist rant from an ajumma on the subway, who yelled and swore at him until another passenger suggested he move to another carriage.

“When it’s racism that I feel, that they’re not coming close to me just because I’m a foreigner, I do feel a little alienated. I feel like ‘Why does having a different skin color matter?’” he said.

Despite the negative experiences, Sameer said he identifies with Korean culture, while retaining his Indian culture. And although some third-culture kids report feeling displaced and not belonging to any culture, Sameer said his sense of belonging is associated with wherever he relates to the community and where his family and friends are.

“I can’t really pick one place because if I go to India, yes I don’t have my friends there because I haven’t lived there, but I’m pretty sure I can make friends. My family will be there too, so then I belong there,” he said.

“But I’m living here and I have my Korean friends and I relate to here, so I belong here as well. I could belong anywhere.”

Sameer said his Korean language skills were essential to his sense of belonging with the Korean community and he is applying to study at Korean universities, where classes will be held in both English and Korean. His younger sister, 10-year-old Neha, feels differently.

She has also struggled with alienation in Korea, though she was just 1 year old when she moved to Korea. While she likes living here and is fluent in the language, she doesn’t feel accepted and said it was becoming harder to make friends as she got older.

“Even though I’m Korean, I consider myself Korean and I’m good at Korean, (kids) just don’t play with me,” she said.

“When I was younger, I had experiences where people said I was a foreigner so I shouldn’t play with them. That made me feel very bad because I’ve lived in Korea my whole life. People have said I’m weird and they say bad stuff about India and they say, ‘Oh, so you’re poor.’”

Despite feeling Korean and spending most of her life in the country, Neha said she wasn’t sure if she wanted Korean citizenship “because I feel rejected. Maybe I don’t want to live here because I feel more comfortable in India and there are more people like me, so they would be much nicer to me.”

William’s experience has been less alienating. Although his friends are mainly ethnic Koreans with foreign passports, he doesn’t feel like he stands out much.

While he has adapted to Korean culture, his parents have maintained ties with Salvadorans who visit. And although he doesn’t speak Korean, he has found Koreans to be generally inquisitive.

William said this link to their first culture is vitally important for TCKs and they need to find a balance between their first and new culture.

“Culturally, I definitely (identify with) El Salvador because I believe for myself, that no matter how long you live in another country, there’s still going to be remnants of your own culture,” he said.

“My family have definitely helped a lot. They’re usually the ones that try to moderate my Salvadoran culture because once you start building a lot of relationships here and start getting used to it, it is rather easy to lose your heritage.”

But William admits the cultural divide between him and his parents has grown since moving to Korea.

When William travels to El Salvador, where he has family, he always feels like somebody is welcoming him back. But he also has to make some cultural adjustments. For example, he said while it’s not as common in Korea, talking over meals in El Salvador is enforced to help strengthen relationships between people.

Sameer also has to make cultural adjustments when he travels back to India. Although it can take a couple of days to feel like he fits in, he says he quickly adapts and notices his “Indian-ness” coming back to him, such as his Indian accent.

On the other hand, he also has Korean traits that, while natural here, are out of place in India. “To my grandparents, (I went to bow). I didn’t know ― do I shake their hand or do I hug them or do I bow?” he laughed.

Both boys said being a TCK has helped them become more adaptable, relate to different people and be more open-minded.

William believes this adaptability will help him build strong relationships with people from other countries.

Meanwhile, Sameer hopes to travel one day and deepen his experience with other cultures.

“It’s not like I’m watching the Discovery Channel and exploring cultures through that,” he said. “I get to (experience) it firsthand and explore the culture, and that seems really interesting because I think it will help me grow as a person, eventually.”

By Stephanie McDonald (