For third-culture kids, international schools around the world become an important but temporary extended family

You can hear them on the subway, a gaggle of teenagers from all backgrounds, speaking in an English that defies description, in an untraceable accent peppered with local and foreign words. A stranger, baffled by the diverse group, might ask them the simple question: Where are you from?

But chances are those kids themselves find that hard to answer. They are from everywhere and nowhere really.

Third culture kids

Around the globe, more children than ever are growing up away from the native countries of their parents. Some eventually go “back”. And some families just keep moving.

Like the family of Kristin Johnston. The 16 year-old speaks three languages, has followed her parents to four continents, and has friends around the globe. “Maybe some day I’ll stay in one place for a while, I don’t know. Lets see how it goes,” she says. Vienna is another stopover for her. The next station could be anywhere.

Researchers have started to recognize this phenomenon in its own right. “What makes the life  of third culture kids different from other migrants and expats is that it is multiple – they experience the encounter of more than one other culture than their family or passport country,” says Laia Colomer, who researches the subject at Linnaeus University in Sweden. This renders them unique/unusual even in a world of increasing migration.

Peter Murphy is the director of Vienna’s largest International School, VIS. The challenge for any international school is to create an accepting and open-minded learning ­environment.

Often the only continuity comes from a world-wide network of international schools. Serving the growing expat communities rooted in business and diplomacy, international schools are at the epicenter for this next generation of global citizens. According to figures from the Council of International Schools, 679 such institutions are spread out over nearly every country in the world.

This is especially obvious in Vienna, which hosts nearly two-dozen international organizations and is a popular choice as a headquarters for multinational companies doing business in Central and Eastern Europe. The city boasts several highly-rated international schools, the largest of which is the UN-affiliated Vienna International School (VIS).

“We have 1,400 students from 104 countries, who speak 72 different first languages,”  says director Peter Murphy. “We are multicultural in a very obvious sense.”

For many of his students and their parents, going home to an extended family or to see old friends overseas more than once or twice a year is simply not an option. His school, Murphy says, is more than just an educational institution. “We are a home away from home. An extended family.”

Where is home?

International schools try to make their students feel at home, since being a third culture kid is  more necessity than choice. Some children have lived in more than 10 countries during their lives, says Ian Piper, director of the Danube International School. They follow their busy parents from assignment to assignment and have to settle into completely new environments, often on short notice. “I think that is sometimes hard for kids,” he says. And it makes it difficult for children to say where, exactly, home is. “They’re the most comfortable at airports, they spend so much time there,” quips Keri Johnston, the mother of Kristin. The American, whose husband works for the World Bank, has raised her kids in Burkina Faso and Cambodia, among other places, before moving to Austria two years ago.

Kids might suffer from a range of difficulties after a move.

In Internet forums, parents have dubbed it the “expat child syndrome.” Stress, anxiety and other social difficulties emerge repeatedly as the typical issues facing kids on the move, according to child psychologist Kate Berger, who offers therapy for expat children from her practice in the Netherlands.

Most difficult for many is the transition period. “Every time I move I am kind of not fully there until, like, three months in,” says Kristin Johnston, who is a student at VIS. “For the first week I was here, everyday I was Skype-ing with somebody from my old school, [thinking]‚ I wish I was still there. But then you kind of get used to it, and find new friends.”

Making ‘fast’ friends vienna's largest int schools

To make school feel like home, most third culture kids adopt a unique skill – forging deep friendships fast. “The kids learn that people around you and close to you can sometimes only be with you for two or three years. So the initial barriers are dropped very quickly,” explains Debbie Cecchini, a Briton who moved her family from Luxembourg to Vienna in 2014.

This is easier at international schools, as typically a quarter or more of the student body changes year-on-year as families move on. So a recent arrival is rarely the only new face in class. “People at international schools are generally more open to meet new people,” says Kristin Johnston. “They don’t just look at you and shun you, like, oh it’s that new kid! So it was kind of easy to integrate and find new friends.”

After a move, the Internet also helps third culture kids to maintain friendship networks around the globe, and connect with other internationals. “Even when they get to university, when they think they’re going ‘back home’, most of the third culture kids will group together, and interact with students who have an international outlook,” says DIS director Piper.

Being in an international school can, he says, easily become a group identity. “Although they might come from wildly different backgrounds around the globe, they know what it’s like to have that experience,” Piper adds.

In the future, third culture kids might even start to see themselves not merely as displaced Americans, or Britons or Spaniards, but as a community in their own right, says researcher Laia Colomer. “Third culture kids are currently building up their sense of belonging to the community of TCKs and therefore they tend to define their identity not only socio-psychologically different, but also culturally. Both elements certainly help to define them as a community.”

Their own language

One thing that makes third culture kids distinctive is their vernacular. “Each international school has it’s own particular type of international English,” says Maurice Carder, who taught English at VIS for nearly three decades and has published an academic study dealing with the subject, “Bilingualism in International Schools,” in 2007.

With so many non-native speakers at the schools, the common idiom develops a very distinctive sound. “You get a type of English that is immediately recognizable. I can’t find a better way of summing it up than saying it sounds mid-Atlantic, plus the influence from the local language and their own mother tongue,” Carder says.

In the case of the Vienna schools, global English is thus spiced with German and Slavic expressions, and might include words from French or Arabic, or local slang, as a recent survey among AIS alumni via Facebook highlighted. “It’s a mixture of British and American with words like Habibi (Arabic for ‘friend’) and Oida (Viennese for ‘mate’) mixed in,” reports one former student. Some English words get new meanings, such as ‘pull’, which can take on infinite (and explicit) meanings.

Melting pot: International schools bring people from dozens of backgrounds together, forming a new and unique global culture. Some schools even claim to have their own dialect.
Melting pot: International schools bring people from dozens of backgrounds together, forming a new and unique global culture. Some schools even claim to have their own dialect.

Fighting the bubble

Third culture kids in international schools easily create a microcosm, which some former students see as isolating them from the world of their host country. “It’s very much a bubble, like all private schools,” says Naomi Hunt, who attended the American International School (AIS) in Vienna and now works for an international organization.

The 31-year-old sees money as a factor in keeping school and host country apart. “It’s a bubble of economic privilege, for most people, and it’s a bubble in the sense that all the children in the school have more international experience, even the Austrian kids,” Hunt says. It took years for her to find Austrian friends outside the world of international schools.

The schools are keenly aware of this, and try to counter it by urging engagement. “My advice to parents is always, if you want the child to learn German, we can teach the grammar and things like that in school. But if you really want to learn about the local culture, you have to engage your kids in some activities here,” Piper says. He advises parents to enroll kids in local sports clubs and cultural activities.

Schools also try to bring Austria into the classroom. AIS includes their host country in the curriculum and school programs, to allow for a “certain amount of immersion in local culture,” explains JT Hilliard, who was a student there and is now responsible for the school’s marketing and communication. “We offer very strong transitioning and support systems to help newcomers feel at home in Vienna and integrate into local society,” he says.

ian piper
Ian Piper has been director of the Danube International School for seven years and stresses how important it is for third culture kids to spend time with locals in their country of residence.

Stranger in a strange land

Expat kids get used to an adaptation period when moving from place to place. But for some, real alienation only sets in when they return to the one thing they have never truly known – the home country of their parents.

“It was absolute, complete culture shock,” says Naomi Hunt, who moved to the US after finishing school in Vienna and found her supposedly “native” country absolutely foreign.

“One of the reasons I wanted to go to school in Boston was that I had heard it was a more European city. But when I went it was like another universe. I was unable to connect with Americans my age – I didn’t know the [cultural] references they talked about, I don’t know about American sports. I had nothing.”

The very first friend she made was someone who had also been to an international school abroad.

Decoupling from the orbit of international schools was painful, agrees Emily Busvine, who grew up in Germany, Poland and Russia. Her British dad and Austrian mother had thought it would be easy to come back to Vienna and send the kids to the prestigious Theresianum, a Viennese Gymnasium serving the Austrian diplomatic and intellectual elite.

“In a lot of ways, I felt slightly out of place, and there were a number of times when I wished that I were in a different environment,” she says today. Arriving in the third year, at age 12, the other kids already knew each other, and it took a while for her to fit in.

“One aspect of the Theresianum that I struggled with was that many of my friends did not quite understand my background, and found the ways in which I interacted with people slightly strange,” Busvine says. “Having grown up in an environment where it was very common for people to move frequently, I have a habit of throwing myself into friendships quite quickly; I think people were taken aback by that.”

Life after school

Even though connecting to people outside the expat bubble might be harder for TCKs, few regret their special upbringing. Going out into the world, they are equipped with language skills and cultural knowledge that put them ahead of most of their non-expat peers.

It is therefore no  surprise that third culture adults want to provide the same experience for their own children. “I would certainly consider it, if I can afford it,” says Naomi Hunt. “It’s a fantastic education.”

And it’s not only stimulating, but can also be a career booster. “You send your kid to international school, or any sort of elite school, because you hope the networks will serve them well in their professional lives,” says Hunt.

Many international schools pride themselves on having strong alumni networks spanning the globe. An anniversary event at VIS in 2014 attracted over a thousand former students from places as far away as Buenos Aires, reports Director Peter Murphy.  “They have a powerful attachment to the people they grew up with.”

For third culture kids, feeling at home in one place is replaced with being rooted in a community that is ever-moving. One that congregates at various points on the globe at different times in a child’s life.

With today’s population traveling and migrating more than ever, this experience could become increasingly universal, and more people may find their lives becoming like that of the third culture kids – not just a phenomenon of expat communities, but the global citizens of tomorrow.