Families live international lives for a host of reasons – parents’ employment opportunities, a chance to give their family an ‘international’ experience, the desire to break away from the norm for an adventure.
Whatever the reason may be, all families will at some point consider the impact living ‘abroad’ will have on their children and their identity. ‘Identity’ is a multifaceted thing that transcends one’s nationality. Our identities are a dynamic combination of psychological traits, socially-acquired characteristics and predetermined circumstances such as gender, culture, roles, religion, social relations, community membership and nationality.
Living an international life that traverses different cultures and identities exposes the fluid and multiple nature of our identities. We are not just one thing. We are not just ‘English or Malaysian’, ‘sporty or academic’, ‘musical or scientific’; we are a combination of multiple identities that give our lives meaning and make us who we are.
The children of expatriate families have commonly been known as Third Culture Kids (TCKs) – children who grow up in a country (or countries) other than their parents’ country of origin. Even children who are nationals of the country in which they attend an international school (Cross-Cultural Kids) contend with fluid – and potentially confusing – identity issues as they manage often quite different cultural experiences each day, as their school and local communities might differ.
Parents and international schools have significant roles to play in supporting their children to make sense of their international and cross-cultural identities. They need to be open and accepting that ‘loss’ will be a feature of their lives in a way that it might not if their family was not based internationally.
This loss will come from people and experiences that are constantly moving – a key defining experience of the international and expatriate life is constant movement. Movement of people coming and going; moving experiences which can create that feeling of ‘loss’. Supporting children and their families to understand the reality of this loss and its importance in their ongoing narrative is key to their fluid identities being healthy.
Mariella Vittetoe-Castillo, Head of Counselling at Garden International School in Kuala Lumpur, said, “Living internationally can offer a rich, multifaceted experience for our children and families as long as we engage with the inevitable change and the resulting loss, and accepting that much of this change will form who we are and who we become. Schools such as ours work constantly with our families to support them in understanding this – ensuring that that we don’t avoid the awkward nature of loss, and to celebrate the fluid nature of the international identity.”