Young Americans Abroad

Expat Lingo's Young Americans

My Young Internationalists in Yunnan, China

When I was seven, I lived at The Center of the Universe as a Mormon child in the American West.

I lived in Taylorsville, Utah. We rode our bikes to “The Pit,” which was an old sand and gravel mine that our new subdivision of split-entry houses had been partially built over. After riding our bikes over jumps made out of left-over construction debris and catching flying grasshoppers in the long, dry weeds, we’d bike to Circle K to buy candy cigarettes and off-brand Slurpees (7-Eleven, with real Slurpees, was forbidden as it required crossing a major arterial).

We went to church every week. At church, the grown-ups spoke reverently about the Mormon Prophet who lived 13 miles from my house. The annual Mormon General Conference was also held 13 miles from my house. Colonel Sanders franchised his first Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant 10 miles from my house.

I, young Jenny Brown, lived at The Center of the Universe.

Then my family stopped attending church and I came to understand that going to the special store that sold Mormon (under) garments at Fashion Place Mall was not something that everyone in the world did as a normal errand.

We went on vacation to San Francisco and I saw skyscrapers, Chinatown, Chinese people, fresh seafood and public transportation.

Taylorsville shrank to nothing. I knew then that I had to go further.


Since then, I have gone further and I’ve been lucky enough to see a lot. Kentucky Fried Chicken in Kunming, China for example.

My own children have now also seen a lot.

They are American, but have never lived in America.

Their America is perpetually summertime, ice cream and days at the zoo.

My seven-year-old daughter lived three years with the firm belief that she was English. Here in Hong Kong she identifies as American, but she still often asks me how to say things in “Americanish,” which she defines as strictly different from “English.”

My three-year-old son was asked to wear “national dress” to his Hong Kong preschool. Great, he can just wear that red cowboy hat and cowboy boots, I thought.

I displayed the outfit and talked about America, cowboys and horses. He does not like costumes and remained unimpressed: “I Don’t Want To Wear It. I Am Not American!”

My own childish curiosity prodded me to ask: “Then what are you?”

“I Don’t Know!”

Expat kid _

The outfit is meaningless to him. He was born in Cambridge, UK and lives in Hong Kong. It would have meant just as much to him to wear an English Morris Dancer’s outfit, a yellow Bruce Lee jumpsuit or a fuzzy, long-haul airline blanket.

Two questions:

1. What is the “national dress” of the Third Culture Kid who has never lived in his/her passport country?

2. If I was so eager to leave Utah and see the world, why am I dressing my child, who has seen the world, like a cowboy?

A hypothesis: Perhaps it’s simply a sick parent-child cycle. A compulsion to dress our children in “cultural” costumes that have no touchstone in the reality of their day-to-day lives. Exhibit One (soon-to-be disillusioned me, in Taylorsville, Utah, is on the right):

Me and my little brother in Utah dressed as "Indians."

Me and my little brother in Utah dressed as “Indians.”

43 responses to “Young Americans Abroad

  1. Add to the complication when you are married to a woman from yet another country, and so your children are living in a third culture as fourth culture kids.

    This is getting crazy. I think, at the end of the day, that they might just be citizens of the world, as goofy as that might sound.

  2. Airline blanket toga.

    My goodness, how have we dodged this one? By luck (meaning: illness).

    Although, truly, if we had one of these days at school next week I’d have no trouble: P would go in a jetpack because his “nation” is *Mars* and – look, the jetpack costume is from an obscure computer game, I won’t try to explain it – anyway, T would go in the dress we bought for her in India because it’s the only thing she ever wears to any kind of party.

    The national dress of the Third Culture Kid is up for grabs. It sounds enticing, but it’s a strange sort of state to be in, really. Lots of people prefer the comfort of having a more rigidly-defined choice.

  3. “Their America is perpetually summertime, ice cream and days at the zoo.”
    This is true of my 7 year old daughter as well. We left the US when she was 2 1/2, she calls herself American, yet she also feels German.

    Introducing them to other citizens of the world helps. If they have kids around them that are also 3rd culture, they realize that they fit in

    • You’re exactly right. Being around other TCKs makes it all feel rather normal. At this stage, I’m the one who is awe of the oddness of it all (compared to my own childhood) to them it’s no big deal.

  4. I can’t answer for other adult TCKs in their 50s (oops! there goes my age!) but I would say the TCK’s ‘national dress’ might have to be the one from the last place he/she most identifies with … until the next place comes along. Alternatively, like the way I roll, just stick to the decade I’m happiest with (yeah, I know, it’s the Seventies)…

    • I like this fluid, self-selected approach. Next time, I’ll just let the little guy select whatever he fancies, “national dress” be damned. (And since I have the Seventies on my mind now, maybe I’ll influence him toward dressing as Robert Redford as Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men.)

  5. This is a great post! Thank you! I’m a TCK – now ATCK – and I never liked to dress up on international day. I never felt German and will probably never understand the pride of people for their home country. I still recall that one time my mother forced me to wear a dirndl… more than 40 years ago. I never ask my children to dress up in one of their passport-country’s national dresses. Usually they just make a mix of “national-dress-styles”;-) And I’m more than fine with that. – I would really appreciate that international schools would stop with this kind of celebrations. None – or only a few – of the children attending these schools have a realy, profound connection to their passport countries…

    • Good point!. International schools are trying to be sensitive to children coming from all cultures and helping them to celebrate their cultures, but this is one case where it simply doesn’t work for a lot of kids.

      And so interesting that you still remember being upset when your mother made you wear a dirndl. I’ll never force the little guy to wear a cowboy hat again. It was silly on so many levels!

  6. In Austria people wear their national dress or modern takes on it regularly and certainly for important celebrations, so my kids despite having been born in three different countries and lived in two more, they are very happy to wear their Austrian outfits. It gets them attention, photo opportunities and extra sweets…only my twelve year old is starting to think it uncool, just like I did when I was his age. I still wear my Austrian national dress to cocktail parties, weddings, official events and more modern takes on it for work…never over dressed and never underdressed. Plus it holds the stomach in and covers other problem areas nicely. 😉 Maybe it depends on the value that is placed on the national dress in your country of origin?

    • This is very interesting comment. I think you are exactly right that it must depend on how much your home country emphasizes or celebrates “national dress.” Americans are simply too muddled up for it to make any sense. (And now I’m ver curious what the Austrian national dress is like!)

  7. Not really a problem for your children. This world is so globalized now. It probably gives your kids something that others don’t necessarily have – such as another point of view on the other side of the world. I lived in america for years and even naturalized, my root has never been lifted from my home HK.

    • Only a problem if they ever came to wish they had one country to identify as “home.” Sounds like you’ve always identified strongly with Hong Kong.

  8. This is a fascinating post, Jen. As a Kiwi with a very strong sense of cultural identity, I can’t help but wonder how I’d feel faced with this particular challenge…do your kids notice a perceptible difference between themselves and children who do identify with a particular place? Do you think the question of cultural identity will an issue for them when they are older?

    • I’m not sure they’re old enough to notice it, really. Though I will say my daughter more strongly identified as American after we moved to Hong Kong than she did in England. Perhaps because she’s at an international school where kids are constantly talking about where they are from and where they have lived as part of the “get to know you” routine.

      I’m not sure if it’s such as terrible thing for them to see themselves as citizens of the world rather than rah-rah Americans, but only time will tell how they feel about that.

  9. I envy your family’s situation. Sounds crazy to some, but it’s true. Your children are growing up wiser about the world than most. I wish I could get my boyfriend to understand the importance of seeing more of the world at large.

  10. I love your blog, and this post in particular. I feel son’s “I don’t know!”, haha! My sister once described herself as being like scrambled eggs 🙂 Looking forward to reading more, and hope you have a smooth settling into Nederland!

    • The poor little guy has had a very confusing summer as he doesn’t yet grasp where we live now. In a bike shop in Utrecht this morning he was insistent that we live in Hong Kong!

  11. Pingback: The Year in Review-My favorite reads of 2014 | Lehrer Werkstatt·

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