Let's assume that after substantial consideration, you decide to accept the overseas assignment. Are the problems associated with miscommunication in cross-cultural interactions your only major obstacle? No. As strange as it may seem and as ironic as it may be, the major obstacle for many expats is the family. When an American accepts a foreign assignment, knowing how to properly present one's personal best is certainly important. It is just as important to make sure that the spouse and children are properly settled into their new surroundings. Although you may have been hand-picked for this plum foreign assignment and on the "fast track" with your company, you wouldn't be the first expat whose "fast track" career was quickly slowed by a dissatisfied family wanting to go home. In order to avoid your going from company comet to crushed soul, you, your family, and your employer must plan and work toward a successful experience together.
I wish we could adapt as well.
One of the most important family concerns you will need to address is how the overseas assignment will affect the career of your spouse or partner. A survey of 120 international companies prepared by Windham International and the National Foreign Trade Council found that 88 percent of the companies surveyed acknowledge that in overseas assignments, the issue of the spouse's career can be difficult to resolve. According to the survey, 46 percent of the spouses are forced to give up careers they pursued in the US. You and your partner may have gone to college together or met while working for the same company at the same level. Now, one of you has been offered a promotion that requires a move at the expense of the partner's career. Obtaining a work permit for the trailing spouse is often difficult. Without a work permit, a career is usually put on hold. It's like a competitive athlete sitting on the bench, not because he isn't good enough, but because forces beyond his control have taken him out of the game. And as if that's not bad enough, the competition on the field of play may be of second-team caliber. Needless to say, the trailing partner who wants to stay in his or her profession and has the necessary skills has a tough decision. Taking off for a few years may erode confidence, contacts, and skill level. If you're out of the game too long, you're corporately old before your time and may never get back in at the competitive level. Going it on your own as a consultant or other practitioner is an option, but a difficult one to pull off. Is it fair that one partner should take a back seat? The partner coming out second-best may obviously have resentment. In many situations, spouses and partners will give up a career only to spend their time in a leased house, far from home, and without the benefit of some type of support. Most of them are women: 90 percent of expats in the survey are male and 78 percent are married. For some spouses, the opportunity to live abroad offers enough to compensate for what they leave behind; others want to stay employed and will find the strain of inactivity and isolation very trying.
Your partner's full moral support is critical to the success of your endeavor, and conversely, his or her unhappiness abroad will make your job very difficult. Before accepting the assignment, you and your partner need to discuss this issue frankly and thoroughly, considering carefully what your personalities and needs are and exploring the options available. You might consider the following questions:
While you are negotiating your new assignment with your company, you should explore options for your spouse. Find out whether the company has any kind of compensation package for the trailing partner. Ask whether the company can provide a benefits package that includes continuing education or special travel arrangements for your spouse. Ask your company to help you arrange a work permit for him or her. Culture Shock! Successful Living Abroad, A Wife's Guide is a useful resource in planning for and living abroad as a spouse.
One of the more interesting stories of a partnership involves the "praying hands" sculpture. Two young men wanted to be sculptors but had no funds. One partner gave up his desire to become a sculptor to support his friend. The sculpture we see today is of the hands of the friend who worked to provide the necessary funding.
It's unusual for an expatriate to have had experience both as an executive responsible for managing employees for a multinational company and then as the trailing partner looking after a family. Mary Wright has done both and shares the following interesting commentary.
The profile of the expatriate and the trailing family has changed considerably in recent years. Although the majority of senior management continues to be male heads of nuclear one-income families, many high-potential employees, and their families, do not fit the traditional mold. As the demographics of the expatriate workforce and their trailing families change, the factors which determine the success or failure of an expatriate assignment are also evolving. As in the domestic workforce, two income families, wives as primary wage earners and single professionals with "partners," are no longer remarkable. An increasing number of women are being transferred overseas, resulting in more trailing male spouses and partners. And the number of female trailing spouses finding themselves newly unemployed has risen dramatically.
Many multinationals recognize the potential problems involved in transferring one member of a two-income family. They may even be reluctant to consider those candidates who have an employed spouse, fearing a greater likelihood of failure. Their fears may be well founded. A recent employee survey at a major multinational found that a spouse's career was second only to children's education as the most significant obstacle to an overseas posting.
There are, however, many trailing "non-traditional" partners who have not only survived, but thrived, as expatriates. Counter to conventional wisdom, many trailing partners welcome the break from their careers. Those who welcome the break the most are, perhaps surprisingly, often the most established and confident in their careers. They see the break as temporary and they intend to pick up their career or a new or related profession at a later date. The demise of the post-war American philosophy of "one career, one company for life" has encouraged the emergence of a more mobile workforce, which may be well suited to an expatriate's lifestyle and opportunities.
A former fast-track female manager at a Fortune 500 company, now a trailing expatriate, feels it very important that you define your "real" range of opportunities and choices. After a number of overseas assignments where she had changed companies to place her in the same country as her even higher-flying husband, she decided to pursue one of her own long-standing interests. She is now happily pursuing a medical career which is much more location-flexible than her husband's work. Similarly, the male spouse of a senior oil industry executive used the time of his wife's overseas posting to pursue a master's degree in astrophysics, a major change from his previous career in business which he later parlayed into a teaching career.
Another female professional welcomed the break from her teaching career that her husband's overseas posting allowed. Although she has no interest in changing careers, she believes that her time overseas can be well used to further her professional development through post-graduate course work. She comments, "Companies should be looking beyond technical skills when considering employees for overseas postings. There may be a personality type that goes overseas better than others; you had better be pretty flexible." These sentiments were echoed by another trailing spouse, a woman who had previously worked in trade finance on Wall Street. She observed, "You can't try to duplicate your career or life here-that is one of the biggest mistakes I see people make."
Today's information technology has enabled an unprecedented degree of career flexibility. One financial services professional was able to continue to service some US-based clients from London using e-mail. As the world becomes "smaller," many careers are becoming more transportable.
Even those trailing expatriates who have less portable careers can find new avenues of fulfillment during their partner's overseas posting. A senior manager in the health services industry of 12 years and mother of three shared, "I had a dream job, a wonderful nanny; I actually went through a grieving process when I left. But," she added, "we never even considered not moving-it was too good of an opportunity for the whole family." She has since found satisfaction in being able to share more time with her youngest daughter and pursue her volunteer interests. Through membership in a local professional organization she has also managed to stay current in her field.
Unfortunately, multinationals do not always prove as adaptable as the new generation of expatriates. Not surprisingly, the major complaint of the non-traditional expatriate is the lack of flexibility in company benefits. Multinationals have traditionally developed their expatriate benefit packages around a male head of a nuclear one-income family. Major benefits typically include housing, schooling for the children, a car or transportation allowance, a reconnaissance visit to the new country, and annual trips back to the home country. And while most companies recognize that a happy and secure family makes for a more productive employee, they are often not willing to adapt their packages to suit the individual needs of today's expatriated families. Trailing expatriates frequently feel that multinationals offer little or no recognition of the cost the family must bear in giving up one member's income and in some cases, career.
Multinational companies that aspire to excellence in the global marketplace require world-class managers; those managers will increasingly require human resource policies and packages that are responsive to their needs and lifestyles. One approach may be an expatriate package which guarantees benefits for a minimum of two people, regardless of marital or family status. The second person might be a spouse, a non-married partner, elderly parent, or child care provider. This approach would recognize that non-traditional expatriates probably have at least one person in their lives whose welfare is critical to their own stability and hence productivity. Optional add-ons could include education and career assistance for the trailing partner, and child and elder care.
One of the benefits that both non-traditional and traditional expatriate families alike have found extremely helpful are customized pre-relocation seminars. These seminars last one to three days and are tailored to the specific needs and questions of an individual family. Various experts are brought in to meet with the family on issues ranging from the cultural and social norms of the host country to educational and career opportunities for family members. Those who have participated in the seminars agree that they serve to accelerate adjustment and minimize surprise for the whole family.
The reality is that the professional workforce is changing. Dual-income couples, single employees, and single parents are becoming an increasing part of the professional pool. None of these groups fit the "traditional" mold on which most expatriate benefit packages are based. Some of the elements apply; others do not. No policy will cover all eventualities; there must be some guidelines and some limits. Flexibility is a two-way street. There are benefits and costs for both the employee and the multinational, and both should be recognized. Multinational companies that can embrace an attitude of flexibility in human resource management will have access to the widest pool of employees. Those employees who can respond in kind will enjoy world-class opportunities.
The next area of concern, if applicable, is your children. Relocating one's children to a foreign country is not always easy and should be considered at great length. There are a variety of reasons why some expatriates are reluctant to include their children on an overseas assignment. Some children adjust easily to new situations; others decidedly do not. Some children who have been pulled out of their schools and relocated overseas become less than enthusiastic, especially if they are in the critical social years of middle school or high school. If the children adamantly oppose being included in the parent's overseas assignment, then the family is in a difficult situation. You may also be concerned about moving your child to a country in which the health and/or safety conditions are risky, especially if a child has any special medical needs. Career advancement versus the children's well-being is a tough choice. Forcing children to live overseas may create problems that will ultimately have an adverse consequence on the foreign assignment or create problems in your family from which it will be difficult to recuperate. For reasons like these, you might want to explore the option of leaving your children at home with family or friends or in boarding school for the duration of your assignment. Of course, concerns over your children may lead you to decline the assignment. You would not be the first to so choose.
If you choose to include the children on a foreign assignment, there are numerous issues that need to be addressed. Good communication between parents and children during both the planning stages and the assignment is a necessity for the venture to be successful. Culture Shock! Successful Living Abroad, A Parent's Guide provides practical information from an experienced expatriate parent. The author insists that planning and talking and listening will be essential activities for the whole family during this new adventure. She reassures nervous parents that children are much more resilient than adults often think they are and often respond wonderfully to new adventure. Work with these attributes and you will go far
Include your children as much as possible in the decision-making process and in your planning. The more they feel they "own" this venture and have some control in it, the less likely they are to resent it and the more they will participate willingly and even eagerly. Have frequent conversations with each of the children. Try to determine what they are really thinking (not just what you hope they are thinking). Allow them to express their fears and concerns and encourage them to help find solutions to them. Subjects left unsettled will only grow, not disappear. Set aside a daily time to discuss issues.
Do all you can to get your children interested and excited about their new home country. Children need to have a clear understanding of the surroundings that they will encounter in another country, and if the children have a distinct interest in the new culture, then living in another country can be a positive learning experience for them. Researching your new country can not only raise positive expectations but can also provide a fun bonding activity for the family. Make it a family project to find pictures, books, music, stories, food, etc. from the new land, and plan together the fun things you will do while there. There are many, many sources of information available to you and your family for researching your host country. Obvious sources include your local libraries and the embassy of your host country. The Internet also provides a boundless source of information, sounds, and pictures on countries all over the world. There are also a number of sites at which your children can exchange concerns and experiences with other expat children, and this kind of sharing can offer invaluable reassurance. And don't overlook the possibility of direct contact with people from your host country in your home town. Many ethnic groups host clubs, events, and other gatherings that would help all of you become familiar with your host peoples and culture.
Besides enticing them with the new aspects of the country, you might also find ways to assure your children that not all will be foreign and strange in the new country. Help them find out what kinds of things will be familiar to them there. There are a variety of "American clubs" in many cities around the world; find out what is available where you will be. Unless you will truly be living in the "outback," there will likely be an American-style radio broadcast you will be able to hear while there-help them find it. Work with each child's particular interests (soccer, ballet, music, etc.) and help them discover how they will be able to pursue those interests in their new home. Plan with them which of their favorite possessions they will bring with them when you move. Be sure your children know the mailing address of your new home to give to their friends and encourage them to make an address book so they can keep in touch with their friends and family while gone.
Recognizing at the outset that adjustments will need to be made-even with the most carefully laid plans-will help to begin the problem-solving phase. Continual family communication will help to weather the bumps which most certainly will occur. The opportunity to invent creative solutions will be endless. A foreign assignment is a big adjustment. Mishaps can occur out of the blue. It should be apparent that communication skills, parenting skills and good old-fashioned survival skills are all necessities. Don't leave home without them.
Every day in our homeland, we are surrounded by our accustomed necessities of life-food, clothing and shelter. It is possible in a foreign assignment to have material changes in all three of these necessities leading to what is commonly known as culture shock. Waking up in a strange environment, wearing unusual clothing, and eating peculiar food is difficult for adults, let alone children.
The new living quarters may present the first opportunity for personal growth. Getting the electricity and telephone connected may be major accomplishments, especially if you don't speak the language. The location, furniture, color of paint, and decorations may speak of a culture not your own. Living quarters may be smaller, the neighborhood may be cramped for space and far noisier than home. Very likely a language barrier will separate you from your neighbors. Simple errors in language can lead to complex misunderstandings. However, making an effort to communicate may broaden everyone's horizons and add to your cultural awareness
If the children are in an American school, language in school and at home will not be a problem for them. Young children may well catch on to the local language more easily than you since language acquisition is an important part of their cognitive development in childhood. You may find they are teaching you some local vocabulary. Take them with you on as many outings as sensible so they can mix with the local population. Food shopping will be a necessary adventure in the new country. However, the availability and choices of favorite foods may be limited. Encourage your children to try new food, but try not to force the issue. Whenever possible within reason, try to serve favorites if they are available.
The climate in your new location may also differ from home, and a completely different style and type of clothing may be necessary just to cope with the weather. Standards of acceptable clothing may also be quite different in the new location (especially for girls!). Children may need to wear uniforms to school. Blue jeans and sneakers may not be acceptable. Teens seeking to be with the in crowd can make quite a fuss if they feel alienated by their strange clothes. It is more difficult for them to feel accepted and their clothes will definitely be a topic of contention. It will be important to find out just what constitutes the "in" clothing for children and to help them obtain an appropriate wardrobe to the extent that your budget allows. Peer pressure and acceptance at this age are of prime importance to them, particularly at a time when most of their world is strange and new. Help them work through this.
As a family you will also need to pay particular attention to staying safe-for both you and your family. You can't take the safety of the US everywhere you go. Pre-plan if possible for a secure environment both at your new home and on the new job. Getting to and from work, the store, or school can be an adventure in some countries. Security is a must. Food and water may pose unfamiliar health risks that must be accommodated. Other health precautions and/or medications may need to be taken. Make a point to learn what dangers your new home might present, and discuss these frankly with the family (without terrorizing them too much!). Develop safety strategies together and enforce them strictly.
All of these circumstances may combine to make the new assignment a disconcerting situation. Many of the familiar items taken for granted are missing. New pathways need to be created for essential everyday living, taxing the creative capabilities of the entire family. The working partner, who also needs to adjust to a new job, needs complete support from all members of the family, all of whom are struggling themselves. Keep in mind that the adversity will lighten and routines will take the place of the unknown. The family will have the opportunity to work together toward mutual solutions which may be a new undertaking for them.
Even with all of the planning, there is still the possibility that the upheaval caused by the challenges of living in a foreign culture will be strongly felt by both the children and the family. Familiar comfortable items missing in the new location plus the effect of all the new situations can bring about culture shock to everyone. Children will perceive whatever uncertainty and unhappiness their parents are feeling, and this will intensify their own feelings of inadequacy or fear and general melancholy. Pretending that everyone is adjusting well when it just isn't so is unrealistic and may lead to disaster. Everyone's reaction to this transition may combine and magnify the complexity of the situation. However, if the family pulls together, all of this upheaval can be overcome.
Daily communication, along with family problem-solving sessions, will be needed to adjust successfully to the many new situations you are facing. Allow time for discussion of new and unresolved situations while presenting assurances that difficulties can be worked out with cooperation from all. Reward positive solutions and continue to seek answers for the unresolved difficulties. A friend who spent 35 years abroad said he made a family rule early on that every family member must attend dinner at day's end. He required that everyone share their day's experiences, good and bad. He said this little requirement helped bring out many problems before they got bigger. The time spent together as a family, solving problems as a family, will be beneficial to the cohesion of the group and will help create strong family bonds.
The early stabilization of a routine for the family will help everyone feel secure in the new surroundings. Regular hours for meals, school, play, and bedtime will help establish a sense of familiarity and security that will be important to all family members. A schedule will also help to solidify the family as a group, each cooperating and sharing a meaningful place within the structure. There will be enough unexpected confusion from the outside world. The family has to know that within itself, there is order.
Do everything possible to make your time abroad an exciting opportunity. Take time to enjoy some local sightseeing together, and keep a family journal of your experiences and difficulties, your impressions and solutions. Encourage them to get actively involved in the local community if at all possible. Help each of your children find a personal interest in some aspect of the new culture. One might enjoy making a scrapbook of postcards or stamps from the places you have visited; another may want to follow the local soccer team; another child may get interested in studying the local music. The possibilities are limited only by the imagination.
The best expat is the educated expat. Learn as much as you can about the land and people in your new home. Imagine how someone from another country and culture newly-arrived in your home town would go about becoming "American." He would eat at local restaurants, attend regional festivals, learn our sports heroes, our champions of industry, educators of note, etc. You already know most of this information just by having lived there all these years. The same is true of you when you land in a new country (like one of the Pilgrims 300 years ago). The reception party could be hostile or friendly-much depends upon your attitude, approach, and how they perceive you. With a few exceptions (and there are some), people are honored by someone's interest in their culture and are eager to share it. Don't be afraid to ask questions or to look foolish. You will almost always be pleased to discover how helpful people can be when you make the effort to meet them partway.
In this context an experienced European executive offers this useful advice: "Balance your friends between expats and local nationals. Most Americans clan together and concentrate criticism of the host country's negative points." Avoid the company of expats who focus their energy on the negative aspects of the foreign experience, and make every effort to meet and spend time with people native to your host country.
Successful expats develop an educational approach to finding out about their new country. The following questions can serve as a beginning for further research for you and your family. These questions represent only a start and can be expanded as you develop your own areas of interest.
At the same time you are helping your children explore their new surroundings, don't forget that they will also need to maintain their connection to home. Encourage them to keep in touch with their friends back home through letters and pictures. Help them find TV and/or radio stations that broadcast American programs and music; take them to American movies from time to time if possible. Help them find ways to pursue some of the same activities they enjoyed at home. Adapting to the entirely foreign takes a great deal of mental and emotional energy. Being able to relax into the familiar from time to time will help them "recharge the batteries" and feel ready to face the new once again. Some final advice along these lines: be sure to bring along a supply of peanut butter!
As you consider the schooling options for your child, you will undoubtedly hear or read about "international schools". For people not involved in international education, the nature of what are termed "international schools" can be puzzling. Most of us go to school within one educational system. It is this experience that forges our educational beliefs. When families first explore expatriate education, they discover a world of differences which often collide with some of the beliefs and values that families hold dear. Robert Findlay, International Education Consultant in London, shares information on issues facing families whose children are educated outside the US.
First we need to dispel some of the myths that surround international schools. The term "international" is confusing. Do we mean the curriculum is international? Are we referring to the teachers in the school? Is it the assessment procedure that is international? Before I can answer these questions we should look at the way in which international schools are established.
Most international schools are set up to serve the needs of a particular group of expatriates working in an overseas location. The founders of such a school generally design the curriculum to reflect the education system of their home country. This accounts for much of the diversity in international education. The many international schools are rooted in the various traditions of the groups they were founded to serve, almost by definition an education system other than that of the host country. The result is that a given international school will relate to a particular national education system. While the students attending the school may be international, the curriculum is usually not. To meet the needs of expatriate communities, international schools tend to base their programs on the education system of the country representing its predominant group of parents.
Let's look at a major city and see how this principle operates in practice. Take London as an example. The largest group of expatriates in London is from the United States. There are six private schools within thirty miles of the center of London. These schools serve an American community of some sixty-five thousand people. In addition to the American schools, there are other expatriate schools serving the French, German, Japanese, Spanish, Norwegian, Greek, and Dutch communities in the London area.
When we look at the American schools in the London area, it is clear that they serve American families and others seeking an American-style education. The core teaching materials come from the States. The standardized tests used in the schools are American and are normed on a US population. The schools are accredited by official organizations based in the US. Most of the teachers are certified in the States. There is little doubt that the schools have their educational origins in the United States.
So are the American schools in the London area simply US schools transposed to the UK or are they distinctly international schools? It is my belief that they are truly international schools. They meet four criteria that almost all international schools have in common.
For parents considering international schools, an awareness of the diversity in international schools is crucial. Parents need to understand the varying nature of the international schools if they are to make the best possible decisions when moving abroad. While London is well served by US-styled international schools, there are many locations in which the international schools' curriculum and teaching styles are based on other educational patterns. A large number of English-speaking international schools are based upon the British system (over 200 worldwide). In the Pacific Rim, both Australia and New Zealand exert an increasing influence. The first international school to open its doors in Saigon has an Australian-based curriculum, while the newest international school in Brunei has drawn its educational inspiration from New Zealand.
Understanding and managing the differences in international schools is the key to ensuring that the family makes a smooth transition to their new location. An inability to consider educational issues can lead to unnecessary failure in the overseas assignment process. For children of school age, school placement is a prime consideration. Whether to place a child in an American, private, parochial, or local school is a decision to be carefully researched. The age, grade level, maturity level, special needs, and interests of the child must all be considered. The school's curriculum, language base, distance from home, transportation to and from, and costs lie on the other side of this equation. A desired balance will help to discourage any unhappiness, resentment, or anger the child may be feeling, and these feelings can easily result in behavioral and academic problems at the new school. As a parent, you have to do your homework to determine whether the school setting is appropriate for your children. Unhappy children can quickly undermine the stability of the foreign assignment. Usually children under the age of 12 adapt more easily to their new school. Children over this age may find it more difficult to adapt to changes, make new friends, compete with peers, and emerge with their self-image and self-esteem intact. Communication among the child, the parents, and the prospective schools during the selection process is of chief importance. Although some bumps will be experienced in the best of situations, the parents must be willing to listen and sort out the seriousness of the child's concerns and be willing to adjust to achieve a satisfactory situation for both child and school. Obviously, clear and open communication among all parties involved will continue to be critical throughout the school year.
Consider carefully the choices you have in your new location. You may first consider the English-based international school at your new post. It will probably be supplied with teachers trained in the States, using texts and tests from the States with a curriculum to match. The students probably will be from families like your own on a foreign assignment. Teachers will have experience working in this international setting and will usually also serve as counselors. As in the States, schools will vary from small to large, sparsely equipped to well equipped. As explained earlier, depending on the original founding group and the current board of directors, emphasis may be placed on specific areas while other areas are lacking. You may find much attention paid to sports and not to the arts. There may be extensive libraries or none at all. This diversity of options may also be due to the lack of overseeing agencies issuing uniform regulations. If you have a specific area that you are interested in having your child exposed to, it is wise to find out whether it is offered.
Keep in mind that in many of these schools, competition can be stiff. Foreign assignments are generally given to upwardly mobile, highly educated, competitive senior executives like yourself with over-achieving families to match. This can present a lot of motivation to a capable student and a disaster to a teen whose whole reputation was built on the football field back home. On the other hand, in many of these schools, class sizes tend to be small, allowing for more individualized attention than many children receive in the States. This can be invaluable for either a highly self-motivated student, or for a child who needs additional academic and/or moral support.
It is possible that well-to-do local families may also place their children in the international school. Their presence in the school system will have an effect on the curriculum of the school. This is an opportunity for your children to be exposed to the local population in a setting of their peers and not just witnessing them in a subservient position. They may learn a smattering of the local language and customs in the process.
Consideration may be given to other school options. International schools featuring the language and curriculum of differing countries may be also available. For reasons of your own, you may want to investigate these prospects. Local schools may also present possibilities. Obviously, there are local schools, for instance in London, where English is spoken. If you want your child to be immersed in a local culture, out of the expatriate sphere, but without a language barrier, such a local school may be a good option. A local school with a different language than your own may be a possibility for a very young child. Older children adapt less easily to learning a new language while trying to learn school lessons as well. Some cities may offer missionary schools which will feature a religious as well as scholastic curriculum. You will need to determine the religion and language base used.
Educating your child at home is also an option both here and abroad. If your children are already participating in home schooling, the transition will be minimal for both you and them. If your foreign post does not offer schooling that meets your needs, then home schooling may be necessary. It is a big obligation and one not to be taken lightly. The age of the children is, of course, a big issue. You may be able to teach addition and subtraction but not calculus. You may need to procure the needed materials; texts, tests, study guides, etc. before traveling to your post. Extended stays may require that you submit goals and results periodically. Home schooling does have the advantage of presenting local cultural events as part of an enrichment curriculum. It also has the function of separating the children from their peers with both positive and negative results. Attendance at school will help the children to acquire friends. If the placement is in an American school, the children will most likely speak the same language and have similar cultures. They could be the children of expats like yourself who are experiencing the same emotions as your children.
A foreign post presents many opportunities for growth for your children. A successful school career is a significant step for your children in the attainment of their goals. As a parent, you are accountable for the choices made regarding their education and you must be ever attentive to this responsibility.
Your children have begun to make friends who inevitably ask, "Where are you from?" If this is your first foreign assignment and the children are old enough to know and remember their home in the States, this question can be answered rather easily. However, as foreign assignments become more numerous and children are born abroad, the question becomes more complicated. It is estimated that there are one-half million children from the US alone in this category. They carry the passport of a country where they may have lived only briefly, or maybe not at all. These children hold great interest for sociologists who see them as the forerunners of an increasingly mobile society in the 21st century.
These young internationals who live with their parents will obviously share the culture of their family, which is their first culture. A second culture arises through the encounters experienced while living among the peoples of a foreign culture ranging from poverty to opulence. The degree of the family's involvement with and attitude toward the local culture helps to shape their values and sensitivity. A third culture then springs from the merger of the first two cultures, creating a child who is internationally mobile with a global identity. This total experience including education, friendships made along the way, participation in local festivals, and learning local languages will influence decisions made over a lifetime. These children will inevitably help to shape the future thinking regarding our attitudes and responsibilities toward our global neighbors. Your children may well end up among this important group shaping our future as a planet.