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Inside the mind of ‘third culture’ kids

Expert psychologist goes into the pros and cons of UAE children growing up in a culture other than that of their parents

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Animation by Dorski B. / © XPRESS

Dubai: A Moroccan man and his Dutch wife in Dubai are often at loggerheads as they both have strong belief systems which they feel their only child should imbibe. While the man values religion and is an emotional character, the woman is non-religious, rational and tries to suppress her emotions. Both met in the UAE and got married. They speak in English, stick to their own cultures and make little effort to understand each other’s traditions. Their families have no contact.

Elsewhere in the UAE, a young Syrian woman who has seen her native place crumble to pieces, has been diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. On the one hand, she misses her true identity and the culture associated with it. On the other, she wants to assimilate new values that would liberate her from the past. The tearing conflict in her mind is something she finds hard to resolve.

In a third household, an Emirati mother is facing difficulties with her children. She sent them to an international school but finds them too westernised now. She often pulls them up and this leads to stress and arguments at home.

Situations like these abound in the UAE, says Dr Fabian Saarloos, clinical and health psychologist at the German Neuroscience Centre.

As someone who works closely with such families, he has some rare insights into what he calls the ‘third culture’ and the psyche of kids who are part of it.

“I too am a third culture kid. Third culture kids refer to children raised in a culture other than their parents’ original culture,” says the Dutchman who grew up in the UAE.

 Obviously multiple languages and cultural environments lead to a more complex experience of the world and thus, the self or identity.”

 - DR FABIAN SARLOOS, CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST

 

Different influences

Now is that good or bad? Largely good, but there’s a downside too, is the answer.

As Dr Saarloos points out, “Such children are fortunate to be exposed to different cultural influences. Depending on their upbringing and the fluidity of boundaries between cultures, they can combine and create a new culture (i.e. the third culture). Obviously, multiple languages and cultural environments lead to a more complex experience of the world, and thus the self or identity. The pro is obviously uniqueness, they are not the same as their counterparts from the original or host culture. They are more flexible, adaptive and thus find it easier to adjust to changing environments. From a social or even a professional perspective, this is a great advantage.”

On the downside, however, Dr Sarloos said, “This complexity in the brain can sometimes lead to conflicts, or even neurological overstimulation and psychological disorders like depression, anxiety, identity and personality disorders.”

Deficiency

According to him, “Not belonging 100 per cent to either/or culture can be difficult for some people if they over-analyse it and focus on their deficiency or what they think they would miss, in particular if they want to belong 100 per cent to some group. Naturally, growing up in a different environment from the original culture/nation leads children to missing out on certain experiences, and thus sets them apart from their counterparts, which in the case of “going back home” can be difficult as they cannot smoothly integrate with and assimilate from the leading culture.”

Then again, he said, thanks to globalisation, there are always alternative avenues for them to seek out and try to fit in. “Plus, if individuality is stimulated or preferred (as for example in Netherlands it is valued to “be yourself”), then the created third culture can be quite an asset.”

Animation by Dorski B. / © XPRESS

Another key component of a person’s identity is language and intercultural communication. Dr Sarloos said, “The frontal part of the brain where our consciousness lies starts growing when a language is learnt from the age of three. Language, besides creating a neural network, comprises the words we use to give expression to our experience of the world.”

Role of language

According to him, identity refers to our dispositions and attitudes that make us what we are. “It comes from the Latin word for “sameness” and thus it also implies that we continuously look for something to associate or “identify” with in order to create stability and continuity in our lives. Language then, by its words and grammatical structures etc, shapes our experience and our expression of it, and how it is stored in our brain. If you don’t have a word for something you cannot express it and so neurolinguistically it does not exist.”

Dr Sarloos illustrates the point with several examples (see box) and infers how, thanks to the nuances of language, Arabs are more focused on the social and the collective, while Westerners are more egocentric and focused on the self.

He said the benefits of growing up in a third culture outdo the minuses and there are many ways one can consciously avoid misunderstandings and conflicts that can arise out of third culture issues. Referring to the case of the Moroccan man and his Dutch wife who have problems with rearing their child, Dr Sarloos said, “The solution is to learn more about each other’s culture and also pick up each other’s language. The woman can make an effort to learn Arabic while the man becomes familiar with Dutch. It’s a starting point to creating some stability for themselves and their child.”

Third culture kids must accept the fact that they are separated from the native culture and be open towards the host culture. They should be tolerant and understand cultural differences and focus on the similarities. “They should see what they can learn from the host culture, and what you can integrate in your own home/family, try to learn the local language, and customs while follow celebrations/customs from the home country and invite others to participate. Parents should speak their native tongue at home with their children. They should accept that the kids are growing up in a different time and environment and stimulate them to expose themselves to different perspectives.”

How language shapes your personality and behaviour

Socialisation within one language leads to a different experience of the self and the world, according to Dr Sarloos. “In the case of English, it’s a more individualistic one, and in the case of Arabic, it’s a more interrelated one.”

 The frontal part of our brain where our consciousness lies starts growing when a language is learnt, usually from the age of three."


Giving an example, he points out how the concept of ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘my/mine’ in English denote the self and its sense of relationship. “In Arabic, there is no such differentiation, you have ‘Ana’ (I), which you hardly use however and you just assume it and integrate it into the verb, with ‘-i’ as a suffix referring to a relationship (not necessarily a personal one, it’s just indicating that the word has a relationship).”

At the macro level too, Dr Sarloos said, “Arabs in general are more focused on social behaviour and the collective, while Westerners are more egocentric and focused on the self.”

“Take the example of the word ‘love’. It exists as noun and verb in English. So you can feel love but you can also love someone. In Dutch, we only have it as a noun, but if we want to say that we love (verb) someone we actually say ‘I hold you’, which gives a different sense. In Arabic, there are 99 words for love and all come with different emotional/sensational/cognitive nuances, so the experience of love in an Arab context is different. This impacts multicultural interactions.”

Tips for third culture kids

•  Accept being separated from the native culture and be open towards the host culture
•  Be tolerant, understand cultural differences and focus on similarities
•  See what you can learn from the host culture, and what you can integrate in your own home/family
•  Learn local language, customs and make friends
•  Follow celebrations/customs from home country and invite others to participate
•  Speak your native tongue at home with your children
•  Stay connected to your own culture through organisations, groups etc.
•  Don’t compare yourself to others in the native culture or subjects of host culture. Expat experience gives you a chance to create a unique culture and integrate the best of both.

YOUSPEAK

Are you a third culture kid? What are the main challenges you face?

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