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The Harbour School Principal, Christine Greenberg discusses the role school played in her experience growing up as a Third Culture Kid 


According to Vicki Labiri, referencing Dr. Ruth Hill Useem, “mother” of the term Third Culture Kid (TCK), and her work from the 1960s, a TCK is an expatriated individual who has grown up  “rooted in the home culture, lived out in the host culture, but in the end, neither fully one nor the other.” 

My father worked in finance which meant we moved every three to four years.  I moved five times from four to eighteen, and attended different international schools, one of them a “top tier” school here in HK. I’ve been in the shoes of many of our students and I’ve experienced what matters to us in terms of school.   

For sure, I’m grateful to be a TCK:  Statistically, we’re four times more likely to be awarded a Bachelor’s degree.  We’re usually born in Hong Kong and move an average of four times between the ages of 5 and 18.  We speak two or more languages.  We’re known to be excellent observers because we’re perceptive, and sensitive and we’re generally more open-minded and less prejudiced.  We’re typically high achievers and we’re used to bridging between cultures because we have multiple frames of reference.  United States President Obama is a TCK and I’ve read that his administration also has many TCKs. There are a wealth of advantages and opportunities, but there are difficulties too. 

The question “Where’s home for you?” confounds us. We belong everywhere and yet nowhere.  Transience makes it difficult for us to commit emotionally to people, schools, experiences.  We can feel powerless and out of control because people that you love and connect with can be taken away that January or the very next June. We struggle with who we are wherever we are.  Whether it’s summer with cousins in your birth country or off with friends traveling in your host country, there’s that perpetual feeling you’re an outsider.  You don’t know the same TV shows, the same music; you don’t even speak the same lingo.  Most interesting is that we experience what David Pollock, author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds calls “unresolved grief” about the people and places we’ve lost along the way, whether they be favourite teachers, best friends, first loves, “Ayihs” or “Aunties”.

My brother and I always knew when we were going to move because my parents would take us out to a fancy dinner and right between allowing us to order dessert and a second Shirley Temple, it would drop:  “We’re moving to [insert new country].” There’d be silence and then a sharp inhale, followed quickly by “But don’t worry you’ll have a bigger room, a better allowance (because of the exchange rate), we’ll be flying first class, get a new car, a club membership…and once, my personal favorite, you can finally get a dog!”  So as a seven or ten or twelve year old processing this, your emotions are redirected- because, let’s be honest, a new dog, a bigger room?  Whose wouldn’t be?  The exciting prospect of new experiences followed by the flurry of moving boxes and lengthy hotel stays for new school or flat hunting are all amazing experiences that distract from appreciating that you’re about to lose everything that has been your world in the last three years.

I didn’t realize how true it was that I had unresolved grief until I was back here in Hong Kong, decades later, this time as a parent.  It was my first year working at The Harbour School.  At the time I was a teacher.  I felt reasonably settled about three of my four children (at the time ages 8, 7, 5 and 3) and I was particularly ecstatic when Maya, my 7 year old befriended a girl named Catherine in her class. Catherine was sweet, imaginative, generous, kind, and best of all for someone without a car, she lived right across the street from us.  Despite the unpacked boxes, the lack of a helper for six months, her mother starting a full time job again, all was right in Maya’s world because of Catherine that September.  

But then January happened and I got a call on my cell phone during my lunch hour from Maya’s teacher.  Maya was under my desk in my classroom refusing to come out.  I went over to see what was wrong and between pinched eyes and quiet sobs, Maya told me that Catherine was moving to Singapore that Chinese New Year.  I coaxed her out, comforted her as long as I could, felt terribly about things, but then dusted myself off and went about my business the rest of the day teaching.  

A month later came soon enough and eventually it was Catherine’s last day.  She came into my classroom where Maya was having a snack and gave us each one of her goodbye cupcakes.  They exchanged hugs, signed photos and addresses and Maya was quiet but otherwise seemed fine.  I thought nothing more of it until later that night when I left the school.  I packed up my stuff for the Chinese New Year holiday and got in a taxi holding Catherine’s cupcake.  Staring at the cupcake in the back of the taxi, I don’t know what came over me but I just began to cry.  All I could think of were all the Catherines I’d lost as a child and I thought helplessly, What in the world have I gotten my daughter into? No sooner than I’d try to stop crying then I’d start all over again.  I got home, mascara all streaky, eyes red, a complete total mess to my husband who opened the door with a very concerned “What happened?” And all I could do was look at him and bawl again, “Catherine’s gone!” Though he tried, he just couldn’t understand why such a thing could grieve me so deeply.  Now I realize that except for some tears at graduation, it was probably the only time I ever really cried about a move and it wasn’t even about me and this was decades after the fact.  So that grief had been inside me, waiting all along.

As someone who has lost many Catherines, I can tell you that in children, even with the best of intentions, resilience and apathy can look the same.  Children usually don’t want to seem ungrateful- yes, of course this is an amazing adventure. Of course it’s a privilege to have friends who are half Peruvian half Greek, to have school trips to Nepal and Australia when other kids are just going to the next county to visit the zoo. But the cost is there and for some, this means a crust called apathy forms- apathy about friends or lack thereof, about school performance, about the future.  Who wants to dig in and get enthusiastic when you’re just losing it all over again anyway?

Why am I telling you this?  What does this have to do with what’s in a good school?

Because all of us live in this wonderful city called Hong Kong, which is home to most TCKs and where schools and schooling is on the top of everyone’s to do list.  Parents feel that kids are sorted once they’re in a “good school”, and I would argue that the common definition of a “good school” especially with such a transient population needs some re-examining.

What possibly could a school with commercial urban premises, a fairly relaxed Admissions policy (THS doesn’t have a serious admissions test because they don’t believe in it?) and a diverse learning demographic offer amidst all the other grander international schools?  Until our new premise, The Grove, opens, THS doesn’t even have its own playground, or pool or basketball court.  Also, there’s a sprinkling of kids with needs mixed in with kids without needs.  How possibly could a school have a curriculum that both stretches and accommodates?

As one who has attended some of those “good” schools, I’ll tell you why:

A good school is honest about the reality that children don’t come in one size fits all packaging and creates a curriculum and system to address this because a good school is one in which every student learns, including the super bright ones. Period.

A good school is one in which every child matters and they and their parents know it. They know it because their teachers adjust their work to make sure they’re learning and reflect to try to figure out why they’re not.  They know it because their teachers and administrators receive feedback with an open ear because they share a commitment to improve as a community on matters both big and small.

A good school is one in which a child who has already lived on three continents, speaks three other languages, but none of them yet English, who needs a year to get his bearings because he doesn’t know where home is or where the next friend or goodbye will be, feels that school is there for you, rather than against you.

A good school prepares you for your future by working patiently with your strengths and weaknesses like family rather than making you feel like you’re forever going to be a permanent benchwarmer watching from the sidelines in life.  It’s not easy to go from one school system or calendar to the next and it’s even more difficult to excel and feel confident at doing this every few years.  Feeling like your teachers understand you’re not a complete utter failure because you’re good in math according to one school, but not in writing according to another school or great at art but not in reading is worth its weight in gold when you’re ten, because here are adults working with all you’ve got at that point in time. Whether there’s an indoor pool or a state of the art basketball court in the picture is really beside the point.

And in each of these qualities, The Harbour School excels.

I do believe our time* will come in terms of brick and mortar surroundings, but brick and mortar surroundings, do not a “good” school make just like they do not a good family make.  Schools are our children’s second families. In fact, most children spend more time in schools than at home with their parents.  When we’re judging parenting, we don’t sit around and say “Oh my gosh, what an amazing parent.  She made sure to pick a flat with a fountain out front and a tennis court in the back.”  We may appreciate the fountain or the tennis court, but we’re more likely to say, “What a wonderful father. He took his daughter and five other screaming nine year olds to their first Taylor Swift concert on the MTR.”  

We readily accept that there are nurturing families living in cramped flats with poor facilities and we also know that there are absent or estranged families living together in penthouses with heated pools and bronze scrolled gates.  What makes a family “good” is about what you do with the time and resources that you’ve got; it’s about how your family handles rough times. It’s about whether your children trust that you’re there for them when they’re falling short and whether you’ve equipped them with enough experiences and pep talks that empower them to work harder and more confidently on their current challenges as you propel them to push further in the areas in which they feel they already succeed.  These are the measures of a good family life which prepare children for a solid future. The house you live in has very little to do with it.  It’s the same with what we have at THS.

So the reason why I work hard at this school is because its mission sits well with me as an educator, as a parent, and as a Third Culture Kid who has attended larger schools with more exciting campuses.  This school succeeds in many ways with far fewer resources, sometimes even where other larger schools have failed. 

*This was written at a time before we were awarded our premise. It was a long seven year wait, but it was worth it. We debut The Grove at Ap Lei Chau this Fall.


Hill Useem, Ruth.  Third Culture Kids: Focus of Major Study: TCK “mother” pens history of field.  TCKWorld.  11 Apr. 1999.  Web.  http://www.tckworld.com/useem/art1.html

Kennedy, Vivi.  “Third Culture Kids- Privileged or Rootsless Global Citizen?” Mommy for Dummy:  We Give Guidance on Survival for Parenting.  19 Sept. 2013.  Web.

Natario, Eleina. Infographic:  The Modern Third Culture Kid. 2011. Infographic. Denizen Mag. Web. http://www.denizenmag.com/2011/09/infographic-the-modern-third-culture-kid/.

Lambiri, Vicki, “TCKs Come of Age” (Unpublished essay).  March, 2005.  Web.  http://www.transition-dynamics.com/pdfs/TCKs%20Come%20of%20Age.pdf

Pollock, David.  Third Culture Kids:  Growing Up Among Worlds.  Boston, MA: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2009.  Print.

Van Reken, Ruth.  “Obama’s ‘Third Culture Team’”.  The Daily Beast. 26 Nov. 2008.  Web.


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