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Why I Treasure My Experience Growing Up as a Third Culture Kid

My wife and I have recently taken the crazy step of leaving the familiar (jobs, friends, and family) and moving to Italy with our two sons. There are many reasons why we decided to make this jump, but one of the most important to me is that I want our kids to share some of the experiences I was so fortunate to have as a “third-culture kid” (meaning that I was raised abroad). My experiences as a third culture kid shaped how I see the world and how I see myself.

Being a Third Culture Kid Gave Me Unique Childhood Experiences

I lived overseas from ages three to eighteen in Spain and Japan. Although this meant I rarely saw my wonderful extended family, I am extremely thankful for how I grew up and I wouldn’t be who I am today without exposure to other cultures. I love discovering new people, tastes, ideas, and experiences and I know much of this passion comes from falling in love with the unknown of other cultures from a young age. I have a “Spanish mom” in a little village outside of Madrid who still chides me for losing the perfect Castillian accent I had as a kid. I attempted to topple a star sumo wrestler who visited my elementary school in Okinawa, Japan (along with other courageous second graders who were brave enough to don revealing sumo mawashi in front of their giggling classmates). I hid in a small red Renault from large bulls running through a Castilian village with my “Spanish dad,” Manolo. And now, I’m excited to see what kind of adventures my kids will treasure about their childhoods when they are grown men.

My Early Childhood in Spain Cultivated a Sense of Wonder and a Thirst for Discovery

Negotiating a totally new culture and environment as a young child was intimidating. It was also an adventure. Soon, the discomfort of not being able to express myself and understand things around me transformed into wonder about all the newness I was experiencing. I didn’t know it at the time, but in Spain I was living an experience that was extremely unique for an American kid - and is now rare even for Europeans. I lived in a little village called Camarma de Esteruelas, with a population of around 600. It was an agricultural town where shepherds would still lead their flocks through town when coming down from the hills. We were quickly adopted by our Spanish landlords, Leli and Manolo, and their three children who would become my playmates and Spanish teachers. Manolo was a Spaniards’ Spaniard, with greyhounds and horses and who wore a Spanish gorra with distinction. Leli was and still is an amazing cook and the two ran the most happening bar and restaurant in Camarma, Bar Casa Manolo. I was literally raised by a village and ran around that little gem with a freedom that most American kids would never know, even in the eighties. Leli and Manolo accepted us as family and introduced us to so many new things and people. They gave us a glimpse of what it meant not only to live in Spain, but to be Spanish. It was intoxicating to me as a child. Having churros y chocolate with friends on a cold day. Playing “bullfight” with my “Spanish brother,” Juan Manuel, using a wooden board in the shape of a bull’s head with real bull’s horns attached. Delicious picnics in the countryside. Swimming in a little makeshift swimming pool in the courtyard of the bar to escape the summer heat… but having to watch out for the avispas who wanted a taste of the water. Waiting for the Tres Reyes to come through town on their horses and hand out presents to the children on Epiphany. I remember riding through ancient olive groves and exploring countless castles, imagining what it would be like to be a knight. On one trip through the country, I wanted hot steamed milk on a cold morning. The owners of the bar we stopped at didn’t have any milk at the moment, but they insisted on milking a cow so I could have my milk. We took many paseos (walks) where elderly Spanish ladies would hand me candy, completely ignoring the protests of my parents. I loved those ladies. I remember colorful parades where I had no idea what was going on. On one occasion Leli saw that I was scared and, being Leli, took the initiative to take me to one of the “giants” I was afraid of (men on stilts in traditional costumes). She promptly lifted up the man’s costume to show me it was just a man on stilts and not a monster. All this discovery made the world feel like it was full of adventure and potential. It also made me less afraid of the unknown. New people and experiences became opportunities to learn about the world, not scary things to avoid. It is important to me that I instill this value in my kids, especially concerning people. We don’t have to agree with everyone or everything, but we can learn from everyone. People, as “unique” as we can all be, are a mystery to be uncovered, not something to be feared because we are different or unknown. We want our kids (and ourselves) to be bold enough to welcome and befriend those who are different from them.

Being "Different" is an Important and Valuable Learning Experience

In Spain, and to a lesser extent in Japan (because we lived among so many other Americans) I was the one who was different, not my friends or neighbors. I had to overcome people not understanding what I was saying. I had to learn how to accomplish things in a different cultural context with different rules and values. I believe that this helped me develop compassion for those who are different in my own culture, because, to at least a small extent, I’ve walked through some of the same things they have. Our kids are learning this now. They are in their third week of Italian school, struggling to understand what is going on around them and are the foreigners in class. They are in a safe and inviting environment, but their little minds are working overtime to learn not only the language, but how to interact with different children in a different culture with different games and toys and different schedules. Our sons will reap rewards not only for eventually learning the language and culture around them, but also for learning what it feels like to be different and overcoming the discomfort it can cause. I pray that this learning translates into compassion for the "different" people they will encounter throughout their lives.

Our Kids Are Already Being Shaped by Their Third Culture Experiences

Now I get to watch as my children live out their own experiences. The kids are rock stars with the older women in our town, who can’t help but comment on how cute they are. Riding scooters in the piazza is becoming a regular form of play. Hopping on trains to visit other cities is becoming commonplace to them. Our three-year-old’s favorite food is ćevapčići, a Balkan meat dish we discovered while in Croatia. Recently we missed the train to take our five-year-old son to the Lego store in Bologna, so we just hopped on the next train to Venice instead. (He loves boats.) I’m still trying to process that this is even possible for us, but it is becoming part of the “normal” of my kids’ very extraordinary lives that I believe they will grow up to appreciate when they are old guys like me. They don’t realize it now, but these experiences have vastly broadened what they believe is possible for them. Five months ago they would not have thought visiting a castle on the weekend was really an option for them, but now it's an adventure we can all share as a family. I hope my boys will be as thankful for their experiences as I am for mine and that these experiences play a role in forming them into open minded, adventurous, and compassionate people.

We Want To Make Cultural Education Accessible to ALL Kids!

Not everyone has the opportunity to move to another culture, or even to travel internationally. That’s why my wife and I created Little Explorers Big World. Children can still learn from different cultures without being immersed in them, especially in an increasingly small world. Exploring cultures with kids gives them the opportunity to learn the ways that others around the world are different from and similar to them. Learning about cultural differences can inspire wonder and a desire to discover more about the world. Learning about similarities between cultures can make the unknown approachable. As children explore the tastes, sounds, sights, and traditions of other cultures, they can expand their sense of wonder and compassion from their own home or classroom.

If you would like to start exploring world cultures with your children from home, subscribe to Little Explorers Big World for FREE access to printable lesson plans. If you would like to follow our adventures as we adjust to life in Italy, you can follow us on Instagram at @doppioornothin.

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