Hong Kong-based third culture children face stresses and strains of being on the move
Originally published at the South China Morning Post on July 2, 2016.
Ksenia Rodionova couldn’t speak a word of English when her family moved to Hong Kong from Russia. She was just eight years old.
After enrolling in an international school, it took her three years before she could communicate freely in English, and a couple more before she could read fluently and begin to assimilate into the local culture.
Now a 25-year-old primary school teacher working in the city, she is a thriving example of one of Hong Kong’s many “third culture kids” – a term used to describe individuals who have spent a significant part of their formative years outside of their parents’ culture.
“I have learned that ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ are loose terms and it is hard to define them,” Rodionova said. “I had a bit of an identity crisis at one point, but got over it and became comfortable with my new identity – Russian-born, Hong Kong-raised.”
In the wake of globalisation, living abroad or studying in a foreign cultural environment during childhood has become increasingly common as more people embrace transient lifestyles. The rise of third culture children has sparked discussion on the pros and cons of such experiences, and the ways they can shape one’s character.
A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine has linked moving homes at a young age to a number of adverse outcomes later in life.
After analysing data from records of people born in Denmark from 1971 to 1997, researchers found that those who moved during childhood had a higher risk of suicide, criminality, mental illness, substance misuse, premature mortality and more.
Those who moved during their early adolescent years were more likely to experience negative outcomes, particularly if they moved multiple times between the ages of 12 and 14. Those who moved at age 14 doubled their risk of committing suicide by the time they reach middle age.
“The findings may not apply universally beyond Denmark, although it seems likely that they are relevant to other Western societies with similar drivers of residential mobility,” the study said. Although the study took into account families’ psychiatric history and income, it did not incorporate data on why they moved.
Amanda Oswalt Visher, director of child and family therapy at the Hong Kong-based Jadis Blurton Family Development Centre, said that moving during early adolescence could exacerbate the anxieties that come with transitioning into a young adult.
Yet because pre-teenagers are also more malleable, such experiences may help them meet their potential and push them to become more independent and open-minded.
“[The problems] I’m seeing are more due to family dynamic issues than moving. It’s parents who push, parents who have high expectations or don’t let kids be independent,” she said. “Hong Kong is pretty cut-throat whether you’re in finance or fifth grade. It’s a very rigorous city with a lot of high expectations.”
Parents should allow their children to foster a sense of continuity and control over the situation, for instance by giving them information about the move in advance, giving them time to say goodbye and involving them in important decisions like choosing schools, she added.
Sheridan Telford Po-yee, a 24-year-old Canadian-American who has lived in five cities around the world including Hong Kong, said she did not regret constantly moving during her childhood and characterised it as one of the best opportunities parents could provide their children.
Although she faced some challenges adjusting at times, she was able to develop close friendships quickly at each new location, which she said helped ease transitions.
“It definitely allowed me to be more open minded to different cultures. I’m not afraid of change,” Telford said. Born in Hawaii, she has also lived in Florida, Vancouver, Hong Kong and New York. “I don’t like staying in one place. I love new challenges and new adventures.”
Saying goodbye to friends was hard, but her transient lifestyle meant she had a high possibility of seeing them again, she said.
Since Hong Kong is a global and constantly evolving city, third culture children find many people with similar experiences and backgrounds. But the constant changes can also be detrimental, Oswalt Visher said.
“They have difficulties forming new friendships because their heart is breaking over the last one,” she said.
Calvin Hudson, a 26-year-old local who moved to Britain for five years when he was 16, said that adjusting to a less urban environment and trying to make friends with people who didn’t understand his background were his biggest challenges.
“Everything seems stable ... and suddenly you move. You just have to start over again and it’s tough,” he said.
There were disadvantages to constantly moving but they were outweighed by the advantages, said Katherine Volk, a 24-year-old American who has lived in Hong Kong, Dubai and Britain.
“Sometimes when you say you’ve lived in all these places, people will have an automatic judgment that you’re rich or spoiled,” Volk said.
“Many of us will never live down the street from our relatives or friends we’ve known for a lifetime that don’t move away. [But] I don’t think it’s a bad thing to miss someone or something – it’s good that you had the opportunity to experience it.”
For Rodionova, the early years she spent in Hong Kong were extremely challenging and the experience has caused her to struggle with forming strong emotional connections with others. Despite still being unsure about whether the move was right for her, she said she was happy about where and who she is now.
“I can definitely relate to feeling depressed in my earlier years. I have developed some insecurities and fears,” she said. “[But] I have learned to adapt to new environments and be comfortable with the feeling of discomfort. I think it’s okay to have more than one place you identify with, and I’m proud of my identity.”