Always Home

When he was 4, Michael Portegies-Zwart asked his mother, Carolyn, the question that all parents dread: "Where do I come from?" But instead of reaching for the anatomy books, she pulled out the atlas. "[I'm] from the United States, your father is from Holland and you were born in Vienna," she explained. The young boy looked at her quizzically. "Yeah, but where am I from?" he pressed. She shrugged, not quite knowing how to respond. Three years later, the family moved to Rome for his father's job with the United Nations. After living there for nine years and attending international schools, Michael, now 19, finally figured out the answer: "I'm from the world," he says.

Portegies-Zwart is part of a burgeoning community of nomadic kids who are growing up globally. Called third-culture kids--or TCKs--these children of diplomats, aid workers, missionaries, military personnel, journalists, academics and business executives are being raised in a culture that lies somewhere between their parents' native one (the first culture) and that of the country where they are based (the second culture). Unlike immigrant children, they have no intention of staying long in the host country; expat families are transferred as often as every two years. And many TCKs live in privileged situations, with subsidized housing and private schooling, creating a distance between them and neighborhood youth. As a result, TCKs tend to integrate well, but never fully penetrate the local culture.

Increasingly, they are finding comfort in numbers. Global changes--an increase in humanitarian-aid programs, the expansion of multinational corporations, larger embassy staffs and ongoing military activity--are steadily increasing the number of expatriate families. American passports issued in foreign countries have nearly doubled in the last decade, from 3.6 million to more than 7 million. The number of British citizens who live abroad has also risen, from 8.6 million to more than 14 million since 1992. A host of new books and Web sites have popped up recently to serve this growing population and their children, beginning in 2000 with David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken's popular guide "Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds." A recent book by Germans Hilly van Swol-Ulbrich and Bettina Kaltenhuser called "When Abroad--Do as the Local Children Do" targets 8- to 12-year-olds and covers everything from re-patriation to saying goodbye to old friends. The Web site deals with specific issues like how to tell the kids you're moving again, and talks about integration and socialization as well as culture shock, grieving and being unable to see grandparents.

All the attention is prompting a dramatic shift in how third-culture kids are perceived. Once thought of as oddball nomads or spoiled dilettantes, children of expats are now more widely viewed as savvy and accomplished sophisticates who are comfortable anywhere. They may grow up playing in the Amazonian jungle or commuting to school on Tokyo's crowded subways. In Rome, which hosts two sets of international embassies (to Italy and to the Vatican) and three U.N. organizations, thousands of third-culture kids zip around on mopeds and play soccer in the piazzas alongside the locals. Most TCKs have firsthand knowledge of everything from world geography and cuisine to high culture and international politics. They learn local languages quickly, are precociously comfortable with adults and mix effortlessly with people of all ethnic backgrounds, says Pollock. All in all they possess an adaptability and a broad-mindedness that is valued more than ever in today's borderless world. "They have much more than a textbook understanding of global culture," says Brigida Randa, a family therapist and guidance counselor at St. Stephens School in Rome, where the majority of the students are TCKs. "What they know best is how to adapt to transition and change."

That knowledge is increasingly translating into successful careers. A recent study showed that 70 percent of Americans who grew up overseas reached higher levels of education and were employed in higher-ranking professions than their peers at home. Two thirds chose to travel or live overseas. Nearly 90 percent of all third-culture kids earn at least a bachelor's degree, and their international upbringings make them among the most highly skilled students on campus. No wonder top universities are actively recruiting TCKs; an informal survey of all the international schools in Rome shows that now every graduating class sends kids to universities like Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford and Stanford. Ten years ago that was an anomaly, says Michael Brouse, director of external affairs at St. Stephens School.

Still, many TCKs never stop feeling like vagabonds. When they return to their "home" or passport country, a place where they generally spend summer holidays, they often feel out of sync. According to Pollock's guide, third-culture kids may be well versed in foreign affairs, but they tend not to have a very patriotic view of home. In a recent survey by the University of Michigan, 90 percent of international TCKs say they can't relate to their home-country peers. Having missed out on pop-culture trends, and even the latest hit television shows, they are lacking a vital social link. For Adrian Weisell, 21, who grew up in Rome, the toughest part of attending college in Ohio was adapting to sophomoric American attitudes. While 18-year-olds in Italy are treated as adults and have been drinking wine for years, he says, his Midwestern peers were heavily focused on circumventing the legal drinking age. When Michael Portegies-Zwart's younger sister, Nicole, chose to attend university back in the United States, she found the differences jarring. "I've adopted the Italian culture; I don't really feel American," she says, in perfect American English. "I'm used to kissing people on both cheeks when I see them. In the States everyone just hugs."

Forging an identity becomes more complicated. "When you ask these kids where they are from, they always respond with a question," says counselor Randa, who grew up in America with a Sicilian father. "They ask: 'Do you mean where I was born or where I live now? Do you mean where my passport is from?' " She believes TCKs are among the most adaptable, empathetic group of people around, but that parents are critical to helping them feel grounded. "Family time is much more important to these kids than to those living in their own country," she says. "The physical home must often represent the entire home country and culture."

More and more employers are recognizing the importance of keeping their expats' children happy, too. Author van Swol-Ulbrich runs CONSULTus, a German firm specializing in expatriate integration. She says that if kids don't adapt to the host culture, it can make life miserable for the whole family--as well as the employer. In one case, she says, the son of a star overseas employee is having such a hard time with the local German culture that the mother wants to take him back home to the United States. But that is the exception rather than the rule. "I feel very lucky," says Nicole Portegies-Zwart. "Sure, it's a weird life sometimes, but that's just the way we are. I wouldn't trade it for the world." In today's global marketplace, growing up in a third culture means always feeling at home.