When worlds collide

By Joanna Davies


They call themselves third-culture kids, barely able to recall their birth countries, raised somewhere different and now strangers in a very strange Auckland. Welsh born Kiwi Joanna Davies reports.

Nicole Boyce opens the front door of her city apartment in a character building overlooking a pocket park. The apartment is Miss Boyce's 15th home in 20 years - for now she's settled here while she finishes her degree in international relations, but she is not content with just staying in New Zealand for the rest of her life.

"I think I'd like to have a base here, but there will be lots and lots of travel," she says.

She's already done quite a bit. Born in Britain to American parents, Miss Boyce grew up in Hong Kong and has lived in Auckland since she was 13, first going to school at an international college and then to Baradene College.

"I've got an American accent from my parents but, aside from two months during the Sars scare in Hong Kong, I've never lived there."

Miss Boyce calls herself a "third-culture kid" - someone who has grown up in a culture other than the country of origin on their passport, and then has settled in a third environment - in her case, Auckland.

"I have United States and New Zealand passports, and residency in the UK and Hong Kong," Miss Boyce says.

"I've pretty much given up trying to explain to people where I'm from and form an identity for myself.

" If I'm meeting someone for the first time I tell them I'm from America because of my accent, but if I meet them again I'm more likely to explain my background."

Well-travelled young people are becoming more common in Auckland, and migration sees many more arriving as adolescents, growing up here but not feeling like they completely belong in either their country of origin, or their new home. Miss Boyce finds it difficult to identify with American culture. "I feel like the only real American things about me are my accent and the way I cook.

"When I visit America, a lot of people mistake my accent for English or Canadian. I've given up trying to define an identity for myself, and explaining it to other people can take so long."

Miss Boyce has been in Auckland for seven years and says she is now more settled than she has ever been but still can't quite call herself a Kiwi.

"Because I grew up in Hong Kong and speak Chinese Mandarin I feel like I identify with that culture more, but people get surprised if I tell them I'm Chinese," she says.

"I think that a move away from nationalism can only be a good thing. Third-culture kids are very sympathetic to other cultures and are interested in connecting and encouraging understanding, and that is something that New Zealand should embrace."

But settling in Auckland is not always easy, and Miss Boyce knows of young people who find it hard to find their place. "My flatmate found it baffling that I've lived in so many places and gone to seven different schools, because he's never gone overseas before.

"I think a lot of it has to do with a fear of differences."

In a busy Mt Eden cafe, a group of teenagers and those in their early 20s push two tables together. This is the first time many have met. But, as third-culture kids, they already have one thing in common - a long list of nations and cultures to describe their identities and where they come from.

One university student has his name on several passports and residency certificates. Another left New Zealand when he was young and grew up in India, and is now back here to start studying. Many are children of missionaries and company executives, moving around the world because of their parents' jobs.

Emmy Henderson, who organises meetings for third-culture kids to get to know each other, was born in New Zealand, moved with her parents to Tanzania when she was 11, and then went to boarding school in Kenya.

"My mum is a school teacher and my dad is a farmer and when they went to Tanzania to work, I went with them," she says. "I came back to New Zealand for uni and I found it very hard to connect with other New Zealanders.

"I found the way Kiwis hung out together very uncomfortable and that conversations were quite superficial, which is something that I wasn't used to. I found it really hard to know what to talk about.

"I also didn't play sport, and that is such a big part of the Kiwi culture that I wasn't involved with. And that some Kiwis seem a bit ignorant of other cultures. On my passport it says that I'm a New Zealander, but I remember feeling so isolated and a sense of being very disconnected."

Miss Henderson believes it is common for third-culture kids to feel unwelcome when they have to adjust to a new culture, even in Auckland where people are generally welcoming.

"I think a lot of third-culture kids find some closed-minded attitudes when they move to a place, which can be hard when they've had a varied upbringing."

Miss Henderson is organising Auckland's third-culture kids meetings through Facebook.

"It's not just me who has gone through this. A lot of other people who are the children of migrants have a very similar experience. We want to make a place where these people can meet and make friends and share those experiences."

Her definition of what makes a third-culture kid is very broad. "For me, a third culture kid is someone who doesn't completely identify with their passport nationality," she says.

"That can be someone who has grown up between many different countries, or someone who migrated with their families when they were young enough to have significant memories of where they were brought up, even if they don't identify with that culture completely."

Also at the cafe table is Alistair Kwun, born in Hong Kong and raised in New Zealand. Through his work as a communications adviser for the NZ Chinese Association, Mr Kwun has met many young people settling in New Zealand for the first time, or coming back here after several years away.

"It's hard to quantify how many third-culture kids there are in Auckland but, with immigration, it is increasing. They are culturally fluid, they might speak several languages, and they are highly educated.

"They have a different vibe from people who haven't moved around as much - you can tell them apart in a crowd."

But Mr Kwun says some third-culture kids can feel disconnected from their peers as they struggle to figure out their identity. "Someone might have a French passport but was raised in several different countries, or several passports, or maybe no citizenship at all, and it can be hard to define an identity."

At AUT University, senior social sciences lecturer Camille Nakhid says a major challenge for third-culture kids is being uprooted from their peers at an age when friends are important.

"If you are 14 or 15, social interaction is very important and strong. If you are someone who has moved from one culture to another, being accepted by your peers is very important, and it does not always happen. That's why a lot of migrants and third-culture kids form their own social groups, because they need to feel some sort of belonging.

"It is different for adults who have chosen to move because they are often moving for work, and their employment and colleagues provide social interaction and fill that void."

The next major challenge for third-culture kids is their self-identity. Dr Nakhid says it would be wrong to expect a person to only identify with only one culture. "These young people will grow up taking different aspects of different cultures with them, and it is not for us to force them into accepting the culture of their parents' countries.

"There is a lot of pressure for people to define their cultures. But identity is a very personal thing and we can't say to someone they should completely embrace a new culture either if they have been raised in many cultures."

Back at Miss Boyce's apartment, she shows us through the foyer.

"The entrance really gives the apartment a New York feel, and I really like it here. I will probably stay in New Zealand until I finish studying, but keep doing as many trips as I can.

"There is so much to see in the world and I don't want to miss out."

 Who we are

A third-culture kid is someone who has spent considerable  time in one or more cultures different to that stated on their passport. Even if they move between places easily, they  may struggle to adjust to living in their passport country again. In Auckland, a third-culture kids' group - for teens and adults - is organising meetings for people to get to know one another. Search "New Zealand Third Culture Kids" on Facebook for the group.

 

 

- The Aucklander

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