Expat Zone


Marc Levitt Third Culture Stories
Marc Levitt is a writer, award-winning storyteller and educator who has been leading workshops around the world for over 25 years.

In March he was in Istanbul to give workshops as part of the Central & Eastern European Schools Association (CEESA) conference sponsored by the Istanbul International Community School (IICS). During his visit he took time from his busy schedule to talk with Today's Zaman about third culture children, the issues of identity and how parents can help their families cope with change through the art of storytelling.

Kathy Hamilton: First of all, what is a 'third culture kid?'

Levitt: David Pollock defines third culture kids as someone who has spent a large part of their developmental years in a culture other than the parent's. That in turn develops a sense of belonging to all those cultures but not being fully a part of any of them. These are kids who are raised in a cross-cultural, often mobile, world.

I've been working with international schools for about 18 years, but I've worked more extensively with them over the last six years. I began to become intrigued by the phenomena of third culture children and adults because I'm interested in the issue of hybridization. The world is becoming more globalized and that, in turn, is creating more internally hyphenated families.

I'm also fascinated by the immigration experience, so in my broader definition of third culture kids and adults I do include people from mixed marriages, refugees or immigrants. Although there are sizeable differences within those groups, I am fascinated by the way in which people adjust, or don't adjust, to new cultural surroundings and what it means in their internal dynamics.

In a post modern society we are all hybridized one way or another. Third culture kids are a physical manifestation of this. We all have many different characters going on in our heads at once. It's just a part of being alive in the global and digital age. I became interested with this hyphenated person, these third culture kids and adults. The phenomenon is underutilized in schools. They talk about it, but they don't use it as a part of literature. To me it is one of the great topics that these kids can write about. So I set up a Web site to start and try to collect their stories.

KH: Many people think of stories as fiction. Storytelling is often a new concept for parents.

Levitt: Right. I think that is a big part of things that should be done by parents to kids, and kids to parents. Rituals are important. We used to always watch home movies on Christmas. Holidays are a good time for families to sit down and talk about things that have happened to them in the past. This reinforces the bond. The stories are their roots.

Telling stories about family members back home helps kids still have contact with people they love. Use photos, graphs and objects to start the conversations. It's important to make sure they have connections to the culture back home. By exchanging stories and recounting shared experiences a family can reaffirm their own identity. Parents should share their stories of success and failure.

KH: How can parents and teachers help children go through the adjustment periods that are a part of being a third culture kid?

Levitt: Teachers often complain that the kids have nothing to write about and they are not interested in the world. But, like so much of education, people tend to ignore what is in front of their noses and readily available. There is a split between the everyday life that kids are living and what teachers want them to do and work on, without recognizing that the connection can be made and how it can be used to create great material. The novel of this phenomenon has not been written yet. The great short stories have not been written. So I want to encourage parents to begin taking these issues seriously enough with their kids that they can share their stories and their kids can share theirs. It's also healing when you actually verbalize it. By the same token, it acknowledges the kid's lives as well to let them talk about this stuff. It's like this for all of us. By talking about our experiences we have power over events rather than them having power over us. I encourage parents to talk to themselves about these things and find the language to define the parameters to put around these feelings. And then urge them to get their kids to do the same.

KH: How do you start involving your kids in telling their stories?

Levitt: I think you need to just begin speaking with your kids. Ask if anything funny happened today while walking down the street and not knowing the language. And, if the family is leaving to move back to their homeland, or to another country, talk about the leaving process. Talk about the grief of saying goodbye to friends, and find ways to help the child stay in touch with friends they are leaving behind. Try to get them to understand that when you leave a situation, you often begin distancing yourself before you physically leave.

KH: Do you think parents make the mistake of trying to minimize leaving a city where their children have lived and made friends by not talking about it? Does talking actually help dissipate the feeling the kids may have?

Levitt: It certainly does. I think some of it is the parent's own guilt about it. It is hard for kids to pick up their roots and move someplace else. I think it's better for the kids in the long run to discuss the situation and their feelings.

Ultimately everything has to be weighed in terms of what is best for the kids. It's good for kids to express their feelings and release them and then deal with everything they have to deal with in the process of leaving. Whether it's having closure with people you have issues with or figuring out how you're going to negotiate the trip back home so that the family has time to decompress. Talk about what you are going to do once you get back home. How will the kids deal with being around people who really don't care what they've been through? Their friends are living their same lives as always and when the kids start talking about life abroad their friends are not interested. How do they change, how do they adapt? I would like parents to talk to each other and their kids about these things. You don't need to do it, but if you don't, then you are missing a big opportunity in the adjustment process.

KH: What advice do you have for parents who want to use story telling as a way to help third culture kids navigate their lives?

Levitt: Parents need to remember not to lecture the kids. The goal of storytelling is to create a culture of acceptance so that everyone feels safe to open up. It is a great chance to compare perspectives as parents and children relate the same incidents. The more a parent listens to a child, the more comfortable they will feel about sharing. Make the time to tell your family's stories.