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'Third Culture' Kids Straddle International, American Identities

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Commencement ceremony at D.C.'s Washington International School.
Washington International School
Commencement ceremony at D.C.'s Washington International School.

Walk down the hallways at D.C.'s Washington International School, and you'll hear a symphony composed of French, Spanish, Dutch and Chinese. That's because WIS, perched on a hill in leafy Cleveland Park, offers an International Baccalaureate program with dual language immersion for students. But WIS's worldly ways extend beyond the classroom, to the very composition of the school.

Many WIS parents work at international organizations, global corporations, or area embassies, and they and their kids come from all over the world.

In fact, the 920 students at WIS represent more than 60 countries. So asking where they're from can provoke some pretty lengthy answers. For example, Elisa Cottarelli has lived in the same house in D.C. her whole life. But her family is Italian.

"My formula is I was born here, and my family is from there," she says. "Because there's so many differences between the cultures, I can't be one thing the whole time."

Meanwhile, Camila Salvador, who describes herself as Salvadoran, Palestinian and American, says she doesn't want to choose one cultural identity over another. But she doesn't want to prove her heritage either.

"I've always felt uncomfortable because I don't know who to identify with," she says. "I can hang out with my Latino friends from elementary school. But when I want to hang out with my Arab cousins, I have to prove that I'm Arab. When I hang out with my American friends I have to prove to them that I'm American as well."

That's why, Cyrus Jalinous says, juggling multiple cultures can be pretty perplexing. "I grew up speaking Farsi until I was 2, I had a babysitter who only spoke Spanish to me, and then I watched Sesame Street in English," he says. "So I was really a confused little boy."

But Ruth Van Reken, who co-authored a book about what it means to be a "third culture kid," says these kinds of experiences are common for them.

"A third culture kid is someone who has been raised for a significant period of time outside their parents' passport culture or cultures," says Van Reken, a U.S. citizen who spent 13 years of her childhood in Nigeria.

As a result, she says third culture kids struggle with the question of identity, feeling that they belong everywhere and nowhere all at the same time.

"In a world that defines people very narrowly -- by their race, ethnicity, or their nationality -- we have an enormous group of people who don't fit any of the categories we usually use," she says. But she says third culture kids also have a lot of advantages, especially in a globalizing society.

"From our varied life experiences, we've already learned to negotiate very different worlds," she says. "We've grown up to know that people of all races and colors and nationalities are all still people, and you can relate to them in a very deep human, wonderful way."

In fact, Sethly Davis says at WIS, being a third culture kid is a badge of honor. "The fact that you have more than one culture to say that you're from is really cool here," she says.

And she just hopes wherever she goes to college will be as worldly as her high school. "I don't want to lose the comfort I have being in such a diverse place."

After all, William Lane says, the international school really lives up its name. "It was described as a global village, people from all over the world interacting with each other," he says. "At first I thought that was cheesy. But when you start to go here, you realize how valuable it is. Because WIS is like a microcosm of the world."

And in that way, Cyrus Jalinous says, the most important lessons at WIS aren't the ones that come from your textbooks, but the ones that come from your classmates.

"At an international school you learn it's not where you're from because it all boils down to who you are as an individual, as a person," he says.

And he says that's true in every language.


[Music: "Wild World" by Emmerson Nogueira from Acustico II]

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