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Expat, Her Third Culture Children and Holiday Traditions

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post on Dec. 23, 2014.

By Marla Lombard

Living abroad is never as straightforward as it may seem. Locating American products, especially at the holidays, is just one thing to think about for the over 6 million Americans living overseas.

The recently opened Swedish big-box store sells artificial Christmas trees. The supermarket usually (ok, sometimes) stocks imported cranberry sauce. I even special-order my whole, fried turkey from a country-style restaurant that serves up American diner fare.

Last year during the holidays, my triplets, Isaac, Daniel and Sophia were just coming home from the neonatal unit in America. Now in Qatar, where I teach at an American university, I want the holiday season to be as American as it can be.

No matter how many pumpkin pies I make, though, my kids are still growing up as third culture kids, a term coined by the late sociologist Ruth Hill Useem.

Third culture kids are the children of diplomats, educators and business people who live the international life. They are called third culture, because even though their parents are American, and their passport says United States of America, these kids grow up with connections to different places and people.

America, for third culture kids, is often one of lore, tradition, summer vacations and sitcoms.

So far this holiday season, we had a pumpkin patch in the back yard -- complete with a homemade scarecrow, and we just finished up a big Thanksgiving meal that we shared with two other American families.

For now, I buy a pre-school program from an American company that prepares all the lesson materials for me. The American school here doesn't have a pre-school program, so until they are 4 and can enroll in kindergarten, I have an at-home alternative to daycare.

The holiday lesson in their pre-school curriculum this month was about traditions.

As I sat with them to trace their small hands for the construction-paper turkey, I was reminded that decisions about their education wouldn't always be this easy.

Around the world, overseas American schools attract local students as well as expat kids like mine. In fact, there is often a waiting list, and even a priority list for admission to the one in Qatar.

Sending my kids to an American school abroad doesn't change the fact that they will be third culture kids.

Some of the biggest challenges third culture kids face long-term seem to be their sense of personal identity and belonging. This is particularly true if they grow up, connect with the location abroad, then move back to America.

Maybe the pilgrims' kids were the original third culture Americans, with multi-cultural connections, new foods, and big life changes.

For now, my triplets are happy and learning fast in their multi-cultural environment.

Sure, this is an experience of a lifetime. My kids will have memories of running after pigeons in the local souq, a traditional outdoor market. Their passports are already stamped from England, Greece and Qatar, and more to come during the next summer travel season.

Like other expat parents, I have to think about whether or not this is the right decision long term for my family. One of my colleagues left this year because he made the choice to take his young children back to American schools on American soil.

If I continue the international life, the holidays likely won't be the only piece of American culture that I try to replicate.

- Marla Lombard is an assistant professor at Northwestern University in Qatar.

Topics: Global, Opinion

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