Expatriates - identity formation

I’ve just stumbled across this site while researching for my dissertation. I am a third year undergraduate at London School of Economics and am currently writing my dissertation on the identity formation of expatriates in Hong Kong. The exact title is; Identity Crisis – A case study on the effects of an international upbringing on the identity of expatriates in Hong Kong. This subject is of interest to me as I grew up in Hong Kong without knowing much of my national countries other than visiting them occasionally on holidays. I think of Hong Kong as my home and my parents often find this troubling as they don’t think that I can totally assimilate with a country where I don’t speak the language and thus fully identify with the local people. My dissertation plans to focus on the way that the international lifestyle can impact the identity formation of children growing up in Hong Kong and I would be extremely interested to find out what parents feel about this? Or any personal experience from other expats who have grown up in Hong Kong and made it their permanent home…

Expat children's identity

Coincidentally Mr Tall & I were talking along the lines of your question last night. In our cases it's a bit different, as both our families' children have local mums, speak Cantonese, and are going through the local education system. So we were talking more about what they'd feel about the UK (my daughters) or the US (Mr Tall's daughter) when they grow older, and if there was anything we could do to help. eg Are there 'British' qualities? If yes which are good? And how would I go about passing them on?

So, not exactly what you're describing, but definitely related. It'll be interesting to see what you learn about this - could you let us know some of your findings when it is complete?

Regards, MrB

Identity formation

My hope is that Daugther Tall will be able to feel fully like a 'Hong Kong person', in that she will have grown up in the Hong Kong cultural mainstream -- but also in that she'll be fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin, and able to read and write Chinese. I really don't know if it would be possible to have a full 'Hong Kong identity' if you couldn't handle the language elements. How do you feel about this, in that (I'm assuming) you don't read and write Chinese, or speak it fluently?

But I also want Daughter Tall to identify with the USA and to recognize some of the highlights of western culture. I want her to know the outlines of western and US history, and be able to understand something of what she experiences if we visit a cathedral or hear a symphony. I'm taking pains already to make sure she's exposed to these things, and that they're framed in a positive way. Frankly, doing this myself is fine with me -- I trust my own ability to convey these things to her more than I would a school in the USA.

3rd culture kids in HK


Hi anonymous,


It sounds like you're talking about "3rd Culture" kids growing up or living in Hong Kong.


Have you looked at: 

Pollock, David C.  The third culture kid experience  : growing up among worlds. Yarmouth, Me. : Intercultural Press, c1999



 Other item of interest:

 Selmer, Jan.  Using former 'third-culture kids' as a recruitment source for business expatriates with success potential. ong Kong : Business Research Centre, School of Business, Hong
              Kong Baptist University, [2002]


A dissertation from Murdoch U  

The ecology of “Third Culture Kids”:The experiences of Australasian adults



An MPhil Thesis from HKUST - 1999

The unexplored myth of culture shock : the disempowerment of   expatriate faculty wives



From a 1985 conference on Missionary kids



I'm a parent like Mr. B and Mr. T - my husband is a locally born HK person and I think my kids identify as Hong Kong people, although they go to ESF schools. They have had the same school mates for the past 6 years. ESF school themselves now have a large number of HK permanent residents. 



language and appearance?

I'm wondering if speaking the language and 'appearing' (i.e. visually) Chinese has an impact on identity as a HK person.  I met a lady the other day who is 4th generation 'british' Hong Konger (blonde hair, blue eyes etc) although she doesn't make great claims to be british, she doesn't speak a word or chinese and I'm not sure if she has an ethnic chinese person in her friend circle (I could be wrong) - I'd be astounded if she could claim to be a Honkie?

Hi skmama,  Thanks a lot

Hi skmama,

 Thanks a lot for reccomending those readings! They all look like they will be very useful. I have never heard of the term '3rd culture kids' (surprisingly as I am one!) but it sounds exactly like what I am trying to explore.

My interview sample will consist majoritively of ex ESF students who are HK permanent residents so it will be interesting to see how they form their cultural identity.

 Thanks again,


I think that not visually

I think that not visually appearing chinese is definitly a part of the problem. One of the area's I am exploring in my interviews is whether 'not speaking the language' has a large impact on how people identify as being from HK. I find it very surprising that the lady you met was 4th generation and did not speak a word of cantonese or have any chinese friends! From my personal experience I believe that this generation have a much more integrated social circle, but I may be wrong! It will be interested to see what I find...

3rd Culture Kid Authors & research area?


Hi Steph,

 Just an aside - 2 famous US authors were also "3rd Culture Kids" - Pearl Buck and John Hersey - both missionary kids. 

 Things to consider

- Will you be studying not just Euro-expats but South Asian "3rd Culture Kids" - some kids from families that have been in Hong Kong for generations (example, the Harilelas) and others who have arrived in HK more recently. 

 What about  kids from "Other Asian" countries? My kids are friends w/ a brother and sister in their ESF school - whose parents are Japanese expat permanent HK residents. Another kid whose one parent is Korean and the other HK Chinese. It would be interesting to see if these kids who "fit in" more visually would have different experiences from kids of Euro-heritage who stick out more.


What about "returnee" kids? Whose parents emigrated to Canada or  other places when they were babies or they were born overseas and then their families move "back" to Hong Kong.

Children of ABC or BBC or CBC parents who have been posted in HK?

 Children of mainlandborn & educated parent expats? Growing up speaking Mandarin, going to school in English - maybe w/ little facility in Cantonese? 


It seems like a fertile topic. 



4th generation

The lady I'm referring to was in her late 50's, so I'm not sure what you mean by 'this generation' perhaps you mean university age people?

returnee kids

Funny you mention that skmama, my son's kindergarten teacher last year was a 'returnee' . A HK chinese lady who was brought up in Canada. She was telling me that she was having the hardest time integrating with the 'locals' and that her whole friendship circle consisted of other canadian and american brought up chinese people!

By the way, the 3rd Culture kids book is just the best thing I ever read!  Thank heavens the put all that stuff down on paper!  I came across it about 3 years ago and suddenly a lot of stuff in my life and my kids life made sense for the first time! 

in reply to the op, i an

in reply to the op, i an english, lived in hong kong from age 4 until 13, when we returned to england. i could not remember before living in hk, i am now 34 and still think of hk as home

would be happy to help with a further interview if the op wishes

International Upbringing can lead to International Careers

Though I haven't lived abroad yet I travel extensively for work (6 continents & 40+ countries) and know many expats around the globe. I have noticed that many of the people with the hutzpah to move around the globe were raised in international households. For some it was a series of countries, for others just a couple. But the thread is consistent in my circle at least; people with international careers are often raised in international households.

Perhaps an international upbringing fosters a less narrow view of 'home' and a wider view of the world.

Int'l kids

Funnily enough neither my husband nor myself were brought up in international households, in fact far from it.  Both of us spent all our childhood in the same place (different countries though).  We're both wanderers now.  One of our close friends was the daughter of a military man and travelled all her youth, but has lived in the same city in the same flat for the last 15 years and doesn't want to move ever again.  If I have to put money on my kids, I'd say my son will find a spot with a house and garden and stay out his days there, while my daughter will do the global nomad thing like we did ...

world citizen

An intriguing area of research, indeed. I'd have to say, once you have left the familiar confines of a country and settled elsewhere you are more likely to do so again if the opportunity arises. You might feel 'at home' somewhere, but you stand out from the crowd, so to speak, by virtue of your experiences. It makes it even more likely if you happen to find a partner who has grown up in another country. Between the two of us, my wife and I have resided in 5 countries, and I would not be surprised if we found ourselves on some other soil a few years down the road again. There is no true returning home, our familes are dispersed between multiple countries and the countries of our birth have evolved into very different places in the time we were gone, at least in some aspects.
The problem is, the more international exposure you have had, the more demanding you get, wanting the best of all you have known, and there's just no such place to offer it all :)

It seems to me that where

It seems to me that where you spend your core "growing up" years is what you end up calling home. My husband was born in Russia to russian - tanzanian parents and lived there until 5. He lived in Sweden between years of 5-16 and has been in the UK ever since. He has a very strong Swedish identity, consider swedish his mother tongue and supports Sweden in sports, even he has spent equally as long if not longer in the influence of other cultures. He remembers no Russian (which was the first language he ever learned) and has very vague memories before his life in Sweden. He fitted in perfectly in Sweden regardless of is mixed race appearance.

Interesting topic though! Im Finnish thru and thru even I have lived in the UK for 10 years (since I was 22) and rarely even speak finnish these days anymore.