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Nina Sichel On 'Writing Out of Limbo'

Author and editor talks about the lifelong impact of growing up overseas

Nina Sichel grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, the daughter of an American mother and a German-born father. Years later, she discovered that many other ex-pats felt the same alienation she had experienced upon returning "home" to the United States. Writing Out of Limbo, coedited by Sichel and Gene H. Bell-Villada, is an essay collection by those who've led international childhoods, usually because of a parent's job. We asked Sichel to explain why these "Third Culture Kids," as sociologists call them, gain a perspective on life that suits the challenges of the 21st century.

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Q&A with Nina Sichel

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"Third Culture Kids" grow up between cultures and may not feel at home in either one.

Q. Are Third Culture Kids becoming more common?

A. The numbers are larger than they used to be, but I also think that people are more aware of them as we've become a more global society. And the definition of a Third Culture Kid is shifting: Now it includes not just people raised overseas, but multicultural families. First-generation immigrant children have a lot in common with these kids, because they too are shuttling between cultures and may not feel at home in either one. Social change has a lot to do with it, too. People move more, even within the United States; there are fewer nuclear families; single parents move with children. More and more people have that feeling of being raised outside the status-quo culture.

Q. One essay in Writing Out of Limbo dubs President Obama a Third Culture Kid.

A. He certainly is — not just because he moved around a lot, but because of the different cultures within his own family. He has had to adapt, and you can see how his background affects him when you look at his character and the way he approaches decision-making. And not only him; John McCain was a Navy brat, so in the 2008 election we were choosing between two Third Culture Kids. When you look at people who are well known across a variety of professions, it's surprising how many of them have had these experiences.

Q. Does leadership come naturally to these people, because they have had to adapt quickly to new situations and deal with many different kinds of people?

A. It does enhance certain qualities that you can parlay into leadership: the ability to see two sides of a coin simultaneously, the ability to understand a completely different point of view or different values, things you might not be exposed to if you lived in one culture with a unified cultural norm. I think the ability to speak many languages helps you think differently. And because so many Third Culture Kids are multilingual, a lot of them go into international business, or to government agencies that work overseas.

Q. Any downside?

A. My essay in Writing Out of Limbo is about the shock of returning to your supposed home country, only to find it doesn't feel like home. This often happens with kids who have been at overseas schools, preparing to go back to college at home, and that's when it hits: You are where your family has told you you're from, and you really don't belong there at all. Also, many of them have been relocated several times while growing up. More than once, they've had to say good-bye to everything — family, pets, home, language, whatever. Kids often suppress all that, and it comes out later in life as depression, or an inability to form committed relationships, or difficulty committing to one place. They internalize this rhythm where they had to keep moving. But the flip side is true, too: Some people grow up and say, "I do not want that life; I want to stay in one place and never move again."

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