Class action: how to help your child appreciate different cultures

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 August, 2014, 5:15pm
UPDATED : Monday, 18 August, 2014, 9:18pm

My wife and I are different nationalities, and we would like our children to to grow up with an appreciation for both our cultures. Is this going to be possible?

Children of bicultural expat families growing up in Hong Kong are not just experiencing two cultures; they are also part of a third culture. The term third-culture kids was coined by John and Ruth Hill Useem to describe children growing up, often within an expat or missionary world, in a culture which is not their own.

These children have a good chance to form rich connections with different groups outside the restrictions of their own cultural boundaries.

But they may also experience feelings of disconnection and question where they belong in the world. Your children have an added richness; they share in two cultures and can learn from the strengths of each one.

When we talk about culture, we refer to systems of beliefs which generate habits and customs, and are shared by groups of people. Although the practices may be different, they tend to be generated in response to the same key questions: who are we and how do we relate to the greater world?

For children to be truly bicultural, they need to develop equal relationships with both cultures. To achieve this, both need to be equally valued. Some parents decide that culture "A" has strengths and decide to promote those, while teaching different strengths from culture "B".

Other parents decide to maintain both cultures, and let children decide which approach suits them. Over time, children develop the skill of switching between systems. The question is how to share deeper cultural elements with your children while engaging their interest.

Food is always a good place to start. My parents used cooking as a way of teaching us the value of economy. It was a chance for them to talk about growing up in times when money was scarce.

I have students whose parents are French and who have used cooking food together as a way of teaching their children the importance of sharing meals and conversation.

At the end of the exercise, you don't want your children just to have a surface appreciation of, say, the delights of Dutch maatjes (herrings); you want them to have developed an affinity for the culture which produced them.

We are fortunate to be living in a time in which children's literature is becoming culturally diverse. If you have decided that your children will maintain both languages, you may want to introduce stories and magazines in your native tongues.

Don't discount the value of traditional folk stories and music. Folk stories are a way of communicating the joint values of a country, or of teaching a lesson. They are a good way to share stories about your childhood.

By talking about the past, you will allow your children to create closer links with your home countries, especially if you visit the locations together.

Festivals and national days are a good time to bring another culture into the home. Many traditions are based around family, and you could give your children the option of bringing their friends home.

Food is always a tricky thing to bring to schools, as a number of children have allergies. But try suggesting to your child's teacher that you come in to share some of the traditions of your national day.

I taught a primary group in which a parent talked about Diwali. The students were fascinated, and enjoyed making tea-light holders.

Some schools might also welcome parents at story time and reading stories from your country is a good way of demonstrating its culture.

It's also worth checking out local chambers of commerce as a source of cultural activities for children. For example, the Italian chamber lists events for children on its website

Bicultural children have wonderful opportunities to share in their parents' cultures and experience that of being in Hong Kong. Through food, cultural activities, literature and music, you can teach them the deeper values of each culture.

Jessica Ogilvy Stuart is director of the Brandon Learning Centre