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Going to School in China

The Stories of 3 Asian TCKs

Asians value education highly. When parents decide to move to and live in China with their children, education is always a big concern. Parents’ decisions on the choice of schooling for their children depend on many factors including: the availability of schooling options where the family will live, preferences of parents, finances, the age of the child, etc.

Asians are very diverse. The language, culture, and education system in each Asian country are different. I have known the following three Asian third culture kids (TCKs)[1] since they were young. They all grew up in China and have now graduated from university. As you read these stories, you may glimpse some of the challenges parents, as well as these TCKs, have had to face as they went to school in China.

Tim from South Korea

Tim is from South Korea. He did his first four years of elementary education in China in an international school in a big city. Unexpectedly, two years before Tim finished his elementary education, the organization that Tim’s father worked with wanted to deploy the family to a small town where there is no international school. Although the move was not in the parents’ original plan, yet after much prayer, the family agreed to make the move. Tim’s mother decided to homeschool Tim before sending Tim to middle school in an international school with boarding facilities in a nearby country. When Tim graduated from high school, he returned to Seoul for university. Tim is grateful that his mother taught him Korean at home since he was young. It has helped in his adjustments back to his passport country for life and study.

Helpful observations

  • It is important for parents to have long-range education goals for their children so that they can prepare their children accordingly. However, sometimes their plans will be disrupted. Parents need to be flexible in adjusting their plans. Homeschool is not common in Asia. Yet, parents may need to be prepared to do it if no other preferred options are available.
  • Often TCKs do not have strong incentives to learn their mother tongue if they don’t need to use it outside their home. Parents need to persevere and be creative in teaching their children their mother tongue while the family is in China.

Grace from Malaysia 

Grace is from Malaysia. She moved to China with her parents when she was nine years old. Grace attended an international school in a big city until high school. Many times, her parents were very concerned about how they could get enough money to pay the high tuition fees. Thankfully, through the generous support of friends and relatives, Grace completed her high school in the same school. The school used American curriculum and provided Chinese as a second language. Since Grace did not learn Malay when she was in China, she was not able to apply for university in Malaysia as Malay is a requirement for admission in her passport country. Upon her graduation, a university in Singapore and another in Canada have both offered a place to Grace. With the encouragement and financial support of family friends, Grace furthered her studies in Canada.

Helpful Observations

  • Finances are always a big challenge as the tuition at international schools is very high. It is especially difficult for families whose work budget does not include, or only includes a low amount for, children’s education.
  • International school is a popular education choice for many Asian families. Graduates can apply for universities in North America, as well as in many Asian countries, including the child’s passport country. It provides more choices for Asian TCKs’ tertiary education.

 David from Taiwan

David is from Taiwan and his father worked in a small town in China. David went to a local Chinese school since grade one and completed his elementary education before the family moved back to Taiwan. Although David speaks Chinese, he found the big classes and the teachers’ harsh discipline in the local school difficult. Bullying happened in school too. As they were the only expatriate family in the town, David was thankful that he made a few good local friends at school. The experience with the local people has also enriched his life. David returned to Taiwan for middle school but to his parents’ surprise, he did not adjust well back in the local school in Taiwan. Eventually, he switched to an American online school and completed his US high school diploma. Later, David chose to go to university in Hong Kong.

Helpful Observations

  • Although outwardly Asian TCKs look like the locals and some even speak Chinese, it does not mean that adjustments will be easier as these children go to local schools in China. Parents need to prepare their children and to ensure that their children feel safe at school.
  • Most Asian countries are monocultural and people have less tolerance for those who are different from them. Since the lives of these Asian TCKs have been enriched by their cross-cultural experience, adjustments upon re-entry to their passport country can be a challenge.

By faith, all three families brought their young children and stepped out of their comfort zones to work and live in China. They remind us of Joshua leading the Israelites across the river Jordan. It was not until they put their feet into the water, that they experienced the Lord’s miraculous leading. Despite the big and small challenges each family experienced, we are witnessing how our faithful God led, protected, and provided for these TCKs as they went to school in China. His presence never left these families and their children. Our Lord’s name is to be glorified!

Recommend Reading

  • Ernvik, Ulrika. Third Culture Kids: A Gift to Care For. Familjegladje, 2019.
  • Ho, Polly C. ed. Rice, Noodles, Bread or Chapati: The Untold Stories of Asian MKs. Third Culture Kids Care Fellowship, Singapore, 2013.
  • Pollock, David C., and Van Reken, Ruth E, and Pollock, Michael V. Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2017 3rd edition.
  • 何陳佩英主編《未為人知的故事 ─ 亞洲宣子成長路》(香港差傳事工聯會,2016)
  • 龍蕭念全、龍祈申等著《破冰船 ─ 與宣家同行》(保羅文化中心有限公司,2017)


  1. ^ A third culture kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background. (Pollock, D. and Reken R. Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, 2009, p.13)
Image credit: Michael Salinger from Pixabay
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Pauline Tan

Pauline Tan (pseudonym) has worked extensively with Asian TCKs from many nations whose families have served in countries throughout the world, including China. View Full Bio

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