Transnational Youth, Culture, and Politics in International Schools


Author: Nishadh Rego, a transnational youth, migrant, and new citizen of Australia. He is currently Policy and Advocacy Coordinator at the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Australia. Check out some of his writing here, and follow him on Twitter @ntrego88

It has been both challenging and gratifying to read and comment on Dana Tanu’s innovative and stimulating work Growing Up In Transit: The Politics of Belonging at an International School. Her work deeply exemplifies my own personal experience as an international school (and university) student. I could well have been a subject in this ethnography, and the book’s arguments make such intuitive sense that I feel like I narrate rather than explain them. What follows then is an alternative take on a book review: part analysis, part reflection, and a tiny part catharsis.   

TanuGrowingAn international school in Jakarta

Tanu’s ethnography explores the ways in which the subject of her research, an international school (TIS) in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, implements its mission to educate global citizens and the ways in which transnational youth from different backgrounds interact within this environment. What emerges is an empirically detailed and theoretically insightful study on the lives of so-called ‘third culture kids (TCK)’ at international schools.

Tanu acknowledges that the TCK concept offers a common language and community to those who have been through multiple geographical and cultural dislocations. But, she challenges the term’s analytical value, arguing it does not account for the increasing cultural, racial, religious and class diversity among international school students today. For Tanu, the TCK concept also does not consider deeply embedded socio-cultural and economic hierarchies in seemingly neutral, globalized spaces such as international schools. Taking stock of these structural realities, Tanu’s core argument is that international school students practice “cosmopolitan engagement across difference in a variety of way as they internalize, manage and contend with their own positions and those of others within these hierarchies” (p. 4).  Before exploring Tanu’s ethnography in more depth, I’ll preface with some of my own experiences as a TCK.

Ambivalences of a third culture kid

I am from a middle class Konkani-speaking Mangalorean-Catholic Mumbai family. Catholics are a religious minority in India; Konkans are a linguistic minority in the state of Maharashtra; and Mangaloreans a sub-community within a complex Catholic community in Mumbai. I attended a Catholic, English-medium school where I first read Enid Blyton, and was forced to recite English poetry, but had neighborhood friends who spoke only Marathi. I went to Church, but also attended classes on the Bhagavad Gita because that’s what many of my friends on our street did. Needless to say, I was exposed to markers of cultural, and religious difference from a very young age.

We moved to Thailand when I was eight years old. I left again to attend university in Australia at the age of seventeen. In those nine years and beyond, I encountered new kinds of difference, across race, nationality, and class lines. I shed identities and took new ones, often in response to others’ characterizations or labels of me. Konkani was seldom heard of, even within the Indian community in Bangkok. Being Mangalorean meant nothing at my international school, where the term khaek was variously used to describe foreigners, and in particular those from South or Southwest Asia.

I have always found it difficult to reflect on my own ambivalences of self-identity with clarity. This is partly because thinking about them is in itself emotionally challenging, but also because I could never dispassionately compare my personal experiences with those of my fellow schoolmates, or situate them within the environment in which they occurred. How did living on an international university campus on the outskirts of Bangkok or attending an international school for nine years impact my sense of self and belonging? How did my interactions with other kids at school influence my choices, behaviors, and views on life? What about these interactions was outside of our control, imposed on us by broader and deeply institutionalized discourses of race and class within these environments? Tanu’s ethnography helped me formulate and articulate answers to these questions.

Internationalism in Indonesia

The book is divided into two sections. The first four chapters examine aforementioned hierarchies that inhabit and simultaneously constitute the school. Having established TIS  as an environment defined by internalized cultural hierarchies, the final four chapters unpack the social dynamics among the school’s diverse student cohort.

Tanu argues that while TIS attempts to foster an environment that overcomes boundaries of nation, race, culture, and class (p. 34), it practices an internationalism that privileges certain forms of Western cultural capital. Prominent national flag displays, UN day cultural performances, and global citizenship awards recognizing respect for diversity nevertheless mask the prevalence of a dominant culture. She writes that students with Western cultural capital are affirmed in myriad subtle, unintentional ways, through the curricular focus on European and American history and literature, the predominantly Western sports on offer, and subtle imposition of Western societal milestones on the students. A powerful example of the latter is TIS’ live screening of Obama’s inauguration, which immediately reminded me of the way some teachers at my school dedicated many class periods to coverage of 9/11 and its fall out. I remember feeling shock, confusion, and anger on behalf of the victims, but also wondering why it seemed to matter more than crises elsewhere.

Tanu highlights the ways in which colonial and global capitalist structural realities help produce this Eurocentric internationalism and its attendant social hierarchies. For example, in order for the school to flourish as a cosmopolitan enclave, she argues that it must maintain a degree of economic, socio-cultural, and spatial separation from the local. TIS is an exclusive school. Only Indonesia’s economic elites can afford entry, keeping it relatively inaccessible to the local populace. Moreover, there are hardly any traces of everyday Indonesia within the school’s premises. The Indonesian language program is limited and piecemeal, and Indonesians primarily serve the students in subservient blue-collar positions; as drivers, nannies, maids, gardeners, secretaries and electricians (p. 100). Even the security gates and police cars serve as markers of the school’s class and cultural separation from Indonesia (p. 38). While Tanu acknowledges the breadth of nuanced responses to this separation among students, teachers, and administrators of varying backgrounds, she also argues that it reinforces stereotypes about Indonesia as the antithesis of TIS’ cosmopolitan project.  

This is positioned against the backdrop of a shift from a Dutch colonial order in Indonesia to a capitalist economic order premised on the English language has seen the latter become a new mark of status and privilege (p. 65). Rich Indonesians choose to send their children to English-medium international schools, keenly aware of the likely economic benefits of the international school brand and English fluency. Responding to this market, schools like TIS are therefore almost unavoidably centered on the English language: via the English language curriculums, the separation between mainstream and ESL classes, the Anglophone teaching staff and their cultural practices, and the prominence of the idea that English speakers were the most international (p. 56). This underlying linguistic nationalism helps to situate  non-fluent English speakers – many of whom understandably hang out together – as mono-cultural and ethnocentric, and therefore at odds with the school’s internationalizing mission.

Particularly problematic is the fact that staff, administrators, and others in positions of authority gradually internalize and reproduce these biases. For example, according to one school administrator, the very need for a separate parent-teacher conference with interpreters for Korean parents mirrors the self-segregating tendencies of their children at school (p. 111). Such a perspective, of course, conveniently obscures the reality that non-native English speakers at the school have fewer choices in relation to whom they interact with. By contrast, those proficient at English, Westernized in appearance, and well-versed in the subtle, accompanying mannerisms are more likely to be seen as ‘cosmopolitan’ or ‘international.’

Cultural stereotypes and romantic desirability

Tanu demonstrates quite clearly how TIS’ hierarchies affect almost every dimension of the student experience, including in the realms of student popularity, student-staff relationships, and through the exclusive use of physical space, such as in the cafeteria.

In my experience, just as Tanu describes, these were racialized in ways that reflect the imposition of broader stereotypes and hierarchies. This manifests in a number of different ways, but I was particularly interested in perceptions of the other sex within groups of non-Western transnational students. For example, some of the Indian boys in Tanu’s ethnography complain about the Indian girls who they think are “trying too hard to look Western and desire the ‘White boys’ more than them” (p. 194). Similarly, we are introduced to Mina, a Japanese high-schooler who at one point says “I bet Western girls look at the Japanese boys and think ‘ugh.’ If you think about it, there are more good looking guys among the Westerners” (p. 198). Attitudes obviously vary by context and individual, but these kinds of comments show how romantic possibilities within racial groupings are impacted by cultural stereotypes that pervade the broader school environment.

Between conforming to and subverting cultural hierarchies

Tanu captures the varying degrees of cultural capital that students possess depending on their background, knowledge, and interests and how these fit, both within the school’s broadly Eurocentric cultural hierarchy and more subversive spaces such as Japanese club or the South Asian society. Most students are attuned to the kind of capital they possess, and marshal them, albeit imperfectly, to negotiate school.

Although Tanu describes the experiences of a wide cross-section of kids, her focus on non-Westernized kids predictably struck a chord. These students are often homogenized in mainstream staff and student discourses as ‘the Japanese,’ ‘the Koreans’, or ‘the Indonesians.’ Like my own school, those with sufficient cultural capital – ie. English language ability – attempt to transcend their racial backgrounds and fit in with the dominant cultures. This happens in substantive ways such as by being seen to be definitively accepted by the cool kids, or more superficially, where for example students Anglicize their names – ie. Hae Jin to Jenny – in an attempt to demonstrate their desire to be acknowledged on the dominant culture’s terms. Others naturally retreat to more familiar, comfortable spaces, which interestingly reflect a kind of counter-exclusivity. Tanu gives the example of a Japanese speaking student who is quiet and somewhat withdrawn in class, but is able to express herself more confidently and reclaim status in Japanese club, where her native language is the only one permitted.

The book’s most powerful critique of the school’s ‘ideology of the international’ stems from the notion that there exists within TIS an invisible diversity, premised on a cosmopolitanism that bypasses the markers of the dominant culture. She calls it a “form of pan-Asian cultural competency…and mutual intelligibility” (p. 165) manifesting, for example, in native fluency across two or more non-Western languages. Koichi’s experience is most telling. His friends in senior year are a Chinese Indonesian, a mixed Japanese-Indonesian, a Korean, and a Taiwanese who had grown up mostly in Indonesia (p. 176). Koichi also speaks fluent Japanese and Indonesian. But Tanu writes, “his cosmopolitan practice was not visible to the teachers and administrators because he did not engage with the Western students” (p. 176). Her insights here are another sobering reminder of the ways in which broader inequalities and discourses affect lives in very concrete, and potentially damaging ways.

Potentials for personalised ethnographic approaches

Tanu’s critique would not have been possible without the methodological decision to ground the study in a particular social ecosystem, and analyze a wide range of actors within it. An in-depth examination of a few kids’ experience, or a longitudinal study tracking experiences across varied social ecosystems would have yielded important insights, particularly about how more individualized explanatory factors – for example, the experience of adolescence, or family dynamics – impact on a person’s understanding, instrumentalization of identity, and its flow-on impacts on them. However, such studies would not have uncovered the ways in which forms of structural and agential power, specific to particular social terrains such as schools, impact on the lives of their constituents. This approach invites similar studies on other bounded social terrains. How do multinational companies understand and practice diversity and to what effects? How do self-proclaimed multicultural states, cities, or even small towns define the limits of multiculturalism and practice it, especially within an increasingly nativist global environment? How do different communities and individuals within respond?

It is also worth noting that the study would not have worked without Tanu’s evident ability to develop strong relationships with students from different backgrounds, and with a wide range of teachers, administrators, and parents, and document detailed, often intimate insights about their lives. Tanu, somewhat modestly, ties this ability to her experience growing up as a child of mixed heritage in multiple countries and at international schools, and her ability to speak languages prevalent in the school demographic. The breadth and depth of qualitative data she gathers is impressive, as is the ethnography itself.

[Image Source: from Wikimedia. User:Sukhoi30mki (Image description by user: This image was captured when Annual Sports Meet 2006-2007 was held at Saraswati International School. You can see the tiny tots exercising out for a better physical health.)]

3 thoughts on “Transnational Youth, Culture, and Politics in International Schools

  1. Pingback: Transnational Youth, Cultural and Politics in International Schools – Nishadh's Blog

  2. this is a brilliant and profound book analysis that innovatively combines the reviewers personal experience with the book’s insights – and that moved me. the review strongly piques one’s interest to read the book, and provokes analyses of a similar kind in different settings including of multilateral organizations committed to internationalism, universal human rights and fundamental human freedoms.

  3. Pingback: Post-Bureaucratic Stress: Reflections on getting a police check in Vietnam | The Familiar Strange

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