‘Very western’ international schools

On the surface, international schools all around the world are extremely diverse environments in terms of race, nationality and language. But are they more ‘western’ than international?

Politics of belonging

For her book Growing Up in Transit: The Politics of Belonging at an International School , the scholar Danau Tanu went ‘back to school’ and befriended ‘Third Culture Kids’ in an attempt to understand their struggles with identity, belonging and internalised racism. Her main takeaways? ‘Hidden hierarchies’ of race, culture and class shape popularity, friendships and romance on school campuses.

Trying to fit in

Just like in every other place of learning for young people, cliques form at international schools. Kids will act in a certain way to fit in, whether to be more popular, or simply to avoid standing out and being teased. The difference at international schools, according to Tanu, is that a western-style cosmopolitanism is ‘institutionalised as cultural capital’. In short, ‘being international’ mainly involves speaking English, preferably like a native speaker, and being westernised. You could say that through her work, Tanu is pressing for change: she wants international schools to be truly  international.

Dominant culture

Many Global Connection members who are parents will probably have seen from marketing materials that international schools often promote themselves as global villages, citing the number of nationalities on campus with great pride. Many will also celebrate the students’ nationalities and cultures with an ‘International Day’. But through the academic year, kids in international schools will, according to Tanu, learn to pick up the “cultural cues, languages, accents, and mannerisms of their surroundings so as to blend in with the dominant culture” (which is more western than anything else). It’s telling that in many countries throughout Asia local kids that attend international schools often adopt (and, in some cases, are given) western names to ‘integrate’.

Encouraging curiosity

So why limit the ‘celebration’ of cultures to one day on the calendar? All year round, expat parents can try to influence their kids to be curious about, and respectful of, others’ cultures. For example, if your kids invite their friends over, you can encourage conversations that will highlight diversity by asking: “What other languages do you guys speak other than English? Where were your parents born? What are your favourite foods from your homeland?” From there, try to get their stories, so the kids can appreciate the cultural distinctions amongst their collective international identity.

This article was originally published for the thousands of expat partners that Global Connection supports around the globe. It is reproduced here in its original form.

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