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A Teacher, A Cultural Translator

Artwork from Cassie Vergel’s classroom

I surveyed the classroom, doing a visual, auditory, and mental check of each student I saw – what they were doing, what were the social dynamics. As a first time kindergarten teacher, I was honing my skills of multi sensory check-ins to keep track of my 18 students.

As I watched a pair of girls plug in glue guns, I heard a scuffle behind me between two boys. I kept my eyes on the girls but my ears zeroed in on the boys’ voices, choosing not to turn my head knowing that the sudden gaze of a teacher could break the boys’ conversation.

“I want to go first.”

“No, I want to go first.”

I turned around casually to watch this typical kindergarten conversation unfold.

“I know!” exclaims Ben, one of the boys. “Let’s do Roshambo!”

Matthew, the other boy, looked at him with a blank expression that quickly turned into confusion. There was a pause and neither boy moved.

Without knowing what I was going to say, I walked over to Matthew, knelt down next to him and the words poured out of my mouth.

“Matthew, he means Jan Ken Po,” I said. “Roshambo is the same as Jan Ken Po.”

Matthew turned his head to me with wide eyes, smiled at me, and turned back to Ben with his hands ready for Roshambo/Jan Ken Po.

Without thinking, I continued. “Matthew wakatta?” asking him, in my other native tongue, Japanese, if he understood what I meant.

He responded without hesitation, “Hai!”

This was the moment I realized that I had something valuable to offer to this classroom that no one else could provide. I could navigate through nuanced cultural differences between students, particularly because of my Third Culture Kid background.

Matthew was not loud or rambunctious like the students, but rather quite the opposite: reserved and easily missed. He was observant, academically inclined, and followed rules impeccably. I shared this observation with my co-teacher in the class and she suggested that I pay particular attention to him because he had moved to the U.S. from Japan.


This was why he felt familiar to me. Matthew reminded me of myself — an Asian Third Culture Kid who attended an international school in Japan and was then relocated to California. Not only that, he attended the same international school that I had as a child.

Artwork from Cassie Vergel’s classroom

After this short interaction, I naturally felt compelled to reflect on my own adjustments when I moved to the U.S. to start my undergraduate studies in California. First of all, I had to adjust to speaking only English with my new college friends. The hodge podge Japanglish that I spoke between my friends from home was now met with blank looks and I suddenly found myself having to search for English equivalents to the Japanese interjections I used regularly. But wait, I said those words in Japanese in the first place because there are no English equivalents…

Furthermore, my freshman year of college was full of surprising realizations. I was no longer average height and build, and my American friends referred to me as “tiny and cute.” I didn’t understand the American college students’ unhealthy obsession with alcohol and the need to black out every weekend since most of my TCK friends were out clubbing and drinking since they were 16.

It seemed that at every turn, a different hyphenated-American was telling me something different about what it mean to be American. Growing up, my life revolved around navigating between cultures and yet, now that I was immersed in a country frantically searching for a tangible identity, I suddenly missed not having one unified culture with clear expectations and rules.

I didn’t have anyone guiding me during my “roshambo” moments. How different would my adjustments and experiences have been had someone aided the transition?

In the last two years of teaching, I’ve often found myself wondering what could I possibly offer in the realm of education, to a classroom, to one student. How do I speak to each unique experience when I am only one person living one life?

Every individual, TCK or not, will experience a cultural transition as they switch educational and professional institutions. I cannot be present for every transition and adjustment, but perhaps by sharing my reflections, I can help raise awareness and help other educators better facilitate an environment where cultures mix, blend, and collide.

In an increasingly globalized world, multicultural, multiethnic, and TCK students will fill classrooms. I think teachers will have to embrace a new role – as a cultural translator. I am hoping that graduate school will both deconstruct and unify my identities as a TCK, educator, and learner and ultimately help me lead existing cultural translators and teach others.

I will start my graduate studies in the fall. I want to learn to use my experiences for good, both as a student, a teacher, and a contributing member of world. This is my calling.

How have you used your Third Culture Kid experiences to help others?

1 Comment

  1. Bekah T. says

    I have been teaching for the past two years in a classroom in the States in which none of the kids have lived overseas, but it is amazing how my TCK identity still plays into it, bringing the world into our classroom. My kiddos even understand my random commands in a smattering of languages from my upbringing! I’m going to be teaching at an international school next year and can’t wait to see how it all comes together in a school more like the ones I attended while overseas as a kid. What an adventure it will be 🙂


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