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International Cultural Overpass:

Its Relation to and Alienation from Indigenous Culture

Chamnongsri Rutnin Hanchanlash


When invited to speak at this conference, my immediate response was “Are you sure?” I am not an academic and not used to speaking at formidable international conferences.

Then I thought, maybe I do have some qualifications - after all, I am the grandmother of 6 international school students (four different international schools). Moreover, I myself belong to an adult generation of 'Third Culture Kids', as sociologist/anthropologist Dr. Ruth Hill Useem defines those who have “spent a significant part of the developmental years in a culture outside the parent culture.”[1]

My grandchildren, each one of them a 100 percent Thai, are aged 3 ½ to 12 . And like most grandmothers of this era the world over, I don’t have much say in my grandchildren’s education. My opinions on the subject have always been greeted by my children with filial smiles of affectionate tolerance. It was with s unmotherly relish, I announced that I had been invited to speak at the Annual Conference the European Council of International Schools. Now, that was greeted with unfilial astonishment and budding respect due to the fact that all of the 4 couples’ children are scattered in 4 different international schools in Bangkok.

Having reiterated my qualifications I shall go on to describe an overview of the International Schools scenario in Thailand with regards to homegrown Thai students, the attitudes of parents and the government, then discuss what I see as the emergence of the culture for which I have coined the term 'International Cultural Overpass'.

On this International Cultural Overpass are the 'Fourth Culture Kids' which is a term by which I would like to call children who, like my own grandchildren, are local kids living in their parents' culture but attending international schools whose curriculums are western-based and taught entirely in English by teachers who hailed from other cultures. I shall then take a look at the International Overpass Culture, its relationship to and alienation from the indigenous culture – I prefer to use the word 'indigenous' to the word 'local' in this context. With a country with a long history whose root culture delves deep, the word 'indigenous' is obviously more appropriate. I shall conclude with what I regard as very important – the new culture’s potential or possible impacts on the social and political aspects of my country in the next generation, and suggestions regarding ways that might to some degree strengthen the relationship to and decrease the alienation from the indigenous culture.

I have reasons to suspect that my presentation today may to a large extent be relevant to other Asian and African countries – of course, with variations and differences depending on the cultural and historical context of each country and region.


At the present time, there are 70-80 international schools in Thailand – most are registered as members of the International School Association of Thailand which was founded in 1994 and is now working closely with the government to establish criteria for quality assurance.

Before 1991, there were only 5 international schools. Their purpose was to educate sons and daughters of foreigners stationed in Thailand – mostly members of the foreign diplomatic and business communities (and the military personnel’s families during the Vietnam War). The Thai Government did not allow these schools to accept Thai nationals with the exception of the children of Thai diplomats who had been stationed abroad. (Only one school was designated for these children – Ruam Rudee International School.)

In 1991, however, the restriction was eased. International schools were allowed to accept Thai children, but only up to 50 % of the total enrolment, though Thai nationals had to take a minimum of 5 periods (or 2 ½ hours) a week of Thai language and culture.

Why this change in policy? The economic boom of the late 80’s to mid 90’s had brought the government face to face with the fact that children from wealthy families were being sent to schools abroad in great numbers, the most popular being the U.K and the U.S. Those who could not afford the expenses or wanted to keep their children closer to home would choose schools in Australia, India, the Philippines, Penang, Singapore or Hong Kong.

Fluency in both spoken and written English was the main quest. But several well-educated parents, my own children included, also cited dissatisfaction with the general format of the Thai education though they still wanted their children to remain close to them. They rightly felt that western education was more stimulating and encouraged analytical thinking, and that it would open doors to leading western universities which, in turn, would lead to wider opportunities in a global world increasingly dominated by business, communication and technology.

The Government’s easing of the restriction was to lessen the tremendous outflow of funds and the separation of children from their parents and the environment of their native land.

The eager and positive response of Thai parents, together with the fact that Thailand had become a prime Asian base for multi-national companies which led to a dramatic increase in the number of expatriate families, spurred dramatic growth in the number and size of new international schools in the past decade - several of them breaching official rules by accepting up to 75 % Thai nationals.

For the moment, the government is deliberately turning a blind eye while actively planning new alternative - Thai schools with ‘English Programme’ of which I shall refer to again later. The project is still in its experimental state.

It must be noted that the Thai or half-Thai children attending international schools are children from families with affluence, and in a great many cases, influence – politicians, bureaucrats, business executives, media figures etc. Many of the parents in such families are themselves Third Culture Kids, and many are unhappy with the quality of the conventional education in Thai schools and the slow pace of the educational reform. When their children were ready for kindergarten, my son and daughters had agonized over the dilemma – should it be Thai or international? All opted for the latter, and are happy with their choice except for the Thai language question already discussed, the potential loss of much of their children’s 'Thainess', and the costs.

As James Cambridge very aptly described the purpose of international schools in his article ‘Identifying the Globalist and International Missions of International Schools’:

We may interpret international education as a product or service consumed by two client groups, comprising the globally mobile workforce… and the members of the local economic and social elites in countries around the world with aspirations to social and global mobility. What unites these client groups in a disinclination to use the indigenous educational system…

International Cultural Overpass

Watching all this from the vantage point of an international school grandmother (grandmothers are in a position to stand back and observe with calm detachment – untangled in parenthood’s webs of career, PTAs, grades and whatnots), I see a very interesting emergence of a culture that belongs to a new generation of the affluent minority of Thai youths, who while growing up in their native country, are immersed in the learning environment of western-curriculum-based international education in the subjects are taught in English and by foreign teachers.

I discussed my ideas with Mr. Andrew Bartlett, who chairs the Parent Association of the Prem Tinsulanonda International School in Chiangmai, which is the main northern city of Thailand, and he kindly made notes on various points in our discussion, here I shall quote from some his notes:

…Over the last 40 years or so, Third Culture Kids (sometimes called “Global Nomads”) have been the subject of Ph.D. theses, conferences, popular books and websites… Much less attention appears to have been given to what happens when local children attend international schools….

The question we must ask, however, is what kind of culture do these children acquire?...

This brings us to the theme of my presentation. In Bangkok, the building of elevated toll-collecting expressways began about a decade ago. It has expanded into increasingly larger networks high up and over-passing ground traffic and pedestrians. They are used by those who have the means to buy automobiles and pay the toll. When driving on these expressways, one can drive fast and unhampered. If one looks down, one may get a downward view but it is only a 'view', a virtual reality, not life contact or participation in the living reality of what is going on below.

These expressways are linked to the ground with entries and exits. Without the links with the ground level the elevated traffic, no matter how fast and free, would have no roots or any real destinations.

So, it dawned on me to use the term 'International Cultural Overpass' to represent this new culture to which all of my own 6 grandchildren will undoubtedly becoming a part. The parents can be said to be the entries, which can also be regarded as the main and most important link to the indigenous roots. Many Thai parents are, however, working so hard to build up their family financial stability as well as to finance their children’s schooling that they do not have much energy or time for meaningful experiences with the children.

Having spent an uninterrupted 6 ½ teenage years in England, going to an English boarding school, living with an English family, I can be regarded as one of the groups that are precursors of the emerging cultural overpass generation in Thailand. But there are significant differences, however, the main and foremost being in regard to the in-depth literacy and fluency in self-expression in Thai mother-tongue - and what comes with it.

My own education, like that of the great number of other Thai Third Culture Kids who were sent to school in western countries in their early teens or pre-teens, began in a Thai School in Thailand with Thai curriculum, Thai teachers and Thai learning environment. In fact, I went to a school that prided itself on traditions and culture, being founded by the Queen Consort of King Rama V towards the end of the 19th Century. English was taught as the ‘so-called’ second language – so-called because the few hours per week of ‘English’ were taught by Thai teachers whose proficiency in the language was far from high.

By the time I left for England, I was familiar with the Thai language, both spoken and written. I was already at home with all its quirks and nuances.

My father sent me to England at the age of 12. He put me in an English family for 6 months to familiarize myself with the English language before going on to a boarding school in Hampshire which had only half other foreigners beside myself – an English girl with a gorgeous American mother. Another foreigner, a Portuguese joined a year later. During 6 ½ years, I visited Europe but never came home, and met other Thai people only very infrequently. I grew to love England, its flowers, its people, its literature, it stage plays and, yes…believe me… its food.

It can be said that by the time I came home after passing GCE A level, England occupied a tender niche in my heart, and the first paper-back publication of my writing was an anthology of poems and tales written in English. For the first fifteen years or so after my return to Thailand, I felt that, for writing, English was my emotional language while Thai was my practical language – I was good with both but excelled at neither. The balance gradually came with use – and I taught myself to type in Thai (much more difficult than in English) after the age of 50.

With the early years of schooling up to adolescence, the Thai language and the living indigenous culture had been ingrained in me. From a very young age, I had read Thai stories, verses, biographies, history books. By the time I left for England, I had absorbed the beauty and the spirit of the Thai language and literature with all its idiosyncrasies and nuance, light and shade, rhythm and hues. I could read with speed as well as an understanding beyond mere denotative meaning of the printed words.

My grandchildren and their Thai peers in international schools in Thailand, on the other hand, started their education in Western-based English language international schools in Bangkok from kindergarten and will most probably continue until graduation with an International Baccalaureates, or GCEs. The youngest of my grandchildren is now 3 ½ , he is already a student at Harrow International School in Bangkok in his white shirt and Harrow tie.

These Thai students have only five sessions a week of Thai classes taught by Thai teachers – the Ministry of Education has made it compulsory for students who are Thai nationals. But to all intent and purposes, Thai language classes are 'a second language' kind of a class, because English is the academic language used in lessons, discussions, researches, essays etc. This is unconsciously absorbed by the children and the Thai language becomes to them the mother tongue that is not really 'all that necessary' for intellectual development.

Despite his parents efforts including the hiring of a teacher to give out-of-school lessons in reading and writing Thai, my 11-year-old grandson’s Thai is not really good enough to read my books with ease. Where reading and writing is concerned, English has become his first language, his mother tongue his second. The same applies to his 10 years old sister, who is an avid reader- in English.

Do I worry over this fact? I must admit that I do. Without speed and fluency, they won’t be able to dig in and enjoy reading books of any depth or length in their own mother tongue. As they grow older, they will have less and less time to spend in improving the skill – after all, there are already so much to do with school work, so many books they want to read, all in English, of course, because that has become their world. While they become well-versed with the works of Shakespeare, Thoreau, Hesse, Frost and even Gandhi, they cannot help but lose out on ideas, thoughts, feelings and other subtleties that are shared and exchanged by the main body of the Thai people be it through columns popular press, critiques, articles as well as contemporary or classical literature of their own country. Because, as Mr. Bartlett puts it,

The difference between Thai and English is more than just a difference between two sets of vocabulary; it is a difference between two ways of understanding the world…

My best-selling book in Thai is titled 'Boats in Mid-Ocean'. It traces my maternal family from the turbulent days of China in the late 18th Century, its migration to Thailand in the mid-1870s, its gradual assimilation into the fabric of Thai society, its dramatic and substantial role in the economic and political history of 20th Century Thailand.

As things are, this book will most probably not be read in its original version by my own grandchildren in whose veins courses the blood of the ancestors whose successes and failures, weaknesses and strengths, heroism and poignant tragedies are told in the book authored by their own grandmother. There is a certain poignancy in that. Yes, it is most probable that they will be reading it in the English translation which I am editing and revising so that it will be suitable to western readers.

So inseparably interrelated is language and culture. Here I would like to explain culture as I myself see it. I would like to roughly divide 'culture' in to three layers for the purpose of making this talk more easily understandable.

Firstly, the experiential layer, the visible and audible aspects of culture, such as dress, classical and folk dances, art, music, festivals and ceremonies. Secondly, the intellectual level, those aspects of culture related to the conscious mind, such as philosophy, beliefs, traditions and ways of thinking. Thirdly, the involuntary level, those aspects of culture related to the subconscious mind which manifest themselves in reactions, attitudes and feelings.

The first layer of culture is the one that is most obvious to foreigners; it is the kind of thing that is often utilized in travel promotion campaigns, and can easily be learnt by all students at International Schools. The second layer can also be learnt at school, but I would argue that it requires a level of language ability that is absent in most International Schools in Thailand. The third layer of culture cannot be taught. It is a product of immersion in the local community, the result of living with a group of people who continuously demonstrate culturally-specific attitudes and values.

(Parents are, to varying extents, the source of all three – varying according to the depth of the cultural depth of the parents themselves, the quality and amount of time they can spend with their children, the intra-familial relationship. Be that as it may, the influence and ambiance of schools are undeniably formidable.)

I am sure that there are other ways to classify the different aspects of culture, but I hope that my description of cultural layers will help us to distinguish between what International Schools in Thailand are already doing (first layer), what could be improved (second layer) and what cannot be done (third layer).

Having once been invited by some Thai teachers at one of the top international schools in Bangkok to an hour of discussion with a group of Thai 6th formers, I found that they were all intelligent teenagers who are extremely interested in what I, as a Thai writer, Thai thinker, Thai social-worker, Thai Buddhist meditator think, what I feel on various questions. Their questions and interest showed that there was pride in being Thai as well as a thirst for knowledge and lively interest in ‘Thainess’ that lies deeper than just the obvious so-called things Thai in everyday life. The second and third levels of culture were they were trying to get at. The hour seemed too far, far too short.

I actually experienced an uncanny feeling that I was among young foreigners living in my country – foreigners who love the country and the culture rather than young natives, their ‘Thainess’ being so much on a conscious level. In my mind’s eye I saw them as the Fourth Culture driving on the ‘international cultural overpass’, still caring and looking for links with the realities of the ground traffic.

Later discussions with the Thai teachers gave me clearer insight. Some of these 6th formers were of half-Thai parentage, while others were of purely Thai. The whole of their school-life, which is no less than ¾ of the young lives, the Thai people they met were one or two Thai language teachers, secretaries, the office personnel, janitors. Academics and intellectual aspects were the area of teachers who came from other cultures than their own.

Culture is something you grow up in, belong to and are not really conscious of. In Thai there is a saying that “Birds do not see the sky, nor fish the water”, not unless the bird is plucked out of the sky and the fish is taken out of water.

James Cambridge states in his article that: …The problem may be that international education enhances and celebrates cultural diversity in its exotic and peripheral component – the so-called ‘sambas, saris and steel bands’ aspects of culture…

It appears that International Schools are focusing on the first layer of culture, and rarely addressing the second and third. On this point, Mr. Bartlett, wrote to me that:

…In the past, my daughter’s school has made a big thing about celebrating Loy Krathong (Festival)[2], but very little has been done to help students – Thai and foreigners – gain a deeper understanding of Thai Culture..

The international schools teachers cannot be blamed for this – most are expatriates who usually stay in Thailand for only two to four years. For the most part, they find it natural to socialize with fellow expatriates. This is again understandable, because, while Thais are generally resilient, good natured, hospitable and friendly people, they have a deep-seated lack of confidence when dealing with foreigners. I have heard many expatriates say that while they are accepted and are treated with great generosity and warmth, they are accepted only ‘as foreigners’. Within one year, at least two expatriate ladies, the wife of a diplomat and the wife a business executive, said to me that Thailand is the country where they are endlessly entertained, wined and dined – but they had very rarely been invited into Thai homes.

Not surprisingly, the foreign teachers are often unaware or alien to the true and in-depth social skills or values of the indigenous Thai and therefore, unable to cultivate them in the Thai students. After all, culture is what one grows up with, or absorbs naturally over a long period of assimilation.

The teachers do, however, posses their own social skills and values, which may be what the Third Culture Kids want and need, and which are unarguably enriching for the Thai Fourth Culture kids in their role as global citizens in an increasingly global world. But they still do vitally need more equipment in their social tool box to negotiate the bends, curves and quirks in the ground traffic when they are not driving on the overpass. To reach a meaningful destination, they must have the navigation skills and familiarity with terrain of the ground traffic. Besides, the overpass must have strong and adequate links with the roads below.

The most significant link beside the family is the in depth literacy – native fluency in writing, as well as reading – in the mother tongue because it is the instrument of communication and understanding. It is somewhat sad to live in your own country without being able to read the columns that are read by tens of millions of your compatriots, cannot contribute your thoughts or opinions in writing to share with them, not to be able to peruse legal papers that you might have to sign. I have done and read enough translation to know how much between-the-line richness and connotations can be lost in translation.

Here, I shall again quote from Mr. Bartlett’s note of our discussion as his English is far more expressive than mine:

…Rich and influential families have, of course, always sent their children to elite schools. These children have never received the same education as the average Thai child. But they have received a Thai education. By contrast, the new generation of Fourth Culture Kids receive something quite different…

The Fourth Culture Kids acquire knowledge, attitudes and values that makes them feel ‘at home’ with foreigners, but can also set them apart from the majority of children of their own nationality…

Many of these Fourth Culture Kids will follow their parents and become leaders in Thai society.

And this is how he kindly put my core questions into good, concise English:

Will they share the aspirations of the electors they are supposed to represent? Will they understand the attitudes of the workers they are expected to manage? Will they be able to identify, analyze and act upon the social constraints and opportunities that surround them?

I used to argue about 'values' with my husband also a Thai Third Culture Kid who spent his formative years in France where he received Doctorate degree in International Law. A firm believer in “universal values”, he agrees that there is no such thing as 'universal culture', and endorses my concept of 'International Cultural Overpass' and Fourth Culture Kids. As Regional Director of an International Organization for 17 years, he had to deal with colleagues from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. While they had common social values, he needed to be more fully aware of the cultural background of each of his colleagues when discharging his responsibilities.

Possible Future Scenario

I would like to present three possible scenarios of what might happen in Thailand, in perhaps the third decade of the 21st Century, if the links between the international overpass and the indigenous culture are weak and far between

The first scenario grows out of my fears that my country will be like a big ship with a small number of those charting the course at one end while the vast majority of the passengers and much of the navigation crew is at the other end. Though on the same ship, they have different perspectives, communicate on different channels, read news from different papers. If the ship were to runs into an iceberg, like the Titanic, would it break in the middle?

The second scenario was presented by a friend in her late forties – she is a well-known prize-winning writer, a poet, and a historian. In her student days, Jiranand Pitpreecha played a prominent role in the overthrow of a military dictatorship regime in an episode 1973 regarded as an important turning point in the history of democracy of present day Thailand. Jiranand painted another possible scenario. She thinks the number of the Fourth Culture Kids will still constitute a percentage too small for them to become political leaders, they will have too small a support due to their alienation from the core culture of the country. Rather, she fears that the gap between the international cultural overpass and the cultural ground traffic will engender an aggressive neo-nationalism in reaction to the small privileged group. In the political sphere, the Fourth Culture Kids might, at best, end up as advisors or consultants of political leaders rather than becoming leaders themselves. Their real place, however, will be in the multi-national corporations.

My husband suggests the possibility of a third scenario in which Thailand will be absorbed into the global culture. Though the core culture will remain, a layer of the living Thai culture will evolve with the globalization process and, in the course of time, help rationalize the globalization process and facilitate the integration of different civilizations. The greatly proliferated number of Fourth Culture Kids all over the world will be driving on a far-reaching network of international cultural overpass that will serve international understanding and mediation.

You see, my husband is well-known for his unquenchable optimism. He admits, however, that such change will only marginally effect 'core culture', and a Thai will remain different from a European or an American in terms of attitude and habit - and from other Asians, too, to a lesser degree.

From the point of view of Thailand’s social strength and stability, however, he agrees with me and most of my socially committed Thai friends and colleagues that it is important for the Fourth Culture Kids to forge strong and numerous links as with the core culture of their homeland.


I would like to put forward suggestions as to possible ways and means the international schools can move towards helping Fourth Culture Kids forge the links that will be so important if they are to live their lives in their motherland.

Please recognize and respect the importance of the native language of the host country. A Thai parent recently told me about an interview she had with the teacher of an international school in which her child was going to enroll. She had asked if Thai was going to be taught. The teacher probably misinterpreting her preference, answered: yes, the Ministry of Education, has made 2 ½ hours a week of Thai language and culture compulsory to Thai students but “…we can get around that.” She was dismayed and enrolled her child in another international school.

The 2 ½ hours a week allotted to Thai language and culture is, perhaps, sufficient time to provide students with an appreciation of the first layer of culture, but it is inadequate if students are to acquire the language skills needed to learn the second layer. The time could undoubtedly be spent more effectively if the curriculum focused less on the visible components of culture such as dress, rites, traditions and the likes, and more on the deeper underlying layers - for an instance, less on the life Buddha or Buddhist ceremonies, more on Buddhist philosophy and practice. Greater attention could be give to Thai history, social studies and literature. There is a limit, however, to what International Schools can achieve in terms of cultural education unless they devote a lot more time to teaching Thai language; and they will soon be facing greater competition in this area.

As the present time, Thai Ministry of Education is setting up an English Language Program in which the newly-reformed Thai curriculum is used and in which the teaching will be done in 50 % Thai and 50% English up to year 3, then 35 % Thai and 65 % English thereafter. This is a typically Thai way of doing things: pragmatic compromise. The program is an attempt to create a 'middle way', between International Schools and traditional Thai schools. It is hoped that the new programme, if successful, will provide Thai students with the benefits that can be gained from fluency in English without the cultural alienation, beside lessening parental expenses.

In addition to providing more time for Thai language studies, I would like to add the following suggestions:

…Greater attention could be given to recruiting Thai teachers who are well-qualified, receive good incentives and will be able to teach the students more than just language;

…Thais from various fields should be invited to give the students a regular opportunity for discussion and interaction with people who play contributive roles in the social and intellectual aspects of the country;

…I also suggest that the Fourth Culture Kids have close interaction with surrounding communities along the concept of 'town and gown' used by universities;

…Extra curriculum activities should be organized where the students work with local, or better still, rural people. The activities should result in the exchange of ideas and knowledge, for an instance – a research project on the world-views of noodle vendors;

…Twinning arrangement with a local school for exchange of teaching sessions can also be beneficial and interesting on both sides. Students who are Thai nationals should be given a chance sit in at some classes in a good Thai school. Students from International Schools in Thailand travel up and down the country to attend sporting and artistic events organized by other International Schools, but they rarely – if ever - step foot in the Thai schools that are right next door;

Having made these suggestions, I am now wondering if international schools in Thailand can implement them. Do the principals and teachers recognize the opportunities that exist? And do they have the resources and the connections that are required to put them into practice? It may be up to parents to make sure that the answer to these question is ‘yes’. I have already noted that parents are the most important link between the cultural overpass and the local terrain. If parents work together, they may be able to perform this role more effectively.

Mr. Bartlett has informed me of the following development at the Prem Tinsulanonda International School:

The Parents Association at my daughter's school is currently setting up a "Thai Culture Group" with the aim of helping the staff to integrate both a broader and deeper appreciation of Thai society and environment into the teaching programme. The proposal to establish the group grew out of discussions among parents of Thai or half-Thai children who were unhappy with the standard of Thai language teaching. The discussion led us to recognize two things. Firstly, that what really worries us is not simply that our children will not be able to understand the language, but that they may not be able to understand the people or the country. Secondly, that perhaps the greatest resource available to the school to help it overcome this problem was the parents themselves. The Head of School has responded positively. He realizes that while his staff has the required expertise and experience in other areas of the curriculum, the school may benefit from the support and assistance of parents in dealing with issues relating to Thai culture.

Having made the choice of the type of school for their children, the parents should be urged to collaborate with the school in helping to provide links between what happens at school and what happens in society as a whole. Through these, they will be able to help their children optimize the journey on the International Cultural Overpass while minimizing the alienation from the people of their home and mother land where the deeper layers of indigenous culture is concerned.

My six grandchildren are all happy and thriving in the four international schools that they are attending. As a grandmother, I am very grateful to their schools for this, and trust that they will emerge as the Fourth Culture Kids who become responsible adults, well-equipped with sense, knowledge, wisdom, savoir vivre and, also the empathy and sensitivity to the feelings and need of others.


[1] Pollack and Van Reken: Third Culture Kids: the Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, Nicholas Brealy; Intercultural Press, 2001 [2] Festival of candle floats on full-moon night of the Seventh Lunar Month that usually fall in November.


From: Annual Conference, The European Council of International Schools (ECIS) Presented on 22 November 2003, Hamburg, Germany ,CROSS CULTURE SECTION

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