Today, December 5, is the eve of St.Nicholas Day. In the Netherlands, this means it is “pakjesavond” – the night Sinterklaas leaves present in children’s shoes. Being of Canadian extraction, this tradition is not part of my holiday rota. However, my children have spent their whole lives here, and so it’s been necessary to integrate the “Sint” into our lives.
Although my professional specialisation is language related, in many ways language and culture are integrally linked. And of course for multilingual children, being multicultural is a part of their world view as well. Last year I spent time researching the “Third Culture Kid” field, and considering its implication in my own work. I also had the honour of meeting Ruth van Reken ( at the annual Families in Global Transition conference, where I spend some time with her discussing issues relating to TCKs and language.
I’d like to take the opportunity to share an article I wrote on this subject for a local newspaper ( It’s a departure from my normal blog content, but I think it may be applicable to the lives of many of my readers. Enjoy!

Don’t forget to pack the pepernoten!”

My field of specialization is language, but in talking about bilingualism, the topic of culture frequently comes up. Given the season, it’s appropriate to talk about an important aspect of culture from an expat child perspective.
Most adult expats have little problem answering the question “Where are you from?” – we identify with the country of our birth. For expat children, who are sometimes not even born in the country of either of their parents, the question is more complex. These children are known as “Third Culture Kids”, or TCKs. Third culture kids are children who have a culture that is specific to being raised abroad – they have some of the culture of their parents’ countries, and some of the culture of the country they are living in at any given time, as well a little bit of culture from everywhere they have lived. In fact, TCKs are the ultimate cultural melting pot.
So what does this mean for parents? Essentially, in the same way that parents need to consider language maintenance when leaving for a new country, they also need to consider “cultural maintenance”. The obvious example for those of us living in the Netherlands is the issue of Sinterklaas. The festive season in the Netherlands is very centred around children – the arrival of the Sint on the boat in harbours around the country, the procession through town, the decorations everywhere with Zwarte Piet and friends. All the schools I have visited pay some homage to the Dutch tradition, whether it is in arts and crafts, story time, or seasonal celebrations. Discussions at the school gates are often focused on whether or not the Zwarte Piets left anything in the shoes last night, and the olieballen vans are everywhere.
So how does this affect families who are not Dutch? While we are here in the Netherlands, most of us choose to participate in Dutch culture to some degree – it is much easier to access culture than to learn the language! When we leave the Netherlands, whether to return home or for the next posting, we need to remember the cultural needs of our children, who are now at least a little bit Dutch as well. Over the years, I’ve sent many a “Sint-package” to friends living in a new place – all the essentials: pepernoten, candy, Zwarte Piet hats, shoes, so they can celebrate the Sinterklaas season with their children in the US, Malaysia, Dubai or wherever they now call home.
For the children, this is an important part of bringing their “old” self into their new place – they cannot shed the trappings of a country they used to call home as easily as adults can. In “Raising Global Nomads”, Robin Pascoe discusses the importance of establishing and maintaining meaningful family traditions that incorporate elements of the different “lives” that your children have lived. By doing this, expat families and third culture kids can feel a sense of belonging in a new place, without needing to leave the old “home” completely behind. So if you are an expat family looking at leaving the Netherlands in the near future, consider what traditions and cultural experiences your children would want to take with them – you can’t take the “plakje kaas?” from the cheese shop, but you can take care to pack the Sinterklaas costumes and some wooden shoes, and arrange for a good friend to send you a “Sinterklaas care package” in the next holiday season, wherever it may find you.