Multicultural Madonna

November 3, 2013

My excuse for the lengthy lapse in active CultureShuttle blogging: my beautiful, brilliantly precocious, Ethiopian-American-and-soon-to-be-Third-Culture Son. Along with myself, and my Chinese-American-Third-Culture-Husband, our family begins to look like a little United Nations. Wheee!

Who’s Your Daddy?

January 12, 2011

Social status for monocultural kids is a complicated calculus.

Can’t say that I ever really learned to understand it, but factors seemed to include wearing “cool” clothing, owning “cool” things, popularity within a narrowly defined clique of “cool” peers, and skill at one or more “cool” extracurriculars. The characteristics that define what is “cool” are based on shared experience. Years of watching the same TV shows, listening to the same radio stations, shopping in the same stores, and participating in the same extracurricular activities leads to a tacit understanding, indecipherable by outsiders, which magically sets one’s social status. And frequently sets that status in stone.

Social status for Third Culture Kids is simpler to assess, and far more susceptible to sudden change.

The student body of an international school is constantly in flux. Any reigning popular kid is likely to disappear, before or soon after you are scheduled to arrive. And we all arrive from different countries, different school systems, different towns. There are no shared experiences vis-a-vis radio, TV, shopping, or after-school activities. There is no shared, tacit understanding that can serve as a yardstick of personal worth. The only things we have in common are the experience of being new, and the desire to identify and access useful information and resources. For this reason, social status among TCKs often boils down to one simple question:

“So, who’s your Dad with?” (And yes, it really is usually the Dad.)

The sponsor-organization that assigned him to a post, the likely duration of his assignment at that post, and the prestige of the particular project he was assigned to, generally determined a kid’s access to both.

Architect at his drawing board. (Public Domain)

Architect at his drawing board. (Public Domain)

My father was an architect who worked for Tippetts, Abbett, McCarthy & Stratton. The international design projects he was assigned to varied dramatically in both visibility and prestige. So, my social status as a Third Culture Kid went up and down, like a yo-yo.

When we moved to Iran, my Dad was to work on the redesign of Mehrabad International Airport. The Iranian government considered the project such a low priority item, that the project had actually been canceled — until the roof of the old airport collapsed, due to snow, killing several hundred people. So, we went. Few kids had ever heard about the project. My Dad’s company was relatively small for a multinational firm, and though they did rent us a house for the duration, that was really all I had access to. And so, I was nobody. Oil kids had some serious cachet Iran, and the Bell Helicopter kids. But not me. I was just one more nice, unimportant kid, easy to ignore.

A few years later, my Dad was assigned to the architectural design of one of two new, secret airbases to be built in Israel’s Negev Desert. It was a huge, front-page-news kind of project — a result of the 1978 Camp David Accords signed by Carter, Sadat, and Begin. As an “Airbase Kid,” Dependent of a member of the design team, I was accorded high social status, immediately upon arrival. As a likely hostage target, I even qualified for special treatment during high-school safety drills: “In case of a border-raid, all children except Airbase Kids will proceed directly to the bomb shelters. Airbase Kids will be bussed to the beach, where they will be airlifted out on helicopters.” How “cool” is THAT?! I had commissary privileges for the first time, too, and access to “The Palace Hotel” (a beach-front resort commandeered by the USDOD for use as offices and temporary living quarters for project VIPs). The Palace had a private swimming pool, game-rooms, movie rooms, afternoon cake and ice-cream buffets, saunas, steam-rooms, a lending-library of board-games… AND, I was allowed to bring in guests! I don’t think my social status among peers had ever before (or since) been higher.

Of course, all that wonderful social status went right out the window when my family left Israel, and returned to New York. In New York City, my Dad designed public school buildings and the occasional subway station. It might have been as bad as Iran.

But at least, with no TCKs around, no one bothered to ask, “Who’s your Daddy?”

TCKidLit: “Child of the Jungle”

August 24, 2010

ChildOfTheJungleBookCover“Child of the Jungle: the true story of a girl caught between two worlds,” by Sabine Kuegler, is a fascinating account of a German missionary kid’s childhood experiences growing up among the Fayu — a recently discovered, Stone-Age tribe indigenous to West Papua, Indonesia.  Part family memoir, part ethnographic history, and in part a dramatic tale of cross-cultural reentry, the book bounces around quite a bit thematically.  However, the factual tid-bits of information she presents about the Fayu culture, and about how that culture changed over the years, due to the influence of her missionary family, were simply riveting.  In a sense, the title of the book is misleading, for the real story in the book is not that of the jungle-girl narrator, but the story of change within the Fayu culture, itself.  And for that,  I found the book well worth the read.

Bridge Builders & Boarding Parties

August 19, 2010

One of the personality traits that is common among third culture kids is a propensity for speed in forming new friendships. And for good reason. TCKs don’t have time to feel people out, or wait and watch to see if the people they encounter at a new post seem like the “kind of people” they might want to befriend. Friendship is not a life-long commitment; it is part of the here and immediate now.  Missionary Kids might spend 7-8 years in one post. Military and Diplomatic Corps kids get 3-4 years. Business kids get 2-3 years.  And kids of academics, on sabbatical abroad, will often get only one!  You either make new friends, RIGHT NOW, or you spend your time alone.

There are standard techniques that TCKs use for making friends quickly, and signaling friendly intent. Key among these is a habit of boldly approaching strangers, and cheerfully introducing ourselves. (We may not always feel bold and cheerful, but we all know how to put it on.) This is motivated by the Third-Culture presumptions that every stranger is a potential friend, that everyone would like a new friend, and that someone has to make the first move.

Self-introductions are generally followed by deep and meaningful conversation. TCKs rarely waste time with small talk (unless they happen to know that local custom requires it).  Instead, they get right down to discussing meaty topics like world affairs, politics, philosophy and religion, including their opinions, relevant experience, and intimate personal feelings.  This is meant to signal an offer of genuine friendship – not romance, not sex, just genuine friendship at lightening speed.  In essence, the TCK is building a bridge, to close the gap between strangers.  And as with every cultural norm, reciprocation is expected.  With two people bridge-building and closing that gap, strangers become best friends in no time.

The trouble TCKs often face is that non-TCKs form friendships at a much slower pace.  It can take years or even decades for a non-TCK to “feel safe” enough with a new acquaintance to share a personal thought or feeling.  They do not believe that every stranger is a potential friend.  In fact, they more often adopt a wary stance, as if all strangers were potentially dangerous.  They do not construct interpersonal bridges at lightening speed.  They wait.  They watch.  They judge.  And when they see us, rapidly building a one-sided-bridge to close the gap…

Bridge Under Construction Photo © W. K. Benutzer

Bridge Under Construction Photo © W. K. Benutzer

…they perceive us as a boarding party.

Non-TCKs often perceive TCKs as too desperate, too pushy, or too romantically inclined too soon.  TCKs often perceive Non-TCKs as insular, mean, and inhospitable.  But both perceptions are misinterpreted signals.  It’s all a matter of cultural norms.

TCKidLit: “The Secret Garden”

August 6, 2010

SecretGardenBookCoverThis charming children’s classic, written by Frances Hodgson Burnett, is worth reading as an adult, even if you read it first as a child. The story vividly and accurately portrays the emotional journey that many third-culture-kids experience, as they confront the reverse-culture-shock of repatriation.

Mary Lennox is a nine-year-old, British military brat, born and raised in British Colonial India. The story begins in the midst of a cholera epidemic, which kills both of her parents. When a pair of British officers discover Mary all alone in her parents’ empty bungalow, she is quickly sent “home” to England, to live with an uncle she has never met. Although the “spoilt and sour” demeanor Mary exhibits at the start of the book is certainly in part the result of attachment issues caused by neglectful parents, it is also very clear that many of the things that trouble her about her new home are simply the result of culture shock. And, as is typical for TCKs “returning home” to their passport countries, her ignorance of local customs is perceived as willful insolence, and any mention she makes of “how things were done” in India, is perceived as boastful arrogance.

It is only when she begins applying her TCK skills of “foreign” language acquisition (learning to speak the Yorkshire dialect spoken by the local people), studying the details of her new environment (learning to understand an appreciate the strange natural beauty and wildlife of the moor), and working on collaborative projects with local residents (reviving a neglected, secret garden), that she overcomes her grief, and begins to thrive in her passport culture.

And the secret to her success? The “magic” of choosing to change her attitude toward the foreign land she now calls home.

TCKidLit: “Naomi: The Strawberry Blonde of Pippu Town”

July 16, 2010

NaomiBookCover is a delightfully rendered tale of a young girl’s transformation from a frightened, reluctant Canadian expatriate into a fully-fledged third culture kid, acclimated to and completely in love with her new life in Japan.

Naomi is the twelve-year-old daughter of a teacher (a single mom), with a one-year teaching assignment in a small town called Pippu, in northern Japan.  The story follows Naomi’s trials and tribulations, as she adjusts to the language, social customs, and school life of her new home.  At the start of the book, Naomi suffers extreme culture shock and homesickness, and does nothing but whine and complain about being in Japan.  Then gradually, as Japanese culture becomes more familiar to her, she begins actively exploring her new home, and seeking opportunities to learn and grow.  By the end of the story, she has adapted so fully to Japanese life, that she experiences real distress at the thought of returning home to Canada, and leaving her home in Japan.   As a TCK, she now realizes that both places are equally home places.

Anyone who has lived abroad as a child, and acclimated to life in a “foreign” culture, will empathize with the trauma of leaving a beloved post.  I strongly recommend having a tissue-box on hand, when reading the final chapters.

Defining “The Third Culture”

June 10, 2010

The Third Culture.

What does that mean, really?

We have all heard that “the first culture” is our passport culture, and that “the second culture” is that of our host-country nationals, and that “the third culture” is the culture shared by people who grow up in the interstice between cultures, by TCKs, who have been defined as:

“[People who have] spent a significant part of [their] developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of the same background.” — Pollock & Van Reken

But that is like saying that “Turkish Culture” is the culture shared by people raised in Turkey. To an insider, there is tacit knowledge buried in there somewhere, but to an outsider, it means nothing.

Clearly, TCKs share certain experiences, which influence our social, cognitive, and emotional development for good and for ill. But is there really such a thing as a “Third Culture”?

“Culture” is, at its heart, as set of shared values, beliefs, attitudes, and customs. Things that can be described or explained to foreigners, to help them understand and predict the behavior of members of a particular group. So, if Third Culture Kids really do form a culture, what do you feel are the values, beliefs, attitudes, and customs of our group?

Comment away!

Seeking TCK Kidlit

May 7, 2010

I would like request your help, dear reader, in compiling a list of books – picture books, middle-grades and young-adult fiction, in particular – in which the protagonist (or at least a very major character) is explicitly written as a third culture kid (TCK).

A “third culture kid” is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside of their passport culture, because of their parents’ work.  Traditionally, these are the children of military personnel, diplomats, missionaries, and international business men, whose work forces them to relocate their families for several years at a time, to a variety of temporary posts around the globe.  The TCK life experience is quite different from that of their parents, who spend some time abroad after growing up in their own, passport culture.  The experience is also much different from that of immigrants, who have no expectation of returning “home,” and thus never experience the culture shock of reentry.  There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people who grew up in this globally-nomadic lifestyle.  And yet, I have been unable to find much literature that illustrates TCK life stories, perspectives, or concerns.

Two books I have stumbled upon in my own reading, which do star TCKs as main characters, include:

“Camel Rider,” by Prue Mason, which I have reviewed here – about an oil kid posted somewhere in the Arabian peninsula, on a desert adventure with a host-national peer.


“The Secret Garden,” by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  This one is a beautifully rendered tale of the cross-cultural reentry shock suffered by a young British girl, raised in India, who “returns home” to an entirely alien culture.

There must be others out there.  If you know of one, I encourage you to please leave a comment.  Include the title, author, publication date and publisher.  And explain in a sentence or two, what makes it a book about a third-culture-kid, rather than merely a tale of expats, or immigrants, or international travel.  Thanks!

CCKGroup: Disaffected Mormon Underground

February 25, 2010

Just stumbled upon this wonderful post about the similarities between Third Culture Kids (TCKs) and the “Disaffected Mormon Underground” — people raised in the Mormon church, and who remain culturally Mormon, but not religiously so.  It raises all sorts of wonderful questions and opportunities for me.  I just love stumbling upon new and interesting groups of Cross Cultural Kids (CCKs) like this!

I have been interested, for some time, in doing a Mormon/Mainstream-American cross-cultural story.  But all my efforts to interview LDS folk about the cultural aspects of Mormonism kept devolving into theological pitch-fests.  Now, the thought occurs: perhaps I was asking the wrong people?

So, to all my cross-cultural siblings in the “Disaffected Mormon Underground” community (and any others with solid knowledge of the Mormon way of life, who are able and willing to differentiate between the cultural norms and theology), I ask:  Can you help me to understand what you see as the essential differences between Mormon culture, and mainstream American culture?  I’m interested in both the benefits and challenges that you feel Mormon culture offers.

Comment away!

TCKidLit: Third Culture Kids

February 25, 2010

TCK Book coverI just finished reading the updated version of Ruth E. Van Reken & David C. Pollock’s, “Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds.”  Well worth the purchase price to own this new version.

Like the original, it reviews the basic research on TCKs — people who spent a significant part of their developmental years living outside their parents’ culture  (e.g. children of missionaries, the military, international businessmen, and diplomats).  It describes the essential characteristics of their globally nomadic lifestyle (high mobility, deep exposure to multiple cultures, identification with sponsoring agencies, etc.), and addresses the emotional, cognitive, and social benefits and challenges posed by that upbringing.

In addition, this updated version examines the long-term impacts of growing up as a TCK, now that more and more research on Adult TCKs is finally being completed.  It looks at the changing nature of the TCK experience, in a world where technology now allows children to maintain “permanent addresses” of their own, on email, Facebook, and other social-networking sites.  Finally, the book begins to ask questions about the similarities and differences in experience and developmental impacts of other types of cross-cultural upbringings, such as immigrant families, international adoptees, and the like.

Eye-opening, and reassuring.  I heartily recommend it.


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