On the plane between “home base” and “forward base”, I spent some time reading the book “Third culture kids” (TCK), which was recommended to us by a friend.
This being a revised edition of the book, there are a fair number of references to 0bama as the first “third culture president” that grow tiresome after a while. The writing is also not as penetrating or engaging (two different things) as I would have liked, but still the concept helped me make sense of some things in my own family (and others like us).
Even today, in the Internet and Web 2.0 age, most children spend their formative years in one culture and one culture only: their “home culture” or “passport culture” as the authors alternatingly refer to it. They may be more exposed to superficial elements of other cultures than ever (thanks to modern means of communication), but their “deep culture” is firmly rooted in one place.
Some children grow up “cross-culturally”. For example, they may be born and partly raised in one country, and then their parents may immigrate to another for economic reasons or as refugees from war or persecution. Or their parents may be from different backgrounds and they end up living in the culture of one parent. Such children deal with both a “passport culture” and a “host culture”, and different ways of (not) coping with the duality may ensue: some children may fully identify with the host culture, others fully and ostentatiously with the passport culture, yet others may try to harmoniously blend aspects of both.
(A more complex variation on this theme occurs when both parents hail from different “passport cultures” while the family lives in a third “host culture”: say, a Chinese/African mixed couple living as immigrants in the USA.)
The term “third culture kids” was originally coined by sociologist Ruth Hill Useem to refer to a different phenomenon, that unifies children of career military (“army brats”/”navy brats”/”air force brats”), diplomatic personnel, executives in international corporations, international aid workers, transnational NGO personnel, and religious missionaries. Adults in these groups may be, at first sight, radically different from each other in their outlooks on life — for instance, UN types and career military are typically on opposite poles of the liberal-conservative axis — yet they share commonalities in their circumstances that put a shared imprint on their children for life.
The TCK is typically born in one “home culture” but spends much or all of their formative years in one or more “host cultures” where their parents are on assignment. The “third culture” they deal with is the interstitial one created by their parents and others in the same situation, be it military base life, expat enclaves, or the corporate/bureaucratic/diplomatic “expat ghetto”.
What makes TCKs unique? As summarized here on the State Department website:
Because TCKs have developed a unique culture of their own that incorporates elements of varied cultures, they often feel more at home with other TCKs, with no regard for nationality, rather than those of the passport culture (Storti, 1997). Roa (1995) explains that many TCKs experience cultural marginality in which they do not fit perfectly into any specific culture where they have lived, but on the other hand, fit comfortably on the edge or margin of any one of them. In essence, they feel at home anywhere and nowhere at the same time. TCKs who feel at home anywhere may exhibit constructive marginality in which they feel different from others, but are able to use their differences constructively (Schaetti, 1996). Those who experience encapsulated marginality have a feeling of being trapped or encapsulated by their sense of being different. Therefore, they may feel at home nowhere and might have a sense of falling off the edge of the cultural mainstream (Schaetti, 1996).
TCKs who have experienced re-entry [to the USA] state that entering another international posting is easier that re-entering one’s passport country (Schaetti, 1998). They may feel out of place and alienated […] they tend to cope rather than adjust, becoming “a part of” and “apart from” any situation (Smith, 1991). The TCKs who exhibit encapsulated marginality and fel[t] isolated may have difficulty in maintaining commitments and may avoid solving problems up-front (as they have learned that problems tend to move away).
I have seen this in my own household. One of us (while polyglot) was substantially raised in a single country and “passport culture”, while the other (a military brat) was raised all over the USA (and the rest of the planet) and became a classic TCK in that sense. We lived together for a long time in a country we both have religious ties to (Israel), but while the non-TCK quickly grew roots in the country, the TCK never truly did.
What about people who never left the USA but moved all over it? Sure, they do not (typically) deal with more than one language (except perhaps Spanish, or sometimes French in Louisiana), and large retail and restaurant chains create an “Anytown, USA” experience, but still, once one peers beyond these things, the major geographic regions in the USA (the Northeast, Midwest, Pacific Northwest, West Coast, Deep South, Southwest,…., and the Republic of Texas) offer a variety in local attitudes to life not unlike, say, that between different countries in Europe. One gets a “TCK experience writ small”.
(to be continued, hopefully)