Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Third Culture

Part of a Skype chat exchange between me and a friend who left Egypt last summer and spent some time in the U.S. before moving overseas again:

Friend: Do you have some moms and babies you can get together with where you are?
Deborah: Nope, not really. Probably could if I made the effort but that feels like settling in here and this isn't home anymore.
Friend: I understand. When we are in US for our breaks, I never seem to put forth much effort into 'hanging out' with other women or going to their parties....  they all look at you funny anyway, like you are some sort of alien being that does not belong....
Deborah: The ladies at church are supportive and sympathetic but ... at a Greek restaurant the other day, they thought the pastor was insane for eating goat. Goat! That's pretty tame ... we just don't relate.
Friend: Hahaha, goat?  Who'da thunk it?? And yes, it is pretty tame... how big is the church?
Deborah: It wasn't even that they didn't want to eat it, but how vocally disgusted they were ... very small, just over 100 on a good service
Friend: Sounds like the one we went to while in US.
Deborah: It's a good church, with good people. It's just that the small-town South doesn't understand wanting anything different ... is it possible for an adult to become a "third culture kid" after just a couple of years overseas?
Friend: Oh yes!  You adjusted well.  You jumped in with both feet.  It's the ones who do not participate in the culture, whether that is with other ex-pats or with locals, that do not become that tck..... It's much better when one is adventurous...

Overall, it is better when one is adventurous. It makes life overseas rich and rewarding. I wasn't even that adventurous, really. I spent a lot of time in the embassy bubble. If I have any regrets about my time in Egypt, it's that I wasn't adventurous enough. I didn't spend enough time with locals. I didn't learn enough of the language. I didn't immerse myself in the culture fully enough. But if I had done those things ... the adjustment now would be even harder than it is.

You see, when you live overseas, you have a choice to make.

You can hang on to the culture of your home country. You can hang out only with other Americans, in my case. Cook and eat only familiar foods (at least to the extent possible). Refuse to adapt your clothing and behavior to the local culture. This choice makes it harder to function in the new country. Expats who make this choice often hate being overseas; they constantly compare the new country to their home country, and they find the new country lacking in almost every respect. During my time in Egypt, I learned quickly to identify those expats who had made this choice and to avoid them as much as possible. They were toxic to my emotional state. Too much time with them left me depressed and dissatisfied with life in Egypt, at least until I recognized the mindset and instead got angry at those who seemed determined to poison everyone around them.

The other extreme is to "go native." Spend as much time as possible with local citizens. Shun all but local foods. Dress and behave so much like a native that you can't be told apart from a distance. Become fluent in the local language and look down on anyone who doesn't speak it. I don't have any experience with expats who make this choice--to my knowledge, they either shun other expats or live in areas where there are no other expats to shun. It seems to me that this choice would lead to the easiest life overseas once you've gone native, although the process of getting there would be long and difficult.

The third option, the one most often chosen, I think, is to strike a balance. The precise balance varies from person to person, but the goal is to adapt as much as necessary to facilitate and enjoy life overseas while not losing touch with the home culture either. Learn the language and use it, but don't stress about speaking it just like a native speaker. Adapt your clothing and behavior to show respect for the local culture, but don't try to turn yourself into a local. Be open to new experiences. Make friends with other expats and with locals, to the extent that language skills and the culture allow. (My few Egyptian friends are women who are fluent in English, for example; it wouldn't be appropriate to have male friends, and my Arabic isn't good enough for small talk, much less real conversation that doesn't center around driving directions or price haggling.) Adopt a blend of both cultures in order to function as well as possible in each.

As you can guess, I chose the third option. For me, the balance was tilted heavily toward American culture, as it often is for foreign service families who know they won't be in any one place for more than a few years. As I mentioned earlier, my balance may have been tilted a little too heavily toward American culture. But no matter where the balance is, the experience of overseas life, the experience of a culture not your own--even if your experience of it is limited--changes you. Children who grow up as expats have a unique culture that they experience as their native culture--it isn't their home country's culture, or their host country's culture, but a mix of the two. These children are known as third culture kids, trans cultural kids, or tck's.

Third culture kids often feel most at home with each other, even if their native languages, religions, and home--or "passport"--countries differ. The culture to which they often have the hardest time adapting is the culture of their own country. They often can move without too much difficulty among other cultures, but they just don't fit in once they move "home." I suspect that's because the kids at "home" have been exposed to all sorts of subtle cultural influences that the third culture kids missed. The third culture kids also just aren't used to a situation where their classmates' experiences are so homogeneous--where's the kid with a stronger Asian influence, or a stronger African influence? What do you mean, everyone claims Christianity, and almost everyone is Protestant? Where are the Muslims, the Buddhists, the Orthodox Christians? How is it possible to believe that this is the only way to live--haven't you seen anything different? No, I guess you haven't, since everyone here lives similarly.

If all goes as Jeff and I hope, we will be raising at least one third culture kid. I pray that we will have wisdom in that endeavor, and that our daughter--as well as any other children we may have--will adapt readily to her unique culture and to American culture when that time comes, keeping the best of her various cultural influences and discarding the rest. But in order to raise her to do that, I also need to figure out my own place, my own culture.

I grew up in a small town in the American South. Those years shaped me, and I will never--nor do I wish to--escape those influences. My time in other parts of the U.S. caused subtle changes in my personality and outlook. But my time in Egypt--brief though it was--has changed me more than I think even I realize. There are some surface changes, some deep changes, and--I suspect--some fundamental changes to the core of my personality, or at least the beginnings of fundamental changes. But at this point, if I so chose, I could slip back into the culture of my growing-up years with only slight modifications.

Of course I'm choosing not to. I enjoy my expat life, and I'm looking forward to raising my third culture kid. But there are costs, and there will be costs to Alexa in the future. In order to help her later, I have to continue to work my way through my own adjustments now. The one I'm most noticing: the faint but ever-present feeling that this place just isn't home anymore, that I don't quite fit in, and that I shouldn't settle in.

If you're interested in how truly third culture kids fare after being suddenly repatriated, as in the current evacuation, here are a couple of news articles about their experiences.

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