Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Third Culture Kids

Not too long after the last American presidential race, I was sitting in the living room with the Frenchlings talking about Obama and what his election meant for the United States, when my younger Frenchling turned to me and said, "Do you know why I like Obama?  I like him because he's just like us."  When I asked her what she meant, she replied, "He has an American Mom and he lived in Asia, just like we did."

At that moment I realized that they were right and that Obama (like the Frenchlings) is a Third Culture Kid.

Third Culture Kid is a term that was coined by David Pollock in the late 1990's to describe "children who spend a significant period of their developmental years outside their parents' passport culture(s)."  This was certainly true of Obama but, interestingly enough, was also true of his opponent, John McCain, who was born in the Panama Canal Zone.

According to Pollack what makes Third Culture Kids different?
  • They were raised in a deeply cross-cultural world -  these kids live in a space where they are constantly and deeply interacting with radically different cultures.  As they move between their passport culture(s) and whatever culture they happen to be living in at the time, they learn deep in their bones that "normal" is relative and depends entirely on where you are.
  • They were raised in a highly mobile world -  These kids move a lot or are around people who move around a lot.  I was in my early 20's when I took my first long airplane ride to Europe - my Frenchlings have been flying since they were 6 months old.  At their high school in Japan they had French friends who born in Asia or other places and had lived in many different countries but had never lived in France.
For me, the biggest difference is my sense that these kids tend to be most comfortable around people like them (see Obama comment above).  That is the Third Culture Pollock was trying to describe - it's a shared experience that makes it easier for them to connect with other "Global Kids."  It also makes for some very frustrating interactions with kids or adults who don't have that experience. Starting a conversation with another child or a teacher who has always lived in France or the U.S. by saying "When we lived in Seattle or Tokyo or Paris..." is often perceived as arrogance or showing off.  Sometimes the Third Culture kids are treated like exotic beasts or they are pitied,"My, how terrible it must be to have been uprooted so much..." 

In all my efforts to create bi-cultural kids and to balance French and US cultures in my home it never occurred to me that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  It's not just about two cultures, it's about many, and that our entire experience in North America, Europe and Asia represents something larger and radically different from my original, rather limited vision of a bi-cultural/bi-lingual family.

Because I'm not a Third Culture Kid myself.  I'm a Third Culture Adult. :-)

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