Friday, October 20, 2006

Third Culture Kids

"The Third Place is a term used in the concept of community building to refer to social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home and the workplace." from Wikipedia

Thanks to Marty (Renztzman) for this term... I love it. Another place other than home & work that feels like a heart home... I haven't experienced a place like this in a LONG time. It reminded me of some of the relationships in Company, and in BCM while I was in college.

It also reminded me of a term that Donna Smith, my missionary friend from college who is now a teacher in Papua/New Guinea, had shared with me. (although right now she's on furlough and taking classes in CA. I got to see her last month after 4 years of only spotty correspondence! She's got the best stories... visiting Europe & New Zealand & Australia & Africa... )

Anyway, back to the term: third culture kids. These are kids that grew up with one culture in their homes, experienced another one surrounding their homes, and had to integrate the two cultures into a completely unique one- their own "third culture". Examples: an army kid living in Korea attending a Korean school, an MK living in Brazil, a Japanese kid whose family has just immigrated to the U.S. and speaks & lives the same as they did in Japan at home but is required to speak English in school.

My husband and I both qualify for this term. When I was 10, my family moved to Kotzebue for my Dad's job. Kotzebue is an Eskimo (Inupiaq) village north of the Arctic circle on the Bering Sea, and I was one of about 5 white kids in the 50 or so kids in 7th-8th grade. I had a very difficult time with this move, but now I look back at this time as a blessing, even a gift. I know very few caucasian kids growing up in the U.S. who've had the experience of being the only white kid in a class. I've been a minority, and a disliked one at that. In the 80's a lot of anger was directed at the white population in Alaska for the destruction they had indirectly and directly caused to the native lifestyle and culture... I bet you can't guess when we lived in Kotzebue... ('83-'85) Because of this experience I can more easily step into someone else's shoes. I have a fascination for different cultures, and a deep appreciation for the value of heritage.

My husband's experience is opposite: Jake grew up in the home of a Norwegian immigrant to the U.S. His dad is from Norway and came here in his 20's. Jake's mom is part Norwegian and part Polish, and grew up speaking Norwegian with her parents and relatives. Their family moved back to Norway in '78 and lived there just over a year when he was 3 & 4. Jake remembers speaking to his family over there, and didn't realize until he was in high school that he'd been speaking Norwegian at the time... He's got all these funny gaps in things I take for granted: folk songs, nursery rhymes, "American" culture.

Third culture kids tend to take longer to find their place in life... They tend to take longer to make some big life decisions, like who they're going to marry, or what their major occupation will be... Many find safety in staying in higher education (pursuing M.A.'s or P.H.D.'s). Some lean towards living in a different place than their family is from, because they feel like an outsider to their own culture... Example: the white guy who "goes native", marries an Indian girl and lives in the village the rest of his life. While others react by becoming deeply engrossed in their family's home culture. Example: the MK who becomes a suit, a lawyer or doctor, and spends his life attempting to amass the most wealth possible.

Third culture kids tend to feel rootless and restless, always ready to move on to the next thing, but never sure where there home actually is. They tend to have problems trusting authority figures, and can experience confused loyalties in their cultural identity. There are times when I feel more Indian/Eskimo than white, and I went through a time period when I hated being blonde, being white. I wanted to have dark hair and dark skin and brown eyes... I wanted the richness of the storytelling and the beauty of the masks to be mine... Not just something I enjoyed that belonged to other people...

Third culture kids tend to have a real view of the pain of life- they can relate to the mother whose child is dying in Somalia, and know that her pain is the same as the mother losing her child here in the U.S. They like to know what is going on in the whole world and are aware that every person's experience & viewpoint is just as valid as their own...

Here's one of the big ones for me- they tend to have problems making decisions... They had been asked to make decisions in the past and then that decision was taken away from them, so they learn that there is no power in actually deciding. (Example: I had expected to get to be in a school musical in CA before moving to AK, but when we moved I lost the chance. Then, while I was in Kotzebue I was able to take band for two periods, so I was learning clarinet & flute. When we moved to Fairbanks, I had to choose. ) In effect, I learned it didn't matter what I chose, the choice would be made for me, or even completely taken away, so why bother choosing...

There are some great benefits to being a third culture kid, as well as some challenges... Learning the term helped me identify some of what was going on in my head and heart. It helped me identify why it was so hard for me to make decisions, and why it made me so angry when people around me would make comments about people from other cultures, why I often felt outside of what was going on around me, why I was always attracted to & made friendships with immigrants- Africans, Mexicans, South Americans...

So, I'm still working on my own "Third culture"... And I'm enjoying learning some of my husband's third culture...

2 comments:

John said...

I'm sure we must have swapped some "only white kid in the class" stories while on the van. It was very strange for me in the fourth grade, to move from being a "howli" to all my friends in Hawaii to Arkansas where everyone was white! Friends and some family used to have to explain racist jokes to me. And of course half of the time they weren't funny anyway...Even now, when people tell them as Texas A&M jokes...

becca said...

I know we did, 'cuz I knew that you were blond when you first moved to Arkansas... Only way I'd know that is if we'd compared blond white kid stories. I remember you talking about getting into a lot of fights somewhere along the way... I hid out in the library and read books when we moved to Fairbanks. I'd eat my lunch as fast as possible and then go to the library for my remaining lunch time, and I'd read books in my classes. How's that for weird? I remember different teachers taking books away from me during their class times...

I was trying to explain that trip Company made to Natchez to my husband a little while ago, the southern pageant thing and how weird it was to me, and how glad I was Jolie couldn't go on that trip... He's never been east of Arizona, where his family lived before they moved up to Seattle. Southern culture is difficult for me to explain to him- it's not my own and I was an outsider viewing it. Plus, I never really lived in the South, just visited. ('cuz I kept getting told Texas is it's own country, not really the south) I know I'm not doing a good job trying to explain, but I am doing a good job of giving my experience/opinions... I've been able to explain some of why the flooding in New Orleans would again bring up racial tension...

Here's a weird one for you: I don't know if you know/remember this, but Norway was on the other side in WWII- Jake's dad, John Sirevaag (actually Johann, but he goes by John here, just like Jake is actually Jakob, pronounced Yah-kub), was a young boy (8-9) during the war, and remembers the Nazi soldiers fondly... He'd catch rabbits for them in exchange for chocolate bars. He's worked with so many people of different races and cultures that he's not racially prejudiced- he's got some different political stuff, but I don't touch that with a ten foot pole. ;)