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Category Archives: Third Culture

There’s a joke, sort of, that I remember hearing around military bases in Europe. An American family moves into a host-nation community. For the sake ease, lets say it’s an American family moving into a neighborhood of Belgians. The new neighbors want to make the American family feel comfortable and welcome, so they invite them over for a “Barbecue.” Hot Dogs and Hamburgers are served. Yet, all the Belgians are wearing ten gallon cowboy hats, and they say the words “Fuck” and “Shit” after every sentence they say in English. Then, they begin to talk very lovingly about handguns and rifles. They even bring out the firearms and fire off a few rounds as “target practice” on some empty beer bottles. The Americans are aghast, speechless. Suddenly concerned, the Belgians say, “But we were only trying to be sensitive to your culture.”

Of course, I’m exaggerating a little to prove a point. Two people of different nationalities and cultures misunderstand each other all the time. In a way, it’s a lot easier to get into one of these misunderstanding if you’re coming from countries that are culturally related, like the USA, Canada, Australia, and the UK. The misconception of a “shared” English language, leads to a bunch of faux pas. For example, it’s perfectly acceptable, in England to say to a woman, “Can I Knock You Up?” It means, “Can I come to your house in the morning and knock on your door?” not “Can I get you pregnant?” In the US, saying “I’m stuffed” after a meal means you’ve eaten too much. In England, “Stuffed” means something sexual.

The story about the Belgians, however, contains a slight cultural arrogance — it assumes that it’s the Belgians (or other nationalities) that are responsible for cultural misunderstandings with Americans. Any American living abroad has likely heard tales of American stupidity — it’s where the term “Ugly American” comes from, when describing the moronic antics of American tourists. The Defense and State Departments always warn ex-pats to not act like and “ugly AMerican,” and to blend in as much as you can. Sometimes, the desire to assimilate has strange results.

I know, because today, I’ve been a bit of an “Ugly American” by complete accident and attempted goodwill. My family has spent a lot of time in the United Kingdom — in England, and in the self-governing colony of Bermuda. So, we’ve experienced “Boxing Day,” the 26th of December. In the years since, my parents and myself do stop to wish each other “A good Boxing Day” — for my family, when we lived in Germany, it’s like how we used celebrate Nickolaustag on Dec. 6 (I would wake up to find presents stuffed into my shoes). So, “Happy Boxing Day!” we’d say to each other, not knowing exactly the history of “Boxing Day.”

So, today, I’ve been giving everybody good “Boxing Day” wishes through email and other wise. Even to a Canadian friend and fellow writer, as I sent her a copy of my book, 10$, and a contract for a poem she wrote for Death In Common. Then, I start wondering — why do the Brits and Canadians have a bank holiday on 26th? I googled and cringed at the results:

…the one thread common to all is the theme of one-way provision to those not inhabiting the same social level. As mentioned previously, equals exchanged gifts on Christmas Day or before, but lessers (be they tradespeople, employees, servants, serfs, or the generic “poor”) received their “boxes” on the day after. It is to be noted that the social superiors did not receive anything back from those they played Lord Bountiful to: a gift in return would have been seen as a presumptuous act of laying claim to equality, the very thing Boxing Day was an entrenched bastion against. Boxing Day was, after all, about preserving class lines.

So, in short, I’ve been treating everybody as if they were either my servant or of a lower social economic class, today. Yes, I’m a complete and total, grade-A .moron. I’ve already sent a quickly worded apology to that Canadian friend of mine. And this blog post is my general mea-culpa to the world


Well, many, many months ago, I blogged that either McCain or Obama would become the first Third Culture President.  Obama it is, (Thank the lord!).  Now, according to this, his cabinet also will feature third culture people

Expats, once they’ve returned home after a long time abroad, can have trouble adapting.  Their vision of their mother country is somewhat strange and out of day, colored by the reactions and beliefs of host nation locals.  There is a such thing as reverse culture shock, and routinely, overseas brats and third culture kids feel once they step arrive in the airport.  There are many different ways this can manifest itself, but speaking from my own personal experience, there’s one thing that has happened to me.  As noted elsewhere on this blog, I used to not like answering the question, “Where are you from?”  My reason for hating that question had another wrinkle to it for the longest time.  Some lesser informed people tend to react poorly when given the answer.  In my experience, some have reacted with, “Will you please stop bragging about your travel experience?”  The thing is: I’m NOT bragging.  It’s just the way I was brought up, moving from base to base.  That’s like saying to somebody, “Will you stop bragging” when they talk about growing up in small town North Carolina.  So, the result is thus:  you clam up.  It’s just one facet of the Third Culture experience.

I’m thinking about this because recently found an article that seeks to dispell some notions about living abroad. There’s a paragraph, though, about alienation that hits pretty close to home:

Adult TCKs also recall occasional feelings of painful isolation and adjustment, most frequently noted in the form of reverse culture shock upon re-entry into their home country. Not surprising, most of these memories were concentrated around the teenage years. “Most people in their early teen years don’t want to be different,” said Peters. “So feeling that you’re out of synch with other people your age can be really frustrating.”

I moved to America when I turned 18 and entered college.  The above aptly describes a good bit of my college experience.

Obviously, this is from the 1970’s. Note my father in the snazzy turtleneck. I really don’t know the full context of this photo, but let me tell you what my instinctual impression is. This is likely from Germany, I think. However, it easily could be from the Phillipines or the Azores, for that matter. Where it precisely is no matter to me, it’s the feeling I get from this picture that’s important. And to me, it says a lot about being an American overseas.

When you live in somebody else’s country, “community” takes on a whole new meaning and importance, one that I think is lost on some Stateside Americans. And it’s something that Stateside Americans have trouble with, in terms of trying to understand immigrant populations. When almost everything seems foreign to you, friendships take on a new, huge importance — in many instances, you have no choice but to band together, even if the only commonality you have with somebody is a shared citizenship. Thus, the simple act of going to somebody else’s home for coffee, dinner, or a glass of wine takes on a new importance, especially if you live off-base, amidst the locals. Sometimes, your fellow expatriate is the only comfort some can find in a country where you don’t know the language, the customs, or the proper protocols.

Largely, this election cycle has brimmed with historic possibilities. The first plausible female president lost the Democratic Primary to the first plausible African-American. Now, Obama faces off against McCain, who, if elected, would become the oldest first-term president. It kind of makes one dizzy to think about it, but there’s more. McCain also has the possibility of becoming the first president to have been born on foreign soil.

McCain hails from what some would call “A Third Culture.” That is, as a child of a member of the Armed Services, he was born in the Panama Canal Zone. Technically, that’s not foreign soil, even though the United States gave the Panama Canal back to Panama. Any military or diplomatic piece of property, a consul, an embassy, or an military installation, qualifies as “American Soil,” as host-nation laws do not apply there and the host-nation’s police force has no jurisdiction there. Technically, the canal zone, when the stars and stripes flew over it, had a different legal/territorial distinction, but going further on that would be splitting hairs. The point is largely thus: McCain spent parts of his childhood in places other than the continental United States or Hawaii.

So, for the first time in my life, I can actually say I have something culturally in common with both presidential candidates. I too am a “third culture kid,” having been born on an air force base in Germany and had an international upbringing. And so, that brings me to Barack Obama.

Technically, Obama doesn’t fit the classic definition of “overseas brat,” but he too knows what it’s like to grow up in the margins between other people’s cultures. His father was a Kenyan and his mother hailed from Kansas, placing him in an awkward racial in-between. Even further, he also spent parts of his childhood, overseas in Indonesia. Basically, in my book, that qualifies Obama as a “third culture kid.”

And so, therein is the interesting wrinkle to this historic election, one that’s riddled with new precedents, either way. In one respect, in 2009, Americans will have voted the first “Third Culture President” into the Oval Office.

The State Department has a page on “Third Culture Kids,” and what that essentially means. An exerpt:

Third-culture kids are those who have spent some of their growing up years in a foreign country and experience a sense of not belonging to their passport country when they return to it. In adapting to life in a ‘foreign’ country they have also missed learning ways of their homeland and feel most at home in the ‘third-culture’ which they have created. Little understood by American schools, where they are often considered an oddity, what third culture kids want most is to be accepted as the individuals they are.

According to Kay Eakin, author of According to My Passport, I’m Coming Home, the term TCK was first used 40 years ago by Ruth Hill Useem in her research on North American children living in India.