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Tuesday, November 03, 2009

My Third Culture Kids

Rowan in her Obama kanga

Friday was International Day at the International School of Tanganyika - meaning that kids were to come to school dressed in their “national costume”, participate in a parade of nations (by nationality), sing songs about peace and multiculturalism in an assembly, and attend the International Festival where kids were to talk around to different areas of the football field visiting different countries to learn something new, taste a bit of their food, and get their special “passports” stamped.

I’m normally horribly cynical about this sort of thing – but since the election last year this has largely changed. I was happy to dress in red, white, and blue and march in the parade with my kids – who like a huge chunk of the American contingent were decked out in Barack Obama t-shirts. Rowan even wore a specially made Obama dress for the occasion. For me, walking with the Obamaians, and a scattering of cowboys and cowgirls (and even one Native American) was a joyful experience.

It was a reminder of just how multicultural this environment really is. Personally, I was shocked with the relatively small size of the American marchers. I expected them to take up a disproportionate portion of the crowd, but really they weren’t much bigger than then South Africans or the British, and may have even been smaller than the Indian contingent (which were of course the most beautifully dressed of the lot).

Inside the assembly, kids from South Asia, Japan and Kenya performed for the audience in between courses of Give Peace a Chance and a song called In This World Together (a poem, of sorts, about living in peace and protecting the earth). The Principal reminded the kids and gathered parents that many kids had a choice to make about which country they wanted to represent in the parade. Some kids marched with the country they were born in, some where their passport is from, some were they lived the longest, and some marched in the country of one parent, but not the other. And those that couldn’t decide marched with the “UN” contingent which also included “orphans” from countries where there were only one or two representatives like Luxemburg or Nepal.

And since I’m so sappy, I fell for the beautiful One World image:

Living together in peace
Protecting the earth
Fighting against poverty and injustice
And beautiful babies and chirping birds, la de da de da…

I may have been so in the moment that I actually shed a tear of joy when the South Asian contingent of India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka pointed out that they made a conscientious decision to perform together – to show how people can live in peace.

It was only later that the downside of multiculturalism truly hit me in the face. At the festival part of International Day children were given a passport and told to visit booths from about 20 countries. In each booth the children could learn something about the country and get a treat or a small present somehow related to the country. I worked at the American booth as the passport stamper. In return for a tidbit about America (“Tell me something you know about America”) I stamped the kids’ passports and gave them a homemade chocolate chip cookie (made by little American Mommy elves and/or their cooks). It was mostly a happy task, except for the two older boys who claimed their chocolate chip cookies in exchange for information about how many people died on 9/11 when the planes hit the World Trade Towers – while wearing big smiles. That wasn’t such a nice moment. I’ve decided to blame it on their parents who must not be raising them under the banner of multiculturalism, rather than the kids themselves. At least that is what I needed to tell myself in order to get through the moment without taking them to task.

But overall it went great. Several hundred children from age 3 to 11 came by the American booth that day and I would say about 80% of them – no matter what their country of origin - told me that Barack Obama is the American President in exchange for their stamp and cookie. After awhile that got pretty boring so I started to challenge the American kids to tell me at least one other thing they knew about America.

Let me tell you, the answer is, not much. Well… one older kid impressed me with the knowledge that there were 13 states when America was first created and another told me that the bald eagle is our national bird. But then I looked up and realized that these tidbits were in the booth display behind them. I asked one 10-year-old American kid if he had ever heard of the Pilgrims. The silence was deafening.

My kids, they couldn’t do any better. When I asked them a few days before International Day what America meant to them Rowan responded that it meant Grandma’s house and the Good Humor Man. Jaden said Toys R Us and escalators. Barack Obama is what they know. Even the American flag is Barack Obama’s flag in their lexicon.

I take full credit for this failure. I should be supplementing the multiculturalism with some sort of identity-strengthening learning and I haven’t. Bad me. Now I’m wishing I could send the kids to an after-school American class where someone else could make up for my shortfalls (like having my Microsoft Word set to British English at work) with stories about the Mayflower and Jamestown. At least then they would know what American football is. (To-date they have no clue.) And perhaps they could help Rowan with her absolute obsession with wanting to be Indian (dot, not feather) which is primarily an obsession with wanting to wear colorful saris and salwar khamises. And perhaps the school could help get rid of the Britishisms that have sneaked into their daily language, like saying sitting room instead of living room, nappies instead of diapers, and pronouncing naughty like noughty. These aren’t a big deal now, but if the experiences of my adult friends who grew up overseas are any indication, it will make them freaks when they get back to school in America. And depending on how old they are when we go back, it could be a traumatic experience.

Although we’ve been here for nearly four years, it is only now that it has really hit home that I am raising third culture kids. Or rather, intellectually I knew it was happening, but my work as a US immigration officer at International Day prompted me to internalize it.

And don’t get me wrong, this is NOT a bad thing. There are some many wonderful things about multiculturalism (see above). But it isn’t all roses and cream either.

According to the bible of third culture kids: Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken,

“A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership of any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experiences, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.

“Two realities arch over TCK experience that shape their lives. These are:

1. Being raised in a genuinely cross-cultural world.
2. Being raised in a highly mobile world

“Other characteristics in common:

Distinct differences. Many TCKs are raised where being physically different from those around them is a major aspect of their identity.

Expected repatriation. Unlike immigrants, third culture families usually expect at some point to return permanently to live in their home country.

Privileged lifestyle. Historically TCKs are members of an elitist community – one with special privileges bestowed on its members.

System identity. Members of specific third culture communities may be more directly conscious than peers at home of representing something greater than themselves.

This definition very accurately reflects the realities are our lives now – with all the wonderful exposures they offer us, and all the losses of friends and cultural fluency ahead of us.
I love it and hate it, all at the same time. I still wouldn’t trade this experience for all the acculturation in the world. I hope that Jaden and Rowan will agree when they are old enough to realize what they’ve gained and what they may have lost.

Meanwhile, I’m trolling amazon.com for children’s books about the Pilgrims and George Washington. I want them to be people of the world. But they are also Americans and I need to make sure they are proud of that, too.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post! Come home. As Grandma Jean would say,

10:41 PM  
Blogger Natalie said...

Great post - as always! To assist with some of the American culture elements that are missing from J&R's life, I suggest checking out Freedom's Feast at www.freedomsfeast.com.

This is a great site with lots of information about America and how to celebrate American holidays with your family (ie Thanksgiving). It was started and is run by my mother-in-law, so you know it is non-denominational and open to the diversity of America. They have a Facebook page too, and I can give you one of the books later this week.

8:40 AM  
Blogger susanne said...

Another great and thoughtful post from your side. This reflects my dilemma when we left Denmark: I am going to give my children the same melancholy about the concept "home" that I have grown up with, grown tired of and only partially come to terms with. Still, I wouldn't trade my years in Sierra Leone for anything, and I hope J&R will feel the same at some point about their years in Tanzania. They will be proud citizens of the world. I don't think it's such a bad thing that national identity comes second these days...

10:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

very interesting Hally. I guess being a third culture kid is just an extension of the third culture parent, although less rooted. Once you've lived overseas, even if you didn't grow up overseas, you identify more with people who've had that experience and its harder to come back home. You're permanently different.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm the anonymous in that fourth coment there, me , Becky

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Blogger suburban dyke said...

I love it. I truly think it's for the best: the kids, the world, it all. Great post.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm french, I already lived in Kenya, it was the best year I never spent. I'm back for 2 years and now I'm working in the north of France, Lille,, and I'm working for Tape à l'oeil, a fashion brand for kids. I organize some events like "the biggest fashion show of the world" (http://www.thebiggestfashionshowoftheworld.com/)
I would like to spread this event all over the world. It would be so great if kids do the fashion show in each big city of the world.
So, if you know some people who has children, please inform them ! Tkank you so much for your implication.

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Anonymous Casey said...

Hally - hi - it's Casey Albert from Deloitte. I can't believe it's been 8 years since youthnet and the AIDS conference in Barcelona. I'd love to reconnect - I can't seem to find your email on this blog (great blog btw!) so email me (my name has changed) at casey.santiago@cardnoem.com and we can catch up! You little ones are beautiful!

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Blogger Rebecca Ross Russell said...

Hi Hally - my name is Bekka, I'm a Jewish recent college grad coming to Tanzania in October to work with a nonprofit for four months based in Tengeru. I'm planning to attend graduate school afterwards in international development and nonprofit management, so I was excited to hear that you work in public health as well. I don't know if you and your family are even still living in Tanzania, and if you are whether you're even vaguely interested in taking in strays, but I'm feeling a little concerned about being Jewish - tattooed in Hebrew, no less - in a country almost completely devoid of other Jews. I feel a lot better having read your take on it, but I'd love to maybe meet up if I'm coming through the Dar es Salaam area? Either way, I'd also love any insider tips on really getting a feel for the country, or just to chat. Thanks so much.

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