Third Culture Kids

NOTE: A talk given in London this week by Mary Langford is the source almost exclusively for the thoughts below about Third Culture Kids. Her thinking, research and first-hand knowledge on the subject is incomparable.  She is warm and approachable, and hearing from her made me feel not quite so special, which is actually quite comforting when you’re feeling out of place.

When you’re an expat, you think a lot about labels of place. In the United States, I’ve certainly moved more than most Americans, but still labels of place were rare enough that they were always surprising when they were called for. I can’t remember calling myself a “northerner,” a “Michigander,” a “Chicagoan” in any way except to make light of something. (There is still a bit of a North/South divide in the U.S., but that’s for another post perhaps.)

At the end of the day, even though the U.S. is indeed huge and diverse, no one there would ever call me “the Michigan mom.” Place of origin is not my signifier there. I’m defined in the U.S. by what I do. Here though, as an expat, you do become “the American lady,” “the American mum.” You are your homeland.

So I’m an American, living in Britain, and this status labels my daughter too. Being labeled an expat seems to imply a kind of agency on the part of the person labeled, so my daughter is a Third Culture Kid. (Her label even has its own acronym: TCK!) She’s on the periphery of this label’s confines, but still, she counts.

TCK’s are kids who have spent significant time during their developmental years in a country that is neither of their parents’ country/countries of origin. What does  significant mean? It depends. Same for what years count as developmental. But TCK’s sense of the world and their values differ from those who’ve stayed in one general place their whole life.

I went to a talk this week about TCK’s, because once you get a label, there’s a struggle to define and understand it completely. Mary Langford gave the talk, and I summarize it her definition of Third Culture Kids below.

TCK’s have a different sense of time, of geography and of place than most kids. Their sense of present (at the expense if the past) is often hyper-developed. Distance means little when family may be on the other side of the Atlantic and your best friend is from Japan. Home is people, rather than a physical place, which is why the “Where are you from?” question is often a tricky one.

TCK’s tend to make friends from other places, rather than the natives of their current location, and they are often very close to their nuclear family. They tend to be observant, sensitive, flexible, adaptable and compliant. (All of those are good things–mostly. “Compliant” makes me a bit nervous, but ultimately, it’s a logical consequence of adaptable.)

The downsides are that TCK’s tend to have trouble with long-range planning. They get college degrees, but it takes them forever to finish. They move a lot, craving a new place every few years. They enter relationships deeply, but these can be intense and short-lived. They are good at hello’s, terrible at goodbye’s. They have heightened empathy for loss, particularly as they age and the intensity and multiplicity of loss grows.

TCK’s point out the importance of popular culture in building relationships. Our common experiences bind us, and without them, we often end up talking about our differences. (Talk to any expat about the most common conversation they have, and the answer is always the same: How their passport country differs from where they are now living. These conversations are fascinating, but often not friendship building as they focus on the divide, rather than the potential for connections.)

So what I was struck by personally is how this picture of TCK kids so fits my daughter (even at her young age,) and, in many ways, me. I haven’t lived abroad for any extended time (beyond a study abroad term in grad school) until 2012. Until I finished college, I’d spent my whole life in Michigan–moving once in early elementary school, and then doing the typical dorm/early apartment bouncing in college. But perhaps that’s not typical, as that bouncing put me on a path to move regularly from then on. So I’m left to wonder if my daughter is a Third Culture Kid based on her experiences or if I planted those values and ideas without even knowing it.

One simple (but thought-provoking) idea presented in Langford’s talk was the idea of culture as an iceberg. What is visible is what tourists see–art, literature, architecture, food, etc. What lies beneath is vast and often unknowable without deep exploration–concepts of status, time ordering, standards of cleanliness, appropriate subjects for small talk etc. Being an expat allows you to explore what lies beneath, but there’s often no one to guide you when your iceberg lies across an ocean.

Again, thank you for Mary Langford for a thought-provoking morning.


A Saturday Meditation on Sucking it Up

Wilton Square in the Rain

It was the wettest January on record, and my garden is like a mud farm, with a few dirty stone slabs (that used to be a path) and a massive encampment of slugs (who apparently have gathered there to stage invasions into my kitchen via the kitchen sink while humans sleep away the night.) Every Tube ad seems to be for holidays to the Maldives. The Canary Islands. Egypt. And usually you see these ads while reading about the impending Tube strike next week in the newspaper, or standing under the bus shelter (because you can’t sit as the bench is all wet,) or simply stuck stock still on the 8:50 a.m. replacement rail service to Weybridge because there was a track fire some place you’ve never heard of before, but which is now the most important pace in your universe, and MY GOD! WILL THS TRAIN EVER MOVE?!

Ah, lovely London, in the middle of January, when spring seems like the promise of a dream you once overheard a stranger describe.

But here’s the thing with Londoners: They just get on with it. The weather IS horrible. The rain is never ending. No matter what the thermometer says, the cold can feel like the grip of a conscious malevolent force. But there’s work to do, school runs to take, bikes to read, things to celebrate, pints to drink, etc.

Last year, when the autumn rains finally arrived here, I had planned to take Z to a storytelling event–outdoors in Highgate Wood. When the day started, it was raining, so I scoured the Council’s website, Highgate Wood’s Twitter account, anything for an update–assuming cancellation due to inclement weather. Finally, with no news, I came up with an alternative plan, put Z and me into our wellies, and headed out. Just in case.

Of course, when I arrived, all the parents and kiddos were sitting on the ground, under a little drizzle, happily listening to a magnificent Jamaican storyteller. It was an event that still is one of the loveliest things I’ve done in London.

Conclusions? It rains a lot here. (Fact.) It’s grey a lot here. (Fact.) People talk about this a lot. (Fact.) But no one seems to be troubled enough to by it to put a halt to much of anything.

So, with “Keep calm and carry on” so ubiquitous now that it essentially means nothing, I offer this about my new home:

Plan for rain, and just get on with it.

It Happened to Me: I Read an Article on the Internet and Got Really Mad. posted this story yesterday: It Happened to Me: There are No Black People in My Yoga Classes and I’m Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable With It. Unsurprisingly, the story attracted a lot of attention. This is my response. 


I take my yoga seriously. This is not to say that I’m an evangelist, though I do think yoga is good for the soul (even if I don’t always fully understand why.) To be frank though, yoga is not for everyone, but neither is roller derby or softball or jogging. I’m certainly not here to tell you that yoga will allow you to stare fearlessly into the open face of God or cure cancer or make you look like Gwyenth Paltrow. All I can say is that it works for me. It helps me manage stress, it helps me to feel some peace with my body and mind, and it has taught me things about life that I haven’t been able to learn any other way.

Most importantly, yoga is full of paradoxes–root yourself to the earth and reach for the sky is a classic example. Its paradoxes bring the focus inward, which is a gift for me, as I struggle with focusing in a world full of easy distractions. This inward focus gets you to the core of being human: breath, movement, kindness to self and others.

So when I read this recent insanely myopic and (I’m hoping unintentionally) offensive article on XOJane, I felt compelled to add my two cents to the discussion. (Feel free to go read it first, and then, if you’re so compelled, the editor’s response to the resulting sh*tshow.) First of all, the XOJane writer is a kind of extreme threadjacker. She makes an event that ultimately had nothing to do with her, ALL about her–just like a sanctimonious mommy replying to a “Two funerals in one day–struggling to get through” status update with a “You think that’s hard, try spending every day with three kids under five!”

Plus Size Princess said it best though:

I mean, it would be racist weird to say “OMG! You’re so big and black!” so instead she says “OMG! I’m so white and small.”

(Honestly, Plus Size Princess’s entire post is without a doubt richer and smarter than my response here, so though I’m going to keep going, you should probably just go read her response. And then read this: It Happened to Me: I Saw a White Person Buy Jerk Chicken and I Couldn’t Handle It.)

A good yoga study does nothing more really than foster a personal relationship between the practitioner’s mind and body. Your focus is encouraged to be on your present, on your inward lines of communication.

The XOJane writer fails to realize that other women’s bodies are not about her–they belong to those other women, just as my body belongs to me and the writer’s body is her own business. No one’s body is on display for you to learn something about yourself. My heart is not beating here to challenge you. My shape is not a learning opportunity.

To reduce another human being to her outward parts and your own self-assigned labels is racist and sexist and probably a whole lot of other offensive things too. The other woman in the writer’s yoga class–because indeed to the writer, this woman is so much an other that she gets assigned qualities that may or may not have to do with any reality at all–came to a yoga class. That’s all we really know. What happened next is all conjecture. Maybe this woman had a crappy day, maybe she just came from a funeral, maybe she had a sudden migraine, maybe she was hungover, maybe she just wanted to observe, maybe she was hurt, maybe she was just tired of the drama being played out around her, but we’ll never know because the writer projected her own assumptions on the situation. What evidence exactly is there that the woman was spewing “resentment and contempt” at the writer? Are the writer’s tears after class the proof?

Ultimately, to me, the writer’s projection, “If I were her, I thought, I would want as little attention to be drawn to my despair as possible–I would not want anyone to look at me or notice me,” is stunning in its layers of assumptions. Is that the way to go about life? Assuming everyone around you would have the same responses as you would? Conversely, there’s also the total lack of generosity in this writer’s statement (if we believe the writer’s interpretation that this woman was suffering, then certainly to simply look away can’t possibly be the best course of action, can it?) Also, though this is particularly hard to articulate in writing–not looking implies not truly seeing, not truly listening, and cloaking the encounter in surface assumptions, rather than revealed truths.

At the end of the day, I propose that if the writer was truly concerned about another human being, she could be a human being herself and engage, rather than writing a blog post that reduces another human being to a vehicle for her own epiphany. Remember the paradoxes of yoga I talked about earlier? A big one is that the fostering of this inner dialogue allows you to see and listen more deeply to others. Yoga practice traditionally closes with “Namaste,” loosely translated as the light in me sees the light in you. The writer seems to have interpreted this as “the radiant guilt in me sees the sad, broken you.” That’s not a kind of seeing that has been fostered in any yoga class I’ve ever been to.

But, of course, you can’t see the light in a symbol, and therein lies one of the many problematic issues with the writer’s point of view. Ironically, I think she needs more yoga.

Fiction Books is One of My Favorite Kinds of Books!

Nota Bene: Last week, when I said “Tomorrow” in the teaser I meant,
of course,”Some Indeterminate Time in the Relatively Near Future.” 

I don’t have a car, so I have lots of time to read.

Those facts might seem totally unconnected, but in reality, they are intertwined truths. What I love most about public transportation–and I’m crazy like that, I love it–is that ultimately, it’s not down time. You’re not trapped driving, and like the Londoners I see, it’s also prime time to play Candy Crush, yell at your family on the phone, or read a book. I also have a fairly hefty commute to get my daughter to school, which offers me sometimes close to two hours a day of reading time.

So, here’s a short list of just a few of the books I’ve read since I arrived in the UK last fall, all stories based in, based around, or decidedly connected to London.  These are all great books to read while sitting on the upper deck of a London bus, no matter where you may be going.

The Sweep: 15th/16th Century to Contemporary Britain: Shakespeare’s Local by Pete Brown
     I wrote about this one in one my occasional “Reading List” updates, but honestly, it’s one of the best, most accessible books about London I’ve ever read. Plus, it’s about a pub. Plus, it’s written by Pete Brown who is the product of a great nation that awards a “Beer Writer of the Year,” and Pete Brown has been a worthy victor. And lastly, it addresses the cult of Shakespeare (though the book may not even be aware of this,) in that our obsession with fantasizing about Shakespeare’s life and times often make us miss better stories that are true and fresh for the taking. 

17th Century:  Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain
     Tremain also wrote Restoration, so you could start with that, as Merivel is a follow-up. Ultimately though, Merivel is a very specific story about getting old and watching what you perceive as grandeur fade, but it’s hard not to feel connected to a story that’s about how to keep faith in something–anything–as the world changes every single second around you no matter what kind of person you fancy yourself to be. 

18th Century:  Lady Worsley’s Whim by Hallie Rubenhold
    Oh God, the Georgians are so hot right now. Seriously. The Georgians Revealed at the British Library has been a hit, and it’s a fascinating afternoon, but Lady Worsley’s Whim takes a scandal and the personal stories of the people behind it and uses that as a tool to reveal the world of the Georgian upper crust (and the demimonde.) Rubenhold’s way of telling is certainly more revealing than a wall full of architectural renderings if you’re interested in people, rather than monuments. Plus, if you think tabloid manufacture of celebrities is new–big news: it’s not.

Fading Victorians:  Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier  
This is the one to read on the bus on your way to visit Highgate Cemetery, or perhaps to read after a visit to the Cemetery while sampling each of Highgate’s fantastic pubs. Chevalier wrote Girl With a Pearl Earring, and she gives similar treatment here to the last gasps of Victorian London–using the cemetery as the backdrop for a story about sex and death and the changing role of women. Plus, awesomely, at the beginning of the book, a family lives where I do now, and they are DELIGHTED to be moving up in the world up the hill to Highgate, rather than wallowing down here in Islington.

Contemporary Britain:  A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo
     The review linked to above calls the writer out for “bad English fakery,” but I give the writer more credit (and forgiveness,) as the book is an attempt to show how complicated (and rare) true cross-cultural understanding can be. As an expat myself, the story of a young Chinese girl in London to learn English and then falling in some kind of love and trying to sort out her strange reality spoke to me. Though she didn’t think the novel was perfect either, Ursula K Le Guin liked it too:  “It succeeds in luring the western reader into an alien way of thinking: a trick only novels can pull off, and indeed one of their finest tricks.”

Made-Up Britain: The Parasol Protectorate by Gail Carriger
This is steampunk meets Jeeves and Wooster, written by a feminist. If you like the supernatural, cephalopod automatons, treacle tarts and lady adventurers, let me introduce you to Gail Carriger.

I guess if there’s any conclusion to the list, it’s that new places can be lonely. Novels can help.

(I can’t take credit for the title of the post. Well played Mr. Rudd and Ms. Poehler.)

A Return–Now With Bonus Expat Pro Tips!

Many words for many days of absence. . .

I’ve somehow got it my head that a blog relaunch must start on a Monday. Monday is the first real day of the week, after all. (The Brits are right about this one.) Who starts anything new on a Wednesday for God’s sake? Monday is when blogs return for real after Saturday night socials and a few random links  thrown down on Friday because four days of romanticizing your own life is enough for anyone! So each Monday in January has passed, and I’ve been distracted, so no blog entry, because cultured and civilized people DO NOT start blogging again on Wednesdays. Readers, I am not an animal.

But Monday is arbitrary. It means nothing. It’s a label given to the way we artificially mark time. It’s a capitalist creation more than anything else–starting you on the work week so you can neatly divide the work and play time so that work becomes worth it because of the work week’s end (says the college Marxist.)

So, blog relaunch. On a Wednesday. Is happening . . . now.

Let’s dive back in by clearly identifying myself as an expat, which is what you’re supposed to do when you move to another country I suppose.

The thing is, like the days of the week, the label is simply manufactured nomenclature–because others must be clearly defined as others, so we can keep track of who really belongs, right?

Years ago, when my husband and I were living in different American cities, I was on a flight up the Eastern seaboard to visit him for the weekend. There was an article in the in-flight magazine about “commuter marriages,” spouses who lived in separate cities in order to each maintain separate careers. Two homes. Two answering machines. Weekend get-togethers. “How horrible!” I thought. “What an awful way to live!”

It only slowly dawned on me as I finished the article that I was in a commuter marriage. I just didn’t know it was a thing. I hadn’t given it a label.

Being an expat is like that. Mostly, I’m just living a life, but people tell me I’m  an expat, so I am.

So here’s a few expat pro tips. . .

Pro Tip #1: Expats LOVE to give advice.
Seriously. We can’t shut up with our pro tips.

Pro Tip #2, which probably should be Pro Tip #1: The number one thing you have to get used to being an expat is that you’re going to talk about it all time.

You open your mouth, and people are going to ask you where you’re from. At the coffee shop. At Primark. On the playground. People are going to ask, and you’re going to have to offer your expat elevator speech. So hone that magic story like an expertly polished gemstone.

Pro Tip #3: You’re going to stand out.

I was out to dinner a couple of months ago–Saturday night, heart of Islington’s Supper Street. My party (75% American) was laughing, talking and boisterous–as one does on a grown-up night out at a lively restaurant. The table next to us (Brits, judging by accents, as they surely judged ours) asked to move because we were too loud. I wasn’t particularly offended, because I’m painfully aware that other Brits speaking in the same tone of voice wouldn’t have been annoying to them. The irony was that within 15 minutes, the restaurant was PACKED and you could barely hear the person across from you–no matter what accent they were boozily prattling on in. You just have to accept that opening your mouth puts a label on you as clear as a neon sign and learn to be yourself in spite of it–because the sign often says more about others than it does about yourself. Finding the balance between being yourself and respecting the culture and etiquette of your new home is the key, and if you find it, what a happy expat you will be.

Pro Tip #3: Don’t try to make Little America.

If you move abroad, and you find yourself obsessing over where to get Arizona Iced Tea or Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing or Dunkin Donuts coffee, you are going to be miserable. If you get to your new home and you find yourself ranting on expat forums about how the Brits do their dishes (often, they don’t rinse after soaping,) or WHY ARE THEIR NO SCREENS IN THIS CLEARLY GODFORSAKEN KINGDOM?, you are going to be miserable. I got great advice years ago in graduate school (from the weekly group therapy sessions for our entire class paid for by the school, which is probably worth another blog post): When you are dislocated, the obsessive desire to reproduce what you don’t have will only bring a sense of sorrow and loss. Embracing new traditions by retaining the spirit, rather than the trappings, of the old will bring peace. So, brew a pot of Earl Grey, make some pecan pie with a Mary Berry shortcrust and a whole lot of Golden Syrup, and host a “Spirit of Thanksgiving” party like a boss.

Tomorrow: How I Got Here (Or “The Seven Days I Pretended I Was Wallis Simpson”)

Wherein Cheez-its are my Madeleine. . .

When you move to a new country, you get a little obsessed with food. The taste of home becomes something you long for, and you’ll find yourself gorging yourself with pleasure on. . . say. . . a box of Cheez-its that your mother-in-law brings over on her recent visit. AND YOU DON’T EVEN LIKE CHEEZ-ITS! Back in the US, on road trips, your husband would buy them as his preferred road food and just eating ONE would make you gag. “These taste like gasoline!” you’d cry indignantly! But two months out of America, and those Cheez-its will taste like apple pie baked by an eagle, and you won’t be able to stop eating them.

Don’t get me wrong, there are things I LOVE to eat here that I can’t duplicate back in the US, but food is so fundamental to identity that it’s the thing that constantly smacks you around reminding you that you are a foreigner.

So, here are some observations about food in the UK since I’ve arrived, in no particular order:

1. Loads of markets don’t refrigerate eggs.
I saw a PBS program once about marketing, and one of the PR guys was talking about how to market a product, you must understand its essence. For example, in America, cheese is a dead thing–we wrap it in plastic and keep it cold (like we do a body.) In France, though they might put cheese in the fridge to keep it cool (not cold,) they avoid wrapping it in plastic as cheese is a living thing. So, the eggs here in England are no different than in the U.S., except that you’ll often find them in the baking aisle, which I guess makes them alive? Inert? No different than a bag of flour?

2. There is compulsory composting.
I have a little brown caddy with a lid that I keep on my kitchen counter. All food waste goes in there (in bags that I get free at my local library,) and my council (local government) picks up and composts food waste every Monday. As my daughter would say, easy peasy lemon squeezy. I can’t imagine such a system in the U.S. (CORRECTION AFTER A WISE COMMENTER: “I can’t imagine such a system in NEW JERSEY.”)

3. There is booze everywhere.
From the corner store to the posh grocer, they’re selling booze. There are no, “Well, we can sell beer and wine, but we need a separate store with a separate entrance for hard liquor, and we can’t sell on Sundays, so we’ve got this weird grate that goes up around everything for the few hours we’re open on Sundays, except when we get close to Christmas, then for some reason, it’s suddenly ok to sell on Sundays because Santa made a miracle!” There’s none of that. You can get wine, beer or spirits everywhere groceries are sold, and you can have it delivered with your groceries or your takeout dinner if you’re too drunk to make to the market.

4. Puddings are desserts, but not all desserts are puddings.
Puzzle that one yourself.

5. Applesauce comes in tiny jars to use as an accompaniment to meat.
(CORRECTION: Applesauce ONLY comes in tiny jars to use as an accompaniment to meat.)

6. The delight of fresh apple cider is, alas, not a delight valued here.

7. Kindereggs!
Seriously, best invention OF ALL TIME. It’s a chocolate egg–with a toy inside. My daughter is nuts for them, but they’re banned in the US.

8. Boiled cakes full of raisins that come in a can are a thing.
Boiled cakes full of raisins that come in a can are an acquired taste that I have not acquired.

9. Popular flavors for drinks and sweet things include elderflower and redcurrant.
Those are not acquired tastes, sports fans; those are tastes you will love if you happen to be human.

10. The Mexican situation still isn’t good.
It’s not as bad as when my husband lived in Hull many years ago and went to a “Mexican” restaurant called Chaplin’s (first clue that something was off) that served marinara as salsa, but the ubiquity of Mexican ingredients in grocery stores is a thing you’ve got to cross an ocean to enjoy. Good salsa is hard to come by. Real corn chips are a small fortune (and are often sprayed with powdered flavor like Doritos,) and things like queso fresco? I LAUGH AT YOUR DESIRES! However. . .

11. Indian food is everywhere.
Your corner store probably stocks garam masala. You can get corn chips and salsa at every gas station quickie mart in the whole of America–substitute mango chutney and papadums in England, and you’re good to go.

Wherein Scratchy Towels Make You Stronger. . .

Recently on the Facebook, I noted that I had some wonderfully exciting new hobbies since my move to London. They are surely too exciting to read about in large numbers, so I just shared the following highlights:

1) watching videos about British appliances on You Tube
2) debating the best bus apps with strangers
3) weighing food
4) drying clothes with a hairdryer
5) deciphering minimalist pictograms on my oven

The thread that followed blew up with talk of (surprisingly) laundry! (I thought those YouTube videos would stimulate massive chat.) Apparently, on Facebook, you can post an apocalyptic update about the futility of existence and hear nothing but crickets, but you try living without a dryer and the people of Facebook want to talk it ALL out.

Truth be told, most Americans consider having a clothes dryer a God-given right, up there with cable TV and good parking spaces. And after a lifetime of fluffy towels and clothing dried within an hour, who can blame them? People come from all over the WORLD to have access to Kenmore and its myriad heat settings.

But me, I’m living without a dryer, in a country that is famous for its rain and its damp, and it makes laundry a bit of a chore (and your attendance to the weather gods a vital part of life.) And I’m not alone here–£1,000,000 flats often don’t have dryers.

The Facebook discussion revealed that beyond my non-dryer woes, other countries have other laundry rituals–some the same (lots of Germans don’t have dryers either) and some devote entire days and unheard-of equipment (manglers, drying cabinets, etc.) to the task (Sweden.)

It’s times like these when you realize how little you actually know about anything at all. You’re given your own little piece of the world to see, like you’re looking through a microscope, and try as you might, you can’t step back and see the big picture. What does a paramecium know of the larger world, after all? Are you and your dryer-having, non-scented laundry detergent loving ways the BEST ways to do laundry ever? Or are you so locked into your cultural bias that you can’t even see that there are other ways to do laundry? And oh, how comfortable are those cultural biases! They convince you that your way is the best way, that new ways are scary! Bad! Uncomfortable! Sleep depriving!

Here’s a truism of living in another country: Your own cultural biases THAT YOU DIDN’T EVEN KNOW YOU HAD will be constantly confronted. You won’t know that the way you do laundry (in part) defines who you are, but you’ll learn that it does.

But you didn’t move across an ocean to do continue in the same old, same old ways of your life, and you will realize that self-examination is both a bitch and the pathway to some serious thoughtful living. And you will figure out this laundry thing because at the end of the day, it’s a big world, you get to see a brand-new part of it, and WHO WANTS TO BE DEFINED BY LAUNDRY? Because, I, pulp fans, seek more important means of self-definition, and seeing as loads of Brits are justfinethankyouverymuch without a dryer, I can join them and move onto bigger questions.

Like stain removal.