If my national identity derives from where I’ve lived longest, I’m from Switzerland. If linguistic proficiency determines it I’m from England, or perhaps America. If parents or birth land bestow it I’m from Hungary. But I’ve also lived in Malaysia, Japan, and Spain – and I feel almost as much an outsider in my ‘passport country’ as I did on the far side of the globe. The question itself – “where are you from?”—is misleading. I’m not ‘from’ any one place.
Increasingly, I’m not alone. 220 million people now live in countries not their own. In the 1960s, when research on so-called ‘third-culture kids’ (TCKs) was beginning, they fell readily into simple categories: military brats, diplomat kids. Their ‘third culture’ was meant to be a hybrid resulting from the mental amalgamation of their original and newfound homes. Today TCKs – or, more correctly, ‘cross-culture individuals’ – are everywhere. And we’re complicated. It’s not just that the original term belies the experiences of people like me, who grew up in half a dozen countries. We are also too various to be easily assimilated into a single category. Almost by definition we lack analogues and archetypes to help make sense of our lives.
Certainly the exile’s homesickness has a long history of examination, dating at least to Ovid’s day. But it’s a poor template for migration today. Refugees and asylum-seekers aside, few people now have to leave home forever. Air travel and digital communication are abolishing the need for a clean break. And the plunging cost of resettlement is making possible situations like the one in South Sudan, where skilled migrants returning without their families are sending net remittances to the West. Instead of the loss of their homeland a generation of travellers faces the problem of a partial reclamation. Daughters of migrant workers, sons of parents with dual nationalities, a growing cohort of people who speak four or five languages to various degrees and are ‘fluent’ (but not native) in half a dozen cultures—how do they navigate the labyrinth of their identity?
Until recently I thought we were each alone in this. Part of the problem as I saw it was that ‘global nomads’ (another cheerful term for third-culture kids) are as various as the places they’re from. In this sense the label is fundamentally different from labels like Latino or British Jamaican, which describe assemblages of precisely the analogues we are bereft of. To be a Pakistani immigrant in Britain is to be in contact with people whose experiences are comparable to yours. It means exposure to a model of assimilation in which the host and foreign cultures combine to form a new whole. But surely this is untrue of TCKs – surely even if a community of cross-culture individuals were possible, it would be of little use?
I no longer believe this. Though I might seem to be utterly unlike a Mozambican-Brazilian who grew up in Italy and Portugal, I’ve found the opposite to be the case: the shared nexus of experience is strong enough to outweigh apparent dissimilarities. Part of the reason I felt my rootlessness so keenly at university, I realized, was being surrounded mostly by Brits from Britain. I felt pretty ordinary growing up in international schools (strange as that may sound), and feel pretty ordinary around third-culture kids today. Being an outsider is relative: in a world of outsiders, everyone’s ‘in’.
So the idea of the TCK is useful after all. But there’s a danger to it. In collapsing the diversity of our backgrounds, descriptors like ‘global nomad’ risk giving credence to the accusation that we are the social butterflies among travellers, safe in our gated compounds, engaged like British colonialists in a futile recreation of home. In most cases this is unfair: it is precisely the point that, as they grow up, migrants don’t insulate themselves from the cultures they encounter. And well-demarcated communities also exercise their distortionary, gravitational field—they create margins of their own. In Far From the Tree, a stirring investigation of growing up differently from your parents, Andrew Solomon describes a woman, born deaf, who is also able to participate in the hearing community thanks to good residual hearing and modern hearing aids. She finally invites her two circles of friends to her fifty-fifth birthday party. “It was almost like I had lived in two very separate worlds all my life, deaf and hearing,” she says. “A lot of my hearing friends had never seen the deaf side. The deaf people had never seen my hearing side. It was very wonderful for me to see everybody in one place.” She’s able to use her hybrid position to bring the groups closer together, and in doing so recognizes the insularity they share.
If identification with a wider community can grant crucial legitimacy to those who feel like they have no place in the world, then – whether it is the deaf or the rootless – it can also be constrictive. Perhaps the worst possibility would be for third-culture kids to band together to the exclusion of others, as some groups do at university. It’s natural for people to gravitate towards the similar. But cross-culture individuals are far more useful when forced by circumstances to engage with those unlike them. The curse of rootlessness can become the opportunity to act as autonomous cultural ambassadors, to facilitate encounters like the woman in Solomon’s book. And, whether it is in the genderqueer or the mixed-race or the cross-culture, there is value in unresolved multiplicity. Third-culture kids have a part to play in breaking up the narrow horizons of people defined by the arbitrary factor of birthplace, like the arbitrary factors of their parents’ race or the gender identity assigned to them from birth. The most famous third-culture kid, after all, is Barack Obama.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Movies like Winter’s Bone and Mud, in their documentation of small communities – their attentiveness to everything from vocal inflections to social hierarchies and tacit values systems – participate in a reaction to globalization. Part of their beauty comes from the strain of elegy latent within them, their recognition of the value of the utterly local coupled with an anticipation of its passing. That at least is inevitable. Dialects and languages will die. Collective cultural memories will grow fragmented and, in some places, disappear, as a side effect of the same processes that birth cross-culture individuals. There will be other things to regret—maybe rootlessness is among them. But I think the price is worth paying.