The End of the 3rd Culture Kid

I’m kind of ignorant of American pop culture.  Especially the culture of my generation.  I’ve never seen The Breakfast Club, never watched Family Ties, and haven’t listened to any significant 80’s albums.  I’m a Third Culture Kid.  Now I have a kid of my own, and when I think of her future, I realize the era of the Third Culture Kid may be coming to an end.

Me in the background of a US Military video on Rota's cub scouts.
Me in the background of a US Military video on Rota’s cub scouts.

Third Culture Kids are children who accompany their parents into another society: Military brats, missionary kids, and children of government or business families that work outside of their home country.  I was a missionary kid, with a dash of military brat, since my parents were missionaries to the military.  I grew up in Rota, Spain, from 3 or 4 years old to half way through 5th grade.  We didn’t have TV except for VHS copies of Star Wars and The Adventures of Robin Hood.  I didn’t go to public school until 4th grade, and then after leaving Spain in 5th grade, didn’t attend public school again till 7th.  That’s a lot of time out of the American culture.  I still have conversations with my wife, Irma, and she’ll mention a movie or TV show, and I have no idea what she’s talking about.

Being a Third Culture Kid has upsides and downsides.  The most obvious downside of being a TCK is that they tend to be disconnected from their ‘home’ culture.  They tend to experience culture shock on their return.  They tend to experience depression, and feel out of sync.  Third Culture Kids tend to mature faster in their teens, but experience aimlessness in their 20s.  They often resent being repatriated.  I know I did.

On the upside, TCK’s tend to be welcoming, globally aware, highly likely to earn advanced degrees, and rarely get divorced (though they tend to marry later).  TCK’s who integrate with local culture tend to be linguistically adept.

I have a 15 month old daughter, and over the next few years Irma and I will be making decisions about where to live that could result in her experiencing life as a Third Culture Kid.  As I’ve been thinking about it, though, I’ve come to realize that the Internet has remade the global landscape in such a way that Third Culture Kids won’t experience repatriation the same way I did.

The first movie I saw in a movie theater was Benji the Hunted, in 1987 at the military base theater in Rota, Spain.  Now you can watch movies in the theater in other countries even before they’re released in the US, and with some fancy internet proxy trickery, even watch Netflix and Hulu from Osan, South Korea, or Ubon, Thailand.  Heck, half of our culture is global anyway these days.  Everybody’s watching Gangnam Style and has at least heard of Harajuku.

Third Culture Kids used to have fairly rare interactions with peers in their passport countries.  Letters were rare, and never to the kids, but now with Facebook I see Halloween pictures from extended family in Mexico.  It’s become so common place that we take it for granted.  I feel silly coming up with examples, because we all experience it every day.

Of course, while kids facing re-integration into their passport culture may have some cultural touchstones, they’ll still face a challenging task.  It’s by no means easy to act like or become a native in a place you aren’t, but everyone expects you to be.  We’re more aware of the issues now, though, and at least the global distribution of the culture gives them a place to start.  I don’t think we had any repatriation support when I came home from Spain, but in the years since I’ve had book recommendations and contact from someone at my parents mission organization that’s focused on it.

So while some of the downsides of being a Third Culture Kid may be softening (the biggest remaining downside being that the US is just… well… a really boring place to come back to), the upsides are probably not.  While you can see videos and news stories from places like Thailand and Slovenia, you can never truly get the global conversation if you’ve never left your home country.  The visceral knowledge that other people do things differently and have a different perspective is invaluable.  It makes you a citizen of the globe, and in our connected but civically unstable world, that can be a great asset.

So Irma and I are weighing buying a new house and going the typical middle class route, but on the other side we’re looking at the possibility of a global life for ourselves and our kids.  In the end we’ll have to make a decision, but at least I know that if we do decide to move far, far away, in some ways it’ll turn out better for my kids than it did for me.

Future Cool

Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan and former derivatives trader, is doing a tour for his new book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder.  As part of that tour he has an excerpt up on Salon entitled The Future Will Not Be Cool.  Go read it, I’ll wait.

I have some issues with the Salon piece, though I think it’s being spun as something it isn’t, and probably makes more sense in the context of the book.  The central thesis is that the future we see in films and sci-fi books is not the future we get, and having attended a bunch of TED style events, Mr. Taleb wants us to remember that in the end the future looks a lot like the present, just with things taken away.

The arguments Mr. Taleb makes are fair, but he may be overstating the problem, and he may not be in a position to see the more exotic future he’s arguing against.

When people write science fiction, come up with TED talks or make movies, they’re looking for a hook, an idea that fires the imagination.  If Jules Verne had written about the washing machine, people would not have been slack-jawed, but you can’t deny the impact that it has had on society.  The fact that the waitress, hostess or even chef at the restaurant mentioned in the excerpt might have been a minority mother of young children attests to the fact that things have changed considerably for a lot of people.

The thing that Nassim Taleb and I have in common is that we’re privileged non-repressed-minority men.  For us, things have generally been good for a while, and radical change hasn’t presented in our lives.  If you can afford to send your kids to a good school, Khan Academy and Wikipedia aren’t as big of an innovation as if you’re working two jobs and can barely afford to keep food on the table.  Perhaps the future is the privileged past, more evenly distributed.  For people it impacts, that future is pretty cool, and more cool than robotic butlers or flying cars.

I accept Mr. Taleb’s argument that people should pay more attention to the past, but to be fair, Mr. Taleb’s grandfathers were deputy prime ministers, his parents were academics, and he went to the University of Paris and The Wharton School.  My parents were missionaries and I went to public school in Texas, but had access to the Internet and a computer.  One of us has the ability to appreciate and understand literature and literary culture and one of us has the ability to appreciate technological innovation and create a little bit of that future.

I’d love to be more aware of literary culture, but I can’t go from where I’m at directly to Plato and Homer and appreciate it like I can appreciate a new Charles Stross, Neal Stephenson or William Gibson book.  To be totally honest, I’ve even had a hard time appreciating some of Bruce Sterling’s recent work.  Maybe what I need is a Code Academy or Khan Academy for Plato or Phidias, and maybe in the next few years that will happen.  If the kids down on the block are comparing graffiti tags to Canova, maybe that will be the future Mr. Taleb’s looking for.

My copy of Antifragile is on it’s way from Amazon, and I’m sure I’ll appreciate it as much as I did The Black Swan and Fooled By Randomness.  Hopefully this excerpt will make more sense in context.