President Obama and I would get along. We have a lot in common, he and I, what with both being Third Culture Kids. I wonder if, when growing up, President Obama ever paused, like I still do, after being asked the question: Where are you from? I know he no longer pauses before answering that question. He can’t afford to hesitate. Hawaii, is the answer, and he has the long form birth certificate to prove it. But for those of us Third Culture Kids who haven’t been forced to choose between the appropriate and the legal answer, we probably still pause. And then we deflect the question and say “What do you mean?” What we mean by our returning question is: What are you trying to find out: Where I was born? What my citizenship is? Or perhaps you want to know what ethnicity I am, where the color of my skin comes from? Maybe you’d just like to know what kind of food I’d cook, if you were to come to my home for dinner. Those are actually easy questions to answer. Once, in a writing workshop, however, the question of where one of my characters came from, caused me to question my very existence. And no, I don’t think I’m being overly dramatic when I say that.
“Third Culture Kid” is a standing term. And though, I suppose I’m now an ATCK (Adult Third Culture Kid), I feel the Kid part allows me to still approach this from the view point of a child. A friend—a writer, go figure—recently took her young daughter to the movies to see Madagascar III: Europe’s Most Wanted. She and daughter (and her husband) all loved the movie. My friend is a lit professor, so she is forgiven for expressing her impression of the movie thusly: “…we probably ended up liking this latest and hopefully final installment more than she did. I say ‘hopefully final’ because Madagascar 3 is the perfectly poetic conclusion to the story of a group of animals whose longing for home has been the impetus for so much character development and, uh, interspecies relation.”
She was not being facetious when she wrote that Facebook status. And I’m not being facetious when I say: I get it. I could be one of them. I could be the Hippo, as she’s the only female. Or maybe I’m more like Marty, the Zebra, who looked at the state of his life in Central Park Zoo and started the Madagascar trilogy by asking “Where did we come from and what are we doing here?” This existential crisis leads to Marty and his friends, a lion, a giraffe, a hippopotamus, as well as a handful of crafty penguins to set forth to Africa. And what do you think happens when they get there? They discover that they don’t really belong there. It’s great at first, coming “home”. But then they soon realize they’re not home because you have to be from somewhere to be from somewhere.
It’s funny, the term “Third Culture Kid”. Third Culture Kids are sometimes called 3CKs or TCKs. It looks odd and sounds odd. Like a new fragrance by Calvin Klein, or a three-boy pop group. Or perhaps some kind of affliction—3CK Virus or ATCK Syndrome? All this is just to say that I was, until recently, as unfamiliar with the term as the next person. So, in fact, I can’t begin to explore how this term applies to me and affects my writing life. I first have to define it, and understand it. And perhaps even learn to make the most of it. The phenomenon of Third Culture Kids (TCKs) is defined as the following: children who spend a significant portion of their developmental years in a culture outside their parents’ passport culture(s). Dr. Ruth Hill Useem, a sociologist and anthropologist, was the first person to research this phenomenon—and give it its name—in the 1950’s when she spent a year researching expatriates in India. She observed families that had left their home country and culture (first culture) to move to a second country (or host culture). Her observations revealed that such lifestyles created its own sort of cultural profile that was different from either the first or second cultures—a third culture. And the children who grew up in this lifestyle were then called Third Culture Kids. At that time, most expatriate families had parents from the same culture and they often remained in one host culture while overseas.
Most of my life I assumed I had the profile of a cross-cultural, multi-cultural whatever… In other words, I only had a vague idea of where I—as I am—came from. It must be my immigrant roots, I quickly say. But I’m not an immigrant, technically. Where would I have immigrated from? This, the USA, is my passport country. Well, technically, it’s one of my passport countries, being in possession of dual citizenship.
The difference, as far as I can identify it, lies in the this: somebody who writes and identifies as an immigrant comes from somewhere, and comes into another culture, with their or their parents’ culture rooted in them. Some try—and may succeed—in assimilating into their new environments. They have roots, a background that becomes part of their identity, that can be reflected in their writing. But their identity has a linear quality to it, a solidness. A TCK does not have that.
As a writer I’m always being asked where I get the ideas for what I write, be it fiction or non-fiction. But it wasn’t until sitting in a writer’s workshop a few years ago that I was really forced to come up with an answer, at least for myself. There we were, reading a short piece I had written, when, as I was explaining the virtues of not using quotation marks in my dialogue, a fellow workshopper, clearly frustrated, asked “Excuse me, I just want to know: this character is Asian, right? Or Is she white?” Dammit, how did they know? I felt like they had found me out—discovered my fraud. I had no answer to that question. Did that mean the character had no, well, characteristics, and so it had all fallen flat. Had I not been sitting in the room, or had the submissions been anonymous, they would probably not have asked the question. The questioner would have defaulted to thinking the character was white. But as I am not, I am Asian, there the question was to be asked. The funny-sad thing is, the character is indeed white, and I am afraid that was simply by default.
The issue of Third Culture is not just a question of culture, of course. And race, ethnicity, economic status and a myriad of factors in a person’s life can “make” someone fit the Third Culture Kid profile. Ruth E. Van Reken, co-founder of Families in Global Transition and co-author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, says of TCKs: “They have seen the world and often learnt several languages. More importantly, through friendships that cross the usual racial, national, or social barriers, they have also learned the very different ways people can see life.” To view and understand the world—people, economy, politics, history—from all angles. This may be a wonderful proclivity in a president, but in a writer it feels more like a handicap. Does not seeing the world from a singular point of view create a void, a lack of perspective, rather than a clearer or more amplified one? One of the tenets of good fiction, in any genre, is that universality is achieved through specificity. If that is true (and it is), then what does one do when they can’t identify, or sometimes can’t decide on, the specifics?
Deanna Fei is the author of A Thread of Sky and she recently agreed to speak with me about her writing. I suppose it would be more accurate to say that she agreed to speak with me about my writing. Of course, I approached her because she is Asian American, like me. I was looking to compare and contrast, after all. I wanted to take a sample of her process and compare it with mine. She is the daughter of immigrants and was born and raised in the U.S. I thought, multi-cultural, multi-lingual, female, lives in New York. Close enough. I could discuss with her all the issues that had been vexing me in my writing, all the points that made me trip up and stop believing in the authenticity of my own fiction. Will you always write Chinese American characters? Do you think you will ever write a novel with a white central character? Do you think there is an expectation from readers that a Chinese American writer should write Chinese American stories? There is a common theme in these questions. All these questions expose a fear of committing a fraud—of being inauthentic. She patiently answered and discussed my fears until finally I was able to hear what she was saying. Essentially: authenticity isn’t the answer. The point of all art, she kindly reminded me, is to tell a truth.
Deanna Fei’s writing is clear and confident. Her characters are solid and alive. In short, she has written truth. Fictional truth, to be sure, but truth all the same. Readers may wonder who her characters are—indeed they should, and keep reading—but they don’t wonder where they are from. Their backstories are intact, making them real and full and ready to experience the journey Fei created for them. Did Fei have to decide on her character’s specifics? Their race or ethnicity? What about her settings? What about her characters’ voices, dialects, opinions—what about what her characters have for breakfast? The quick answer to all these questions is: No. (Save for the matter of what they have for breakfast. She is so fastidious in creating characters that she knows what they would have for breakfast.) To be clear, ethnicity, race, nationality—such basic biographical information is important to her to have and to mention. To not address that would be “unthinkable—like not mentioning their gender.”
I told her about the “incident” in my workshop. I tried to explain how I was worried that my characters were all white by default and what that said about me. Am I not confronting my own ethnicity and culture? Can I convincingly write white characters. More importantly, do I have the right to do this? Don’t I have an obligation to write stories that are more, well, ethnic? Deanna Fei doesn’t like that term “ethnic writer”. Yes, she understands that this expectation and these questions are a true burden for so-called ethnic writers. But in the end, she says, good fiction comes down to character and point of view. The only thing to be wary of is imposing one’s own pre-conceived notions onto a character. There’s a real danger of slipping and having a character serve a purpose in the plot with their race or ethnicity, or of having them be “representative” of a whole group of people, or simply of stereotyping.
Nikita Lalwani, British Asian author of Gifted and The Village, also had this to say when I asked her if she can see herself writing a non-Indian central character: “Your questions remind me of a joke I had with a writer friend that all self-respecting Asian writers do a book with white central characters at some point. He’s mixed race, half Indian, and his third book adhered to this premise, apparently it was subconscious. I’ve just begun my third book and it is resolutely ‘multicultural’, again subconscious. It nearly wasn’t but that character was not nearly as well-developed or idiosyncratic in my mind. What this says about me and my writing, I don’t know but I don’t think it is a conscious statement in the grand narrative of my writing life.”
This insight runs along the same lines as what Deanna Fei says about her writing life: “What would be the point of me not addressing that which comes naturally to me?” She grew up in a Chinese American family and community. She’s been surrounded by Chinese American women her whole life. “I like the sense of being able to draw from that,” she says.
The reason I got in touch with Deanna Fei and Nikita Lalwani is not just that they are both female writers of Asian descent, living in western countries. Fei’s A Thread Of Sky and Lalwani’s The Village both tell a story of women whose parents immigrated from one country to another and then return, for a time, to their parent’s first passport country. First and second cultures: I thought that made their central characters Third Culture Kids, like me. I suppose I had hoped to find writers who were grappling with the same issues as I am, who were getting tripped-up on the same steps. Instead, their attitudes to the writing process and the writing life in general, pulled mine into stark contrast. Immigration is indeed a different animal.
David C. Pollock, an American sociologist, extended Useem’s definition of a TCK:
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 frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.
Not having full ownership of a single culture, not having that to readily draw upon or imbibe characters with, may present a challenge when having to explain oneself in a workshop. But actually, the world is not a writers’ workshop. And a fictional world is the creation of the writer. The point of art is to tell the truth—not to prove authenticity or pedigree. As Nikita Lalwani says: “In terms of expectation, you can’t go around worrying about that or you’d never write—it is such a strange, severe process of solitary confinement that it always seems such a happy accident when the book is released into the world after years of working on it in a vacuum of various sensitivities.”
In the end, it’s about the stories we are driven to tell. Each person has a unique vantage point from which they see the world and from which to draw experiences and impression and imagination. In any case, the profile of a Third Culture Kid as first mapped out by Dr. Ruth Hill Useem, much like current geographical realities, is becoming blurred. Globalization is becoming the norm culture through international corporations, diplomacy, job flexibility, and so on. Soon, we may all be like the characters of Madagascar. Animals who are at home neither in a zoo, nor in their native lands; at home only with each other, being global nomads. The future seems headed in this direction. If the election of a TCK to the highest public office in the country is any indication, there is clear value to writing that is drawn from cross-cultural, multi-national, global nomadic back ground. It may be a gift to be afflicted with this particular burden.