X-Expats’ Open Talks Series: Casual Conversations with Ruth Van Reken – Part 1

Part 1/3: Globalization and Global Mindedness

Ruth Van Reken is a second generation Third Culture Kid* (TCK) – another name for a child who grows up for a significant period of time in a culture outside the parents’ passport culture(s). Her US American father was born and raised in Iran and Ruth was born and raised in Kano, Nigeria. Her first daughter was born in Monrovia, Liberia where all three of her daughters were raised, while Ruth’s oldest grandchild was born in Accra, Ghana. In other words, her family has four generations of US Americans born outside the USA!

Ruth is the author of Letters Never Sent (with a newly updated epilogue), one of the first books written by an adult TCK examining the impact of a cross-cultural childhood. She is also co-author with David C. Pollock of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. For the last twenty-seven years, Ruth has traveled extensively to over fifty countries in an effort to raise awareness about issues related to global family living. Currently, Ruth is researching how lessons learned in this TCK context may also apply to other types of cross-cultural childhoods, such as immigrants, refugees, and bicultural or biracial families. Ruth is co-founder of the annual Families in Global Transition conference.

At present, Ruth lives in Indianapolis, IN with her husband of 44 years, David, and they have eleven wonderful grandchildren!

X-EXPATS: Thanks to globalization and advancements in technology, companies are more versatile and globally minded and so are their workforce and the consumers they cater to. Is a new “kind” of person emerging whose cultural traits transcend nations, citizenships, and traditional cultural lines?

Ruth Van Reken: At one level, the answer is definitely “yes.” Because of the increased ease of global travel and the explosive number of multinational companies and organisations forming in today’s world, more and more people are growing up, or have grown up, interacting with others who come from a wide variety of national and ethnic backgrounds. This is in marked contrast to the traditional monocultural communities which formed the cultural identities for most children of past generations. Those who grow up globally – referred to by sociologists as third culture kids (TCKs) – often feel far more connected to others of similar experience rather than to those of shared citizenship who have never traveled or moved internationally. TCKs and adult TCKs (ATCKs) may have divided loyalties when watching a cricket or soccer match: Should they be cheering for their passport country or the one in which they spent many years as a child? When those at ‘home’ speak negatively about a country in which the TCKs/ATCKs have lived and those TCKs/ATCKs try to defend the people they have lived among by explaining some realities that may have been overlooked, the TCKs/ATCKs can be branded as arrogant, argumentative or unpatriotic. They may, however, react in similar fashion if someone in their host country begins to demean certain aspects of the land their passport says is ‘home.’ Ultimately, for many the reality is “I belong everywhere and nowhere.” It is certainly a different way of knowing and experiencing cultures.

At another level, however, I would add a cautionary note to the concept of transcending nations, citizenships or a traditional culture: It would be easy to interpret these changes in terms of having a more borderless sense of identity or citizenship and assume that these “new citizens” have no cultural bias or preconceptions of their own. We forget that even the expat culture is a subculture with its preset paradigms for how life operates, often including a worldview that assumes “global is good.” This assumption can turn into a form of at least mild disdain for others from our passport countries who want life to stay “as it was.” This is one of the underlying frustrations for many who have lived internationally when they reenter their passport culture. We can also forget that many of the early expat communities were formed primarily from Western based cultures. While the outer appearance of many of our global companies and communities may seem very diverse, we may still have some work to do in giving true respect at the deeper levels of culture. I had one Asian ATCK tell me, “You always say TCKs develop a large world view and are so accepting of many cultures, but the truth is when I went to my international schools, I had to be Western at school to fit in. I never felt anyone either realized or cared that each night when I went home I was in a totally different cultural world where all the values and operating rules changed the minute I took off my shoes and entered my home.”

So yes, based on old models, there are many in today’s world who feel borderless in some ways, who love to function with the “other”, who delight in learning new languages and eating new foods. Some do, in fact, declare themselves as ‘citizens of the world.’ Growing up among many cultural worlds is a great gift to have received (from my perspective!) and to use in our changing world. There are countless examples of those with global childhoods who operate effectively in various careers where cross-cultural skills and awareness of the changing nature of our world are needed. But we must also be careful to realize that a mindset that believes that “global is good” is a particular world view that not everyone shares and for good reason. In fact, it may be seen as a threat to a legitimate way of life. That means that part of the challenge for us all is to work hard to bring effective dialog between those who see the world locally and those who see the world more globally. It is easy for both ‘sides’ to dismiss the other’s view point when what we need is to understand what a huge transition we are all undergoing in our fast changing world

X-E: Is it a phenomenon that is being researched? Are the implications on the individual and on society as a whole known?

RVR: Yes, to all these questions. First I’ll talk about the research and then how these global changes affect the individual and then society.

This phenomenon of a new way of finding identity has been, and is being, researched extensively. The term third culture kids began in 1960 as a result of major research at Michigan State University (MSU). Ruth Hill Useem, then a sociologist from MSU, went to India with her anthropologist husband, John, in the mid-1950s and observed the expat lifestyle. They noticed that people from one culture, their home or first culture, were going to live and work in a host or second culture. The Useems realized these expats weren’t living as they would have lived in their home cultures nor how the locals were living in this host culture, but they were living in a way common to them as expats, even though they came from different sectors such as corporate, diplomatic, NGOs, missionary and military. They called this an interstitial or third culture and Dr. Ruth Useem named those who grew up in this interstitial world third culture kids (TCKs).

Ruth Useem told me personally, however, in the late 1980s, that her job had been to research the topic, not to apply it practically. That role fell to David C. Pollock. He moved to Kenya as an expat in the mid-1970s and lived near an international school. As he began to observe certain characteristics common to these students, who were all TCKs, that differed from the youth he had worked with back in the United States, Dave developed his classic models of The Third Culture Kid Profile which includes many paradoxes TCKs exhibit, such as a wider world view but with ignorance of the passport culture, home being everywhere and nowhere, or a sense of both independence and isolation. There are great practical skills that come with this experience including for many the ability to be a cultural bridge, to have language skills, flexibility, a confidence and vision to try something a bit ‘out of the box’, and a wealth of experiences and insights to draw on for people such as writers, screenwriters, newsreporters, counselors, even government officials. During that same time period, Norma McCaig founded Global Nomads, Int. This was a group for adult TCKs (ATCKs) who had grown up as children of international business people, diplomats, missionaries, military, or other NGOs.

All three of these TCK key pioneers – Useem, Pollock and McCaig – have now died but the research and growth of their ideas continues to expandWhile it is one of the most researched aspects of this cross-cultural, highly mobile lifestyle, one of the most challenging aspects is this question of identity – “How do I figure out who I am when I have lived in so many places and cultures?” Too often TCKs feel forced to choose just one answer when the truth is they are ‘all of the above’. Barbara Schaetti, PhD, who did the first study on ATCKs and identity, offers some great insights into this phenomenon on her website and through her work. The second major challenge is sorting out the impact of the repeated cycles of transition inherent in a highly mobile community. While such mobility offers incredible opportunity to see the world, it can often be very difficult to express in words or properly understand the need to mourn the losses experienced with each cycle of coming and going – particularly when it feels it would be ungrateful to mourn any loss compared to the great privileges this life also offers. Many have researched the challenges of reentry to the passport culture as well.

In the last few years, however, there has been a renewed push to have serious research examining in more detail and with quantifiable statistics the characteristics commonly cited for TCKs, including those listed aboveI recently had discussions with Jody C. Tangredi on early data from her current work on an MA thesis pilot research that indicates this type of TCK childhood can have a positive impact on the development of effective global intercultural skills and competencies in adulthood, including a measurement of global mindset.

Other researchers are investigating whether new themes/characteristics are emerging or old ones are ceasing due to the many technological and cultural changes seen in today’s world. Families in Global Transition has created a research network for those who study these matters (www.figt.org) and a peer-reviewed journal is planned to publish some of this new research. In addition, there is also extensive research being undertaken in Australia, Europe, Asia, and the US comparing and contrasting the experience of traditional Third Culture Kids with the many other types of cross-cultural kids (CCKs). In her recent thesis on “Coaching with a Global Mindset,” Wendy Wilson has noted that not only people who grew up overseas in their developmental years but those who have the experience of growing up cross-culturally for other reasons such as being in an immigrant or bi-cultural family have also developed a global mindset. This is most interesting as we continue to see that lessons learned from the TCK experience can also begin to inform the overall picture of how globalization affects individuals from many different types of cross-cultural childhoods, not simply the traditional expat experience alone.

Another question to add is does the country of origin make any difference on the individual experience and/or the society? In 2012, Isabel Min, an ATCK from Korea, gave an outstanding talk at the Families in Global Transition Conference on the difference during reentry for a Korean TCK and a Western based TCK. She showed from her research how reentry was made more or less stressful depending on how much the community valued the language skills the TCK had or hadn’t learned in the host culture

But you also asked about the implications of this topic on society itself. A few years ago I met Momo Kano Podolsky. She is a Japanese researcher who did early studies about Japanese children who lived outside of their country because of a parent’s career choice (kaigai-shijo) and later returned to Japan (kikoku-shijo). In our discussions and in reading her articles, it became obvious many of her findings for the Japanese young people fit closely with our studies among more Western based children – such as questions of identity, large world view, reentry stress, etc.. (Momo’s work is explained in some detail in Appendix B of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds). Because Japan was such a monocultural community, when these children returned ‘home’ they no longer fit into their previous school or other systems due to the differences they themselves had experienced and absorbed. At first this was seen as a problem and the government of Japan funded many studies to try to find a solution. In addition, they started schools to accommodate these students who couldn’t fit back in seamlessly to the culture or systems. In time, however, people began to realize that these returning children had a skill set that would stand them well in the international business world. Many had learned English in their international schools and could function with ease in a globalizing economy and market.

After telling me all these fascinating details, Momo then asked me what the TCK phenomenon had done to the USA culturally. I said I had no idea!! And she replied, “That’s the difference between your work and ours. You looked at what it did to the individual and we looked at what it did not only to the individual but also to our society.”

Because of Momo’s challenge, I began to look at the 2008 elections a bit differently because two ATCKs were running for president of the USA. John McCain grew up overseas while his father served in the military, and Barack Obama had spent 4 years in Indonesia with his mother and step-father. I wanted to see how the rise to power of many with global childhoods might or might not be impacting our political system and conversation as well. When adult TCK Barack Obama became president, many of his early appointees like Tim Geithner, Scott Gration, and Valerie Jarrett, had also grown up globally. Others of his appointees had grown up cross-culturally in various ways. I expect that in early round-table discussions, many on the president’s team shared common visions of reaching out to other countries, even those traditionally considered our adversaries. Because of their like-mindedness on these matters, however, .perhaps they didn’t fully realize how different the values can be of people who have not grown up in a similar experience and who would therefore naturally see talking to our “enemies” as a bad thing to do. I wonder if some of the polarization we are beginning to see in many countries, including the USA, is a result of an unseen clash of values between those who grew up internationally or cross-culturally and those who grew up in a more traditional mono-cultural environment and the very different cultural lenses through which each group may see the world. Surely the answer is more complex than this simple wondering but I think this might be a place where we could begin some fruitful and civil discourse and research about our world today.

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