X-Expats’ Open Talks Series: Casual Conversations with Ruth Van Reken – Part 2

Ruth Van Reken is a second generation Adult Third Culture Kid* (ATCK) who has raised three TCKs herself. For more than twenty-five years, Ruth has traveled nationally and internationally to help others understand why a cross-cultural childhood matters. She is co-founder of Families in Global Transition and co-author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds.

X-E: In view of the increasing diversity in the US and other countries, have the principles and frameworks used to distinguish and define cultural identity kept up with these changes? How do individuals who may have been influenced by two or more cultures fit in the current models?

RVR: After more than twenty-seven years of working with countless adults who have grown up cross-culturally for all sort of reasons, it is clear to me that traditional definitions of cultural identity or ‘diversity’ have not kept up with the types of cultural complexity so many individuals experience in our world today. One problem may be the language we use. For example, let’s look at the past and present approach to idea of ‘diversity’ in the USA. The current emphasis on ‘diversity’ began during the days when civil rights became a defining issue for my generation. When I returned to the United States after spending my childhood in Nigeria with friend from many countries and cultures, I couldn’t believe the great and unjust discrimination many in the USA faced because of their appearance or skin color alone. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, I became personally involved in the civil rights movement. No one could believe more than I do that such discrimination must be addressed clearly and corrective action taken.

The problem that I see, however, is that initially, when the word ‘diversity’ was used in this context, it referred primarily to race and equity issues for minority groups as defined by their skin color (with gender, disability, and sexual orientation added later). Because of that, the term ‘diversity’ became synonymous with various forms of affirmative action seeking to correct discriminatory practices against these groups. Ironically, while the goal to correct past injustice was laudable and correct, this way of defining people first and only by visible ‘difference’ of race, ethnicity, or gender, can produce its own form of stereotyping even while seeking to correct earlier ones. Often, this form of ‘diversity’ fails to take into account the many other types of diversity such as economic diversity, thought diversity, or cultural diversity that are also present in the unseen spaces of life. The truth is that in today’s globalizing world, there is more and more of what Paulette Bethel and I call hidden diversity –“a diversity of experience that shapes a person’s life and world view but is not readily apparent on the outside, unlike the usual diversity markers such as race, ethnicity, nationality, etc.” I meet people all over the world who share the same ‘look’ as others in their community, but are widely different in how they think, what they believe, how they perceive themselves and the world around them. When I returned to the USA at the age of 13, all others in my public school were also white in those pre-civil rights days. But I was a hidden immigrant. I had no more idea of how life worked in this place than someone coming as a true immigrant. Because, however, I shared the same look and spoke with the same Mid-Western accent as my classmates, no one understood why I continually made social mistakes or didn’t know any of the pop culture references. When asked to fill out college applications, there was always a box asking for my race. As I checked “Caucasian,” I often wondered what that told them about me. Where could I also check a place that indicated I might not be someone with the typical US suburban teenager experiences that the simple data on my form would indicate?

The same type of misperception happened to a young woman who was a British citizen of Jamaican descent. Her dad had a top position in an international corporation and they moved to the USA so he could be at corporate headquarters. This young woman’s parents wanted her to attend a local private school so the school administrators gave her a placement test. Unfortunately, she did poorly as she had never worked with questions using quarts and pints, dollars and cents rather than the metric system. Despite her parents’ protestations that she was simply unfamiliar with the system and just needed some temporary tutoring to learn this new curriculum, she was placed in a lower grade for two months until the administrators realized they had made a mistake. As she told her story to a group of educators, she added that part of the confusion to her entry to the USA was that, “People thought I was African American.” A person in the audience asked why she wanted to be white and she said, “I don’t want to be white, but I’m not an African and I’m not an American. I’m of Jamaican descent and I’m British.” But it was obvious several in the class seemed unable to comprehend what she meant or realize she also came from a wealthy family in which university and advanced degrees were the expectation, not the exception. The same class seemed unable to comprehend as well the stories of two white Australian twins who could not work at summer jobs because their father’s work permit prevented others in the family from working for pay. Based on their appearance, no one would have put them in need of any affirmative action program. The truth is, at least in the USA, people can now check more than one racial box on all their forms, but there is still no place to indicate the growing cultural complexity many have also experienced. Certainly in terms of the traditional approach to ‘diversity,’ we need to expand our thinking and our models here to include more than the visible aspects of diversity alone.

This also relates to how we see cultural identity. President Obama is a prime example of this ‘new normal’ of growing cultural complexity and how it also relates to identity. He was born to a bi-racial couple who had also come from radically different cultural worlds. When his parents divorced, Obama’s mother married an Indonesian man and Obama became a true TCK as he lived outside his parents’ culture during his developmental years. He then became what I call an “educational cross-cultural kid” – attending school in a different language and culture than he knew at home. During the day he went to a local Indonesian school but his mom taught him from a US curriculum during his time at home. When Obama came to the mainland, others saw him primarily as African-American in a different way than he had been identified in the more eclectic situation in Hawaii. He was, in fact, moving between different cultural worlds in his own country – a domestic TCK!

If we learn our sense of identity from the way it is mirrored back by those around us, which of these changing mirrors reflected Obama’s core identity most accurately? During the 2008 US presidential campaign the question continually arose, “Is he black enough?” I always wondered if they were discussing his color or his culture? Many asked why his books talk so much about his struggle for identity and seemed to want to define him in the ‘either/or’ terms of the past rather than allowing him to be ‘all of the above’ as is true for so many of us are in the present

This is why I have been trying to expand our vision and language to show how Third Culture Kids (TCKs) are a subset of a larger category I call Cross-Cultural Kids (CCKs). CCKs are those who grow up among many cultural worlds for all sorts of reasons, and often in very complicated cultural patterns. As Obama’s story shows us, even traditional TCKs now often have many additional cross-cultural interactions such as growing up as mixed race children, in bi-national homes, children of minority groups who move daily between two cultures as they go to school in the day and return home each evening. Any one of these experiences belies the traditional model of a child raised in one place among one predominant cultural world. Consider how much more culturally complicated the story is for children who live out several cross-cultural realities all at the same time. There is no question in my mind that we need new ways to define and describe both diversity and identity in today’s world.

For those who are interested, in 2005, Santham Sanghera wrote a column in the Financial Times that relates to this question. The title is, “British, Asian, and Educated, but No Role Model for Diversity.”  It is a great article that discusses how diversity is being defined in ways that are no longer adequate in our changing world.

X-E: Any other downsides of being influenced by a number of cultures? Do these downsides differ whether exposure occurs during childhood or adulthood?

The biggest challenge of growing up among many cultural worlds relates to this confusion of identity based I mention above. This is in large measure, I believe, because we haven’t had language with which to describe adequately or properly name those raised with this increasing degree of cultural complexity now becoming the new normal in our world. But you bring up a great question that also needs to be addressed and I didn’t do it yet.

Going to another culture for the first time as an adult or child will forever change a person’s life in one way or another; but the big difference between children and adults who go for the first time is that children are still in the developmental process of finding out who they are, where they fit in, what their gifts are, etc. In other words, as they learn their language and cultural norms, this is where the questions of identity are starting to be answered and so the impact depends on individual circumstances for each child – it can translate into a healthy outlook or a challenged one. When healthy adults go for the first time, they already have learned “British” or “French” behaviors, attitudes, values and norms and hopefully have begun to understand how they fit into the larger national context around them. When, as adults, they change cultures and go through culture shock, it is hard too. In fact, for a while they may feel like children again, having to learn a new language and new cultural norms, but a place deep inside can also remember that “I did figure this out before … I can find a way to use my gifts here.” I always say for an adult, culture shock often leads them to look at those in the new place and ask, “What’s wrong with them?” while the child who has lost his or her sense of cultural balance as the world changes is more likely to ask, “What’s the matter with me?”

I have seen adults who made some great transitions and became adept at trying to understand others in another culture and world, and I have seen some TCKs so locked into their own view of the world (even if it’s a global view) that they look down on others in a home or host culture who don’t share these views. This is why it is important for parents to realize that while they and their children may have done their global wanderings together, the internal experience as it relates to a sense of identity can be very different. One challenge for internationally mobile parents comes when they realize that they and their children may have very different senses of where is home, what defines home, and what they feel is their cultural or national identity.

X-E: Upsides? Isn’t cross-cultural awareness and competence valuable? Doesn’t it prepare individuals for living and working in a “global village”?

RVR: Yes, this is why I work so hard to help people understand the challenges as well, because when they are dealt with successfully, there is no stopping the use of this experience. Without question, I believe that the greatest gift and joy of my entire life is that I have experienced the richness and wonder of living among many cultural worlds. Not only is it just plain interesting, but I delight in seeing the many different ways people satisfy the same human needs. For example, I believe, at the core, every person on earth of every culture is a relational being. We want to know others and to be known. Yet, how many different cultural ways are there to try to begin a relationship? You might bow, or shake hands, or curtsy, or kiss or rub noses or whatever. How magnificent it is to have the opportunity to interact in all these different ways with people from other cultures, knowing our basic human selves are connecting. I love the diversity of food, engaging in conversation to see how the same behavior can be interpreted so radically differently in each place.

To me, and most who grow up among many cultural worlds, the skill of negotiating between these worlds is so much a part of how we learned to live in this larger “global world” that we don’t even recognize it as a skill set. It can, however, be one of the biggest gifts for those going on to work in international business or other cross-cultural jobs. My friend, Nancy Ruth, does some amazing things at the corporate level with HR as she helps those in her corporation understand how some conflicts can be cleared up significantly when she adds ‘cultural diversity’ to the mix rather than only racial diversity. Helping others to have a simple awareness of how two cultures may be clashing also helps people find new approaches to work with and through these differences instead of being stuck and frustrated by them. Katrina Burrus is an Executive Coach, founder of the Global Nomadic Leadership Institute, and a leader in the field of helping corporations understand how they can leverage the skills of employees with cross-cultural backgrounds. In her excellent seminars and writings, she demonstrates how ATCKs with their multicultural intelligence have unique skills that multinationals are seeking – especially if they are willing to be mobile. Obviously, all of this is good for the bottom line!

The gifts of a cross-cultural childhood are useful in other arenas in our new ‘global village.’ Some Norwegian adult TCKs have begun a large program there for refugees and immigrants based on principles learned from their own mobile lifestyles. It is called FLEXid for Flexible Identity.

I think the other big gift that equips us as TCKs to be part of the global community in a positive way is simply that we have usually grown up with peers who have many looks and are from many places and ways of thinking. We are not afraid of such an environment. In fact, we often gravitate to it. Hopefully we are more curious to get to know this other person instead of eing uncomfortable because we “might make a cultural mistake.” It’s not that we won’t make our mistakes. We will. But we also know there can be human connections between those of quite different cultures that is greater than those mistakes and if we listen, observe, and ask questions, we will find out way to make new friends with those whose life story and cultures are different from our own. These are all wonderful gifts, not only for a globalizing world, but for each of us privileged to grow up or live in this wider world.

But this also is why we need to recognize the growing number of other types of cross-cultural kids (CCKs). For example, we haven’t even begun to recognize what skilled interculturalists refugee or immigrant or minority children are as they negotiate different cultural worlds each day of their lives. Truly we live in a fascinating age and one where so much cultural mixing and matching has never taken place at this level before. We have much to still learn and be and do.

Comments are closed.