Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Growing up in many cultures

Marita van der Vyver wrote a book called 'Where the Heart Is' talking about her experiences of adjusting to life as an Afrikaans writer in France. One of the stories she tells is of the birth of her daughter. Like many families in the world, this one is multi-cultural. Her daughter will grow up in three languages – English, Afrikaans and French. She will live her whole life where these three worlds meet in her own family and, eventually, in her own life and her own personal identity.

A conversation with a colleague the other day make me think about multi-cultural growing up. He's a Third Culture Kid. I'd never come across the term but I know a few people who fit into the category. They fit the description pretty much exactly. I can think of one in particular who spent some years in South America. She has all the cultural chameleon reactions to new situations. She's also one of the strongest people I've ever known.

One article I came across pointed out that a large proportion of the research into this phenomenon has been done by people who are themselves TCKs, perhaps trying to make sense of their own experience, perhaps trying to create knowledge about a phenomenon that other people aren't aware of. TCKs are distinct from other immigrant children partly because they not only see or visit other cultures, they are fully immersed in them as part of their everyday lives and partly because they don't expect to stay. These are people who are transient – they settle down for a few years (if that) but always with the knowledge that they won't be there forever. The specific definition is that these are kids who live in another country for a few years while growing up.

The situation is not that different to the situation in which many of the people I know lived. I know some people who lived in the same place for their whole lives. But for many others there was a sense of constant movement. I grew up in a country of migrant labour, not only at the basic level of miners and domestic workers, but at other levels too. People move around a lot. I think one of the reasons I was always a little envious of the farm kids was that they seemed to have more stability than anyone else. Perhaps they're an example of the difference between TCKs and other immigrant kids – the farm children grew up in multiple cultures and languages but their base was always entirely stable. I wanted that when I grew up.

In some countries, moving between towns and regions doesn't have a huge impact. Some countries, it seems, have a fairly uniform national culture, or at least fairly distinct and stable regional cultures. Of course, minority cultures and subcultures exist with the mainstream, but in most countries (apparently) the main culture seems to be fairly widespread. So, even though moving is traumatic for kids, the cultures in the two places are not particularly different. I think I'm particularly aware of this because I'm currently in a country that is fairly convinced it is homogeneous. The cultural world in which I grew up is perhaps better described as cultural worlds. Three languages, three cultures (mostly).

I didn't grow up in many countries but I moved around a lot and I did grow up in more than one culture. My schooling, my friendship groups, home, everything from teenage discussions about boys and music to serious academia and ways of understanding the world were in more than one language. Third Culture Kids tend to assimilate bits from each culture they experience and create their own unique 'third' cultural identity. I'm not a TCK. I haven't lived in many countries. But I have lived in many cultures and many languages, all of which have become part of myself. “I am a part of all that I have met; yet all experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades for ever and for ever when I move” - Tennyson. I am a part of all that I have met. The future glimmers through all that I have seen. I wonder what South Korea will add.

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