The conversation, with a brilliant friend who studies cultural differences, was about the unknown effect of removing yourself from the cultural petri dish. That dish, teeming with spoken and unspoken norms and rules, almost always influences your actions and reactions to the world around you. It’s like the third Newtonian culture law.
So what happens when you go all Matrix and pull the plug on the cultural fluid you’re floating in? What happens when you’re a third culture kid and you start mixing and matching your microbes?
There’s a whole cottage industry devoted to third culture kids, or TCK as they’re often referred to. And, in my cheeriest, happiest moments, I think of all these expat kids, who are growing up as cultural guinea pigs, as the forerunners of a new and better global order, one without borders or walls. But that’s when I”m feeling cheery.
When I’m not, I wonder, and yes worry, about the difficulty of not having a petri dish of your very own.
Identity, culture, association. Norms, taboos. Whether to be on time for a meeting, ten-minutes early, or fifteen minutes late, whether to engage or step back, how to relate to ‘others’, small talk, traditions, volume, ideas.
A different conversation with another long-term CPH friend ended with this: if you died, would you want to be buried here?
My sons were born in NYC to an American mother and a British father. They spent some of their formative years in Cyprus, and have now lived in Denmark longer than anywhere else. Though I don’t speak much Danish, they do. They could, if they wanted to, start the process of applying for permanent residency. They navigate Copenhagen like it is their backyard, because it is. And yet they don’t, nor would they ever, consider themselves Danish. They live here, but they’re not Danes.
The hard truth is this: No matter how long I live here, how much I love my life here, or how much I appreciate Danes, I will never feel Danish. My own un-assimilation gets passed down to my kids, consciously or not. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t picking up on the clues and cues around them. How could they not? They might not be plugged into the Danish Matrix, but they’re around plenty who are.
So what the hell kinds of cultural norms are my kids absorbing? Well, to my shame, they swear like Danes (who swear a lot). Dad thinks it’s important to teach them the art of British banter. Mom thinks its important to teach them the spirit of American rebellion.The younger one is a budding socialist, but it’s hard to tell if that’s due to marinating so long in Denmark or his increasingly pinko-leftie mother. The older one, who will be legal drinking age in a mere eighteen months, seems to have no interest in the Danish teenage party scene. They’re soaking in some weird cultural slop, made up of ingredients from our respective cultures, plus the one they live in, plus the stuff they pick up from living in an international community.
And so here they are, teetering on this no-citizen’s-land, picking and choosing what they like and getting rid of the rest.
Perhaps in an age when we’re increasingly recognizing gender fluidity, cultural fluidity is not far behind?
When my kids go to the US for summer breaks, they morph and flow until they find a comfortable wavelength to inhabit. The same when they do when they reside in Denmark. Or when they go to the UK.
A while back there was an excellent commentary about expats and immigrants and their life as a triangle; when you no longer fit where you came from, but not exactly where you live either. The more I think about it, the more I believe that triangle is too angular. It’s too rigid. Perhaps instead of a triangle it should be a wave, fluid and ever-changing.
Culture, for my kids, is now a spectrum rather than a shape. It’s a wavelength they exist upon, altering as they see fit.
So what does that mean, practically speaking?
Like most high school parents, I have (more than just) occasional anxious bouts of “Oh my god, how are we going to pay for college?”. Coupled, for good measure, with “Oh my God, WHERE is he going to go to college?”. This is inevitably followed by “He doesn’t play the Piccolo or do ice-dancing or build orphanages in Bolivia, if he has to write an essay, what the hell is he going to write about?”
Until it occurred to me his cultural fluidity is an asset. His life on this spectrum is an asset in and of itself. This wave shape, far from setting him adrift, is what makes him desirable. Because he’s not rigid. He’s adaptable. He’s a cultural shape-shifter.
There’s no turning back from a more globally interconnected world. With a hop, skip and a plane ride, we’re exposed to life outside of our own cultural expectations. The internet and social media makes cross-cultural connectivity not only easy, but inevitable. The veil has been lifted, the red pill swallowed. You can hide behind hedgerows or border walls–sorry, fences–all you want, but the truth is, the world is changing.
We need adaptability. We need fluidity. We’re going to need lots of immigrant and TCK–the first wave, if you will.
Maybe all this really means is that I don’t need to worry at all. Perhaps my kids are going to be just fine.
Though I still have no idea how we’re going to pay for college.
For more lessons from a decade abroad, check out There’s Some Place Like Home, available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.