Is It My England Too? On Being a Third Culture Kid

I’m going to Washington, D.C. for my high school reunion. Yes, the mighty Lancers of Lakenheath High School, RAF Lakenheath, Brandon, Suffolk, England –well, we don’t know where we belong on this continent. So this year we’re going to DC (last year it was Vegas, before that San Diego, Dallas, St. Louis…).

RAF Lakenheath (<–that’s the Wikipedia article) is in East Anglia, or what I used to call ‘the ugly part of England.’ With England, it’s all relative. East Anglia really isn’t ugly, it’s just not as pretty as the other parts. Here’s a well-known local saying that sums it up: “Any fool can appreciate mountain scenery. It takes a man of discernment to appreciate the Fens.” [Harry Godwin – pollen analyst – circa 1932]

Here’s a link to what it looked like when I was growing up. Note: amount of sunniness not to scale. Really, would you fly thousands of miles for this?

I guess I would, and here’s why: I moved to England when I was 12 and left when I was 18. It is my home/not my home. It is English, and I am American, with an American accent and an Irish name. But because I was there for a long time during my formative years, I am marked by England forever. Along with many of my classmates, I’m a third culture kid.

From the Wikipedia article:

“Third Culture Kids” … integrate aspects of their birth culture (the first culture) and the new culture (the second culture), creating a unique “third culture.” Sociologist David Pollock describes a TCK as “a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership of any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of a similar background. (emphasis mine).

So I’m going to DC, to see the people who’ve lived what I’ve lived. I’m excited and nervous. I haven’t been sleeping. I’m one of three people on the planning committee. The other two have English mothers. That’s no accident.

Here’s what I’ll take with me the next time I go to a therapist:

As Third Culture Kids grow up they become Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs).

Some of them come to terms with the tremendous culture shock and loss that they have experienced. They gain a broader understanding of the world through their varied experiences, while others spend most of their adult life trying to come to terms with those same issues.

Many Third Culture Kids face an identity crisis: they don’t know where they come from. It would be typical for a third culture person to say that he or she is from a country but nothing beyond their passport defines it; they usually find it difficult to answer the question.

Now I feel as if I’ve just shown you my knickers. George Orwell to the rescue to explain the English (second country) side of the equation: (from
this essay, written in 1941:

Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature. What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.

And above all, it is your civilization, it is you. However much you hate it or laugh at it, you will never be happy away from it for any length of time. The suet puddings and the red pillar-boxes have entered into your soul. Good or evil, it is yours, you belong to it, and this side the grave you will never get away from the marks that it has given you.

Meanwhile England, together with the rest of the world, is changing. And like everything else it can change only in certain directions, which up to a point can be foreseen. That is not to say that the future is fixed, merely that certain alternatives are possible and others not. A seed may grow or not grow, but at any rate a turnip seed never grows into a parsnip.

I’m putting my blog to sleep for the week. I’ll report back on the reunion next week. Nighty-night.

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4 Responses to “Is It My England Too? On Being a Third Culture Kid”

  1. Aaron Proctor Says:

    So..am I third culture because I combine my East Coast upbringing with my West Coast life attitude?

  2. Kim Perez Says:

    Interesting! I had never heard that term before, but it makes total sense.

    I hope you’re having a WONDERFUL time with your peeps!

  3. 2020 Hindsight » Blog Day Says:

    […] (Her August calendar has more days filled with posts than not). Recent posts explore being a person of third culture, to discussion of the recent senseless teenage slaying in Pasadena (too close for comfort), to an […]

  4. terpman Says:

    Love the posts, added you to my RSS feeds

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