Thursday, December 4, 2014

Going Home: How Third Culture is Different

Part One: Homing Culture (but not Third Culture)

In Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus rejects Kalypso and her offer of love/immortality, saying that though his wife is a mortal, she is at home and above all else he wants to go home:

Goddess and queen, do not be angry with me.  I myself know
that all you say is true and circumspect Penelope
can never match the impression you make for beauty and stature.
She is mortal, after all, and you are immortal and ageless.
But even so, what I want and all my days pine for
is to go back to my house and see my day of homecoming.
And if some god batters me far out on the wine-blue water,
I will endure it (Lattimore 1991 94)

 What Odysseus wants is home: the house, the wife he has left there.  Penelope waits for him, cleverly fending off suitors, the house waits for him, even the dog waits for him.  Odysseus' home is the ultimate object permanence. Home stays the same while Odysseus travels.  He can roam far and fight and change: home waits for him.

In a similar, more modern incarnation of this fantasy, we see Donald Draper imprison Sylvia Rosen in a hotel room (Mad Men, Season 6).  He tells her she cannot leave.  He makes her wait for him.  He doesn't say when he is coming back.  He thereby creates a scenario in which the hotel room is home (waiting for him unchanged, with a dutiful "wife" also waiting there for him, unchanged) and he goes off to roam far and fight.

Both of these are fantasies; Don's is perhaps such an arousing one perhaps because it is a fantasy in the modern world to have a space and a person wait unchangingly for one to return.  Who knows, maybe Odysseus' fantasy was a bit kinky too.

"Home" doesn't, in fact, wait for anyone.  We move, places and people left behind change: that is the universal human condition.  However, the feeling of having lost an anchoring vision of home is especially accute for those who have moved, as Salman Rushdie astutely observes:

It may be argued that the past is a country from which we have all emigrated, that its loss is part of our common humanity.  Which seems to me self-evidently true; but I suggest that the writer who is out-of country and even out-of-language may experience this loss in an intensified form.  It is made more concrete for him by the physical fact of discontinuity, of his present being in a different place from his past, of his being "elsewhere." (Imaginary Homelands  1991 12).

Odysseus, Donald Draper, and Salman Rushdie each tell us this: being geographically away brings the idea of home into sharper relief.  We yearn for the stable thing more the further away from it we are.  Home is clearer, sharper, more compelling, from afar.  Indeed travel is a kind of salvific: by going away we bring ourselves home to our truest selves.

But . . . not for third culture kids.

Part  Two: Third Culture and the Absence of Home.

In third culture literature, the further the protagonist journeys, the more both "home" and the idea of a "true self" are lost.

In Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible, Rachel feels herself transition from traveller (someone who can go home, or believes they can) to what I would call third culture kid (someone who is changed by their experiences as an expatriate and whose faith in a single "home" is lost): "Until that moment I'd always believed I could still go home and pretend the Congo never happened" muses Rachel, "I would go back to Bethlehem Georgia, and be exactly the same Rachel as before" (367).

What's especially revealing about Rachel's words is the conflation of "home" and her sense of herself: she can't go back to the same Bethlehem she left, and she is no longer the Rachel she once was.  Home and self-identity are equated: they are one and the same.

When Odysseus comes home to Ithaca after 19 years, he is in disguise but his dog Argos recognizes him: the dog tells us truly that the real Odysseus has come home.  No disguise can alter his identity.

When third culture kids travel, there is no more "real" identity, or perhaps more rightly, there is a proliferation of identities (plural).  The single self is lost.

This may explain the numerous children who die in third culture literature: they symbolize parts of the self which are lost and left behind:

In Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible, Ruth May dies and becomes a mamba-spirit in the trees.  She becomes part of her mother Orleanna's self that is left behind, permanently, in Africa.  In Sonnenberg's Home Leave, Sophie dies.  She becomes part of her sister Leah's self that is left behind, permanently, in Singapore. In Alice Greenway's White Ghost Girls.  Kate is left behind; in Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, Adrian and Olivia.  So many dead babies, configured as spirits that endure in places left behind.

The dead in these works of third culture writing represent parts of selves splintered away and left in disparate geographical locations.  While Odysseus and Don Draper imagine homes and people waiting for them, third culture literature's protagonists imagine parts of themselves forcibly removed from them and left behind somewhere.  Those lost fragments carry on, they continue, they persist where home does not.

(Those persistent selves become the eyes/Is in all of the various perspectives I write about in other posts)

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