Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Lots of Questions about Gender

At the March 2015 Families in Global Transition Conference, during a keynote session entitled "Panel Of Dudes," Tayo Rockson was asked about his upbringing on four different continents, and about whether his sister had experienced the transitions across cultures differently.  He wasn't sure.  He thought about how different her adolescent  friends were and how hard it was to talk to them.  In the audience, I instantly had myriad questions for his sister: while growing up, or even now, could she be as fashion-forwards as her brother?  (Short-skirts, or even short sleeves, on girls must resonate differently in secular parts of Sweden and Muslim parts of Nigeria?).  Could she be as outgoing, as outspoken, as Tayo?  Were there limits for her conduct, aspirations and self-development that her brother couldn't even see?

 Like FIGT president Killian Kroll, Rockson is one of the up-and-coming movers-and-shakers of the TCK world, one of the handsome, well-dressed new vanguard of young TCK Men.  In a field in which the "seminal" first stage research  was dominated by American women  (Useem, Van Reken, and Cottrell, but with the exception of David Pollock) the rise of the well-dressed Male and (not necessarily "American") TCK scholar (Doug Ota, for instance) or advocate (Rockson, Kroll) is a pleasant surprise for those among us who are middle-aged female scholars of TCKness and/or are TCK themselves (mon semblable, mon soeur?) and it raises at least three questions:

1) (OH, bang my head against the wall in frustration) Will it take the engagement of young handsome Smart Men to garner "third culture" the recognition and credibility it has been struggling to attain since Useem coined the term in the 1960s?

2) Does the experience of growing up TCK vary significantly depending on a child's gender or emergent sexual orientation?  I suspect it does.  I don't think anyone has studied this systematically.

3) What can Third Culture Literature tell us about question #2?

What does third culture literature tell us about gender?

First, Have a look at my author list: there are more women on it in men.
Possibly romance writing is the only other contemporary market dominated by women.  Why?
Are women more interested in processing their TCKness through writing (fiction and non)?  Are women better at it?  Do they have a different level of need? of insight? of understanding?  Did they have different experiences growing up TCK than their brothers and therefore a higher predilection towards writing? 

Second, third culture authors (like any other author) have to make choices in terms of gender.  What gender is the protagonist?  While someone like J. M. Coetzee (not a TCK) frequently writes men aging flaccidly, he also does impressively female narrators (see Age of Iron, or his troubling character Elizabeth Costello).

Do third culture authors tackle this question differently?  Perhaps.  Perhaps TCAs systematically, intentionally, try to write both male and female sides, opposing sides, of the TCK experience:

Kate Greenway has female protagonists Frankie and Kate in White Ghost Girls (a fiction that draws somewhat on her own TCK biographical experiences), but a male one in The Bird Skinner (which does not: protagonist Jim Kennoway is an alcoholic veteran who used to have a talent for skinning and collecting birds).  Kennoway is the flip-side of the girls, their opposite.  He is old: they are young.  He is in America looking back on travel during WWII; they are in  Hong Kong during the Vietnam war looking back on life in America.  He was the one who worked; they were the ones who trailed.  He is male; they are female.

Ian McEwan's  The Children Act's successful female judge parallels  Saturday's successful male surgeon: music lovers, both of them, finding time and solace in music. Both are at the top of their professions, both make a quick mistake that ruins them.  It's as if McEwan has quite consciously sought parallel figures, in order to explore what destroys men at the peak of their careers, as well as what destroys women.  

But O'Neill (Netherland, The Dog) is tirelessly male.  Interestingly his characters are male in ways that are distinctively "expat" in that they aspire to a Hemingway-esque heroic masculinity.  They enjoy material privileges because of their race and education, and yet instead of centrality and authority ultimately find themselves steeped in alcohol, dislocation and marginality.

I wonder: is gender stereotyping in third culture literature more prevalent than in other contemporary literatures?
I can imagine why it might be: if the crop of authors writing now was born in the 1950s through 1980s, chances are it was their fathers who were posted overseas (for business, or mission, or military, or diplomatic work) and their mothers who "trailed": the TCK worlds of those decades was retrogressive in its gender norms. 

The world of international work (business, diplomatic, mission, military) is gendered differently, slightly more equally, these days: what will happen when TCKs born in the 1990s and later start writing?

So many questions!

I am, I know, terrible at writing about gender.  So much so that I wonder if I can blame it on being myself  the product of a fairly sexist era of TCKness?  In Malaysia when I was 8 or so my father asked me if I'd rather be a boy or a girl.  "Boy" I replied quickly "because then I could pee standing up" (a skill perhaps more valuable in some countries than others).  But I marvel at my response.  In that long ago neo-colonial world of 1980s and 1990s expatriatism, it was clear to me that my father got to have all the fun (business trips, in-flight drinks, scuba gear, linen suits, respect, acclaim, authority) and my mother had to deal with a lot of difficult stuff (menstruating in the tropics, finding herself a job in country after country, continually reinventing herself, finding food, clothing, schooling and shelter for my brother and I, and often being too-much in the public eye as men ogled her red hair and speculated, openly, about whether her pubic hair matched). It was clearly easier to be my dad than my mom.

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