Wednesday, August 12, 2015

We Are Cumulus: Third Culture as a Cloud

I have had a bit of an epiphany recently regarding visualizing, defining and explaining "third culture."

It begins with the useful venn diagram designed by Ruth Van Reken, republished (with David Pollock) in Third Culture Kids (14).

In my head, this was supplemented by some theory on borderlands (eg the border between the US and Mexico), on transnationalism (about crossing borders) and about "interstices" or places between . . .

I began to understand more clearly the distinction between geographically emplaced culture and culture produced by the specific geographic displacement experienced by TCKs (which is characterized by  mobility and competing national/ cultural influences during the developmental years, paired with an expectation of repatriation upon reaching adulthood).

In some senses all three circles in Van Reken's diagram are territorial: they are like very simplified country outlines on a map.  One can see the image as, almost: Home Country, Host Country (Countries) and a Third "Country" ("Country" in scare quotes because the issue is that third culture doesn't have a specific country).

Third culture is cultural, as the term suggests.  While the first and second cultures imply place and geography as well as culture, third culture implies culture detached from a specific location.  We TCKs can share a culture because our similar experiences are about deterritorialization, not about terroir.

Naomi Hattaway's triangle is a useful addition, for it is about cultural transformation: circle country encounters square country and the result is a triangle (I oversimplify: she explains beautifully, with diagrams).  Significantly her paradigm, like Van Reken's, gives us this equation: "country one + country two = third culture."  Place plus place = something that happens that doesn't have a specific geographic location.

My epiphany is this: what if Van Reken's venn diagram is rendered three dimensionally?  Home country is a place on ground level, host countries are places on ground level and third culture is represented as floating above, like a cumulus cloud?

The venn diagram might look like two circles ( First Culture, Second Cultures) with a cloud floating above them  (Deterritorialized Third Culture).

Yeah, OK.  That looks kind of goofy, I know.  Graphic design: not my forte.

Still, I think there's something really important  to conceptualize here.  We all already know that third culture doesn't have a single location, but our diagrams perpetuate/create a third space on the terrestrial level, when it might be more apt to create a third space that floats.

Why does the floating cloud work so well?

Well, it can drift.  Sometimes it's more over Home, sometimes more over another place or places.

Also, it makes clear that, like cumulus clouds, TCKness is both substantial and disparate.  It is shape-changing and transmogrifying, and yet it also, paradoxically, coheres, just like clouds do.

And, for those of us wrangling with the troubling parallels between TCK and "expatriate" (increasingly synonymous with neo-colonial privilege, especially in the British media) here's something else that the cloud illustrates: TCKs do tend to have the option of being detached from the politics of their host countries.  Their passports, visas and parents' careers give them the freedom to leave and drift away.  We don't have to take that option: TCKs can be politically engaged and responsible . . . but it is worth noting that we often have the privilege of being able to choose to leave if the going gets tough.  For better or worse, we float, like clouds.

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