Monday, March 7, 2016

What can we get out of older TCK literature? (Guest Post)

By Adam Geller

TCKs often have to fight off feeling a stranger everywhere, insecure about belonging to the point of lying when welcomed with a cheery “where are you from?”.  It is the challenge of those of us who either are or love TCKs, to “I feel most at home in an airport” into a positive statement.

Many of us grew up not knowing that our experiences had anything in common with anyone else. Those of us who grew up in international schools often think their home culture is destroyed and scattered with the graduation of their class. This persistent insecurity comes from not fitting into any narratives the cultures around and inside us use to explain their lives. When one’s mother’s childhood stories bear little resemblance to one’s own childhood, one reaches for the stories of peers around them. Too often, TCKs construct for themselves identities based on negatives: absence, difference, and transience. 

Most cultural narratives bring a sense of normality and stability to one’s life by contextualizing one’s current life and struggles as part of a greater pattern. The more stories and heroes we can find for children to identify with, the less alone and strange TCKs will grow up feeling. Contextualized into part of an ancient, worldwide, and concrete community of travelers, the graduation of one’s class at international school does not signify the breaking up of one’s transnational culture. Stories are the building blocks of culture.  Gathering TCK stories from the past should help the next generation to engineer an identity around more stable things than their ability to uproot. 

Let’s reach back in history to find some people older than airports for our  kids to identify with and look to for meaning-making. It would be comforting to know that our myths- stories that make sense out of  transcultural experience- are a rich, old body, and that we are not limited to resources published after 1980.

As a beginning point, I suggest Kipling, a beloved, if sometimes controversial author whose work is filled with the clash of cultures. In applying Rauwerda’s methods for analyzing the tell-tale signs of TCK literature, one can come to understand Kipling’s work, most particularly Kim, as TCK literature.

Rudyard Kipling by John Collier, 1891.
Like many TCKs,  Kipling reinforces his identity to the point of embodying a caricature of the British colonist…

Kipling’s biographical background delineates him as a Third Culture Kid. Kipling was born in India, and spoke Hindi as his first language (Sullivan 27). At five years old, this sunburned, Hindi speaking boy was put on a ship bound for England spent the next twelve years in a stiff school uniform that hid his skin from the sun. He returned to India to work for the colonial bureaucracy with a head full of ideology, learning, and propaganda. Returning to his childhood home, he discovers he is “no longer ruddy baba but Kipling Sahib” (Couto 77). He fulfills this role through administration and journalism, contacting his childhood home though the acceptable imperial channels. He spent the remainder of his life in various locations in the U.S., Great Britain, and South Africa (Kutzer 15). Even so, Kipling remained in love with India throughout his life, returning to it often in symbol and fiction (Couto 74). Those familiar with maladjusted TCKs will understand that Kipling may avoid visiting India because he finds it easier to claim belonging to it from a distance.

Kipling’s two famous characters, Mowgli and Kim, also live in the space between identities. Mowgli, is an Indian boy raised by wolves, who lives and breathes the jungle, before eventually realizing that he will never be fully accepted and leaves for human society.  The story, is of course, much more complex than that, but so is the TCK experience.

But his beloved character, Mowgli, raised outside the culture of his parents, is a larger-than-life Third Culture Kid

Kim, on the other hand, is Anglo. A fact that opens the book and is never forgotten, despite Kim being dirty, living mainly with native Indians, and speaking the language of the boys in the street better than his own. Kim is given special access to a variety of usually secret experiences, because he is “little friend to all the world” (Baucom 86). In our words, he has some kind of status that allows him to belong to many cultures, as a mascot more so than a participant. Kim sees through and uses the mutability of rules in the fashion of the most self conscious of cross-culture kids.

Kim makes for an excellent hero of ambiguous identity. Kim not only speaks but also thinks, in both Punjabi and English, and never has to chose just language or loyalty. Much to the chagrin of readers who crave resolution to internal conflict, the Kim never chooses to even think about how his multiple identities might conflict. I wish Kipling and many of us could have it as easy. Kim cycles through names too, being known as “R17” “Beloved”, and “Little friend of all the world” (Baucom 86). Kipling seems to use Kim as an outlet to explore his own TCK characteristics without fear of repercussions.

While this does not alone mean a definite end to the argument about colonists inclusion in the term “TCK,” it does mean there is enough Third Culture in Kipling’s writing for Third Culture Kids to identify with and experiences from which we can learn.

As has been mentioned briefly on Prof. Rauwerda’s blog before, colonial-era literature has a dearth of respect for host cultures. Empathy and general decency can sometimes be a far cry from what we want our children to be learning. I feel that the persistence of similar power dynamics into our age warrants exploring the literature of the time and talking with one’s children about it. The psychological distance provided by knowing colonialism is another person’s life makes for a safe fantasy land for young children to learn about real evil and prejudice, before they discover it for themselves. Talking openly about colonialism and its persistence into our lives is often necessary for processing a life of friendships that can be abruptly divided by color, language, wealth, or political loyalty. I am currently stumbling across some sources that suggest the evil of colonialism comes in part from love of one’s childhood abroad, and fear of losing that land. Talk about how love becomes bad when combined with greed and acquiescence to violent political structures. Perhaps the conversation will help them grow.

Ultimately, I think we can benefit from a TCK identity that embraces travelers of the past. After all, Muhammed grew up in three different families, and Kipling had his share of identity crises.
With enough context to justify one’s experiences, and enough sense of community to never feel alone, we can look forward to a time when we don’t cringe at being asked where we’re from. We’ll proudly answer “A global family of culturally hyperconscious serial migrants.”
At least it’ll get a chuckle at dinner parties.

Please Reply with stories, songs, poem, or movies that you think help kids understand that there is a romance to being adrift, and a family of drifters who understand.

Works Cited
Baucom, Ian. Out of Place: Englishness, Empire, and the Locations of Identity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999. Print.
Collier, John. Rudyard Kipling. Digital image. Rudyard Kipling. Wikimedia Commons, 8 Apr. 2014. Web. 23 Apr. 2015. <>

Couto, Maria. "Rudyard Kipling." A History of Indian Literature in English. Ed. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. New York: Columbia UP, 2003. 70-81. Print.
(1)Kipling, J. L. Mowgli 1895 Illustration. Digital image. Mowgli. Wikimedia Commons, 24 Feb. 2007. Web. 23 Apr. 2015. <>.
Kutzer, M. Daphne. Empire's Children: Empire and Imperialism in Classic British Children's Books. New York: Garland Pub., 2000. Print.

Rauwerda, Antje M. The Writer and the Overseas Childhood: The Third Culture Literature of Kingsolver, McEwan and Others. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012. Print.
Sullivan, Zohreh T. Narratives of Empire: The Fictions of Rudyard Kipling. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. Print.

1 comment:

  1. John Quincy Adams was third culture and LONG before airplanes. He accompanied his father to Europe as a teenager and was educated there. He spoke French and Dutch. You can see him portrayed in the HBO series John Adams and the film Amistad.