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"Third Culture"
by James Gannon
13-year-old second-generation US American global nomad
Social Studies Project, 7th Grade
Seattle, WA, USA

What is the "Third Culture?" A 13-year-old second-generation, US American global nomad shares his assessment in our newest ShowCase.

Culture is all of the behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions and all other products of human work and thought that are socially conveyed. This paper is about an emerging culture, "Third Culture". Not third world, but Third Culture. Because it is still an emerging culture, Third Culture may not have all the requirements of a regular culture totally fulfilled, but I hope to show enough of them to make Third Culture understandable.

I have been lucky in my life to have had the opportunity to grow up around the world. I have lived on four continents, and I have visited two others. I have been to twenty countries in all, worldwide. Since I was one month old, I have flown over 500,000 miles.

All this travel has given me a great opportunity to experience many different cultures, and has broadened my mind regarding all the fascinating wonders of the world. Mostly, it has made me aware that, as people, our differences tell us only where we are, and our similarities tell us why we are.

Let me try to explain what I mean by that. If you went to Africa, you could tell where you were because most everybody would have dark skin. And that is different, for most of us here at least. But, say you were standing next to someone in Africa who did not understand a word of English. Suddenly, you both see something funny at the same time. You then look at each other, and most probably you both would laugh. Third culture traits are based on these kinds of similarities in people’s behavior. These similarities tell us "why we are" because they are what make us all human. Because I have lived so many places, consistent similarities make me feel comfortable. This focus on similarities is a Third Culture trait.

Third Culture is a very complicated subject. First of all, Third Culture can be confused with multicultural and bicultural. Multicultural is when somebody has been influenced by more than two cultures, and that person uses parts of those cultures together. Bicultural is the same as multicultural, except the influence is from only two cultures. Both of these are very different from Third Culture. Third Culture is when a child, and it has to be a child, lives in several foreign cultures. As Third Culture Kids (TCKs) grow up, they adapt and blend with one culture after another to the point where they have seen so many differences, that differences don’t matter any more, and what becomes most important is the similarities. For example, the feeling of home for TCKs is no longer connected to a physical place, one different place after another. The feeling of home exists in all relationships that we have had with people who have been close to us. This focus on relationships as a very important value for Third Culture. I know who I am when I think of my friends around the world. My email address list includes friends from around the world, and I communicate with them very frequently. I do this because, even though I am thousands of miles away, they are still important friends. They remind me of who I am and why I am.

Third Culture traits are not always obvious. This is because Third Culture Kids are excellent adapters and that is one of their strongest skills. What I mean is that, wherever TCKs are, they can pick up the cultural traits, and the culture, very quickly. For example, in the Philippines, they do not use an actual word to say "yes". Instead, they silently move their eyebrows up and down to signify the affirmative. In Pakistan, people move their head from side to side while talking to signify that there is always room for discussion about what they are saying. I use both these gestures sometimes.

Adapting to different styles of communication gives Third Culture Kids an ability to communicate with people of all cultures, at any time. Not just by speaking foreign languages, although many of them do, but by intuiting what someone is trying to communicate, regardless what language or even body language they are using.

The exact definition of Third Culture comes from research by Ruth Useem and Richard Downy, who came up with the term Third Culture Kids after studying the lives of kids who grew up in places other than their country of nationality. Third Culture Kids are kids who feel most like themselves in the space between cultures, which is created by persons who are relating societies, or parts of societies, to each other. This definition is about twenty years old.

Maybe what makes me so aware of being Third Culture is that my family has had a long history of traveling, probably even before we first came to the United States, which was about 300 years ago. I came across a funny coincidence. Even though my mother’s and father’s families are different on the surface, politically for example, 100 years ago both families were doing the same thing.

My great grandfather, on my mother’s side, started traveling when he was twelve, as a cabin boy on one of his father’s merchant ships which were in the Brazilian coffee business. He later went on explorations in Brazil to search for rubber. Then, as a young man, he joined the Rough Riders who went to Cuba to fight in the Cuban American War under President Theodore Roosevelt. After that, he became our country’s first official Ambassador to Guatemala and other Central American countries. It was not until he contracted malaria and had to settle down, that he married and had a family.

My great grandfather, on my father’s side, was also a sea merchant at about this same time, bringing finished goods from London to the United States, and taking cotton and other agricultural products back to England and Ireland. When the Civil War broke out, he became a gunrunner for the Confederacy. To do this, he had to cross the Atlantic in a very small boat, and had to dodge Union guns and cannons without any armaments of his own. Coincidentally, my mother’s family, the Lee family of Virginia, also fought for the South during the Civil War.

Both sides of my family have continued to travel. My paternal grandfather, emigrated to the U.S. from Ireland when he was only ten years old, and fought as an American soldier in WW II. After the war, he became a polymer chemist for a German-based international company in the U.S., and invented the formula for the reflective orange color that you see, for example, used in crossing guard vests. Still, his greatest skill and pleasure was communication with all kinds of people.

My maternal grandfather was also ten years old when he crossed the Atlantic in the other direction, to spend the rest of his youth in English boarding schools. He eventually became Ambassador for the United States to the Czech Republic. Today, my aunt, my mom’s sister, is the United States Special Representative, to the Organization of American States, for International Sustainable Development. Before this, she was a diplomat in Honduras, Trinidad and Tobago, the Philippines, Ireland and Iceland.

My dad is a Telecommunications Advisor, and has worked overseas in Pakistan, Guatemala, Eastern Europe, Indonesia, South America and Egypt. Right now he is in the Philippines.

Third Culture is my culture and will always be my culture. My nationality and passport will always be from the United States, and my personality will be influenced by all the countries I have, and will, live in. But my culture is Third Culture. When I grow up I have no idea what I am going to be. But if statistics hold up, the chances that I will be traveling are two out of three. Or, I may be that one out of three TCKs who finds a quiet place on the top of a cold mountain, or in a desolate desert, and never goes anywhere ever again.

—James Gannon

We welcome your comments, and we invite you to share your own experiences of international mobility through poetry, stories, or other prose.

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