Tag Archives: TCKs

Coming “Home” to America

^ spring blossoms at Sun’s Menlo Park campus So I’ve returned to live (and work) in the USA. A number of people, particularly US immigration officers, have said: “Welcome home.” I am grateful for their friendly intentions, but “home” is not what the US represents for me. I’ve lived here only about a third of Read More…

^ spring blossoms at Sun’s Menlo Park campus

So I’ve returned to live (and work) in the USA. A number of people, particularly US immigration officers, have said: “Welcome home.” I am grateful for their friendly intentions, but “home” is not what the US represents for me. I’ve lived here only about a third of my life to date.

Having spent many of my formative years in Asia, I tried to come “home” to America once before, when I graduated from high school in India and entered college in the US. Like many third culture kids, I had felt out of place (though not unhappy) in the exotic countries I’d lived in, where I was very obviously foreign even after being there for years. I dreamed of returning to a country where I would feel wholly at ease and be accepted as a natural part of the scenery. It was a rude shock to discover that this homeland, for me and others like me, is a myth. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was a “hidden immigrant”: on the surface seemingly a local, but in reality a not-quite-native, which manifested in ways which confused and irritated the real Americans.

Not knowing how else to deal with the problem, I was relieved to go overseas again, to return to my familiar status as a foreigner: in 1991 I moved to Italy with my Italian husband and our daughter. When in 1993 I began travelling to the US for work, I had some cultural misunderstandings with my American colleagues. I didn’t realize at the time what was going on; I only knew that I found it easier to form friendships with non-Americans, or with other Americans who had lived abroad as I had.

Sometime during those years I attended a workshop by David Pollock at a Woodstock School reunion, and read his book on Third Culture Kids. Thanks to him, I learned that in fact I’m not quite American. Neither am I Thai, or Indian, or Bangladeshi, or Indonesian, though some aspects of those cultures (particularly Indian) probably inform my attitudes and behavior.

I also learned that it was my TCK background that had helped me adjust so superbly to my new life in Italy, absorbing the language, culture and history to an extent that sometimes startles Italians, including my husband (who doesn’t realize how much he himself has taught me). I’m not Italian, nor do I play one on television, but I’ve certainly been affected by my 17 years there. Among other things, Americans now tell me I have a “European” accent!

So this new American experience isn’t a homecoming for me. I don’t expect to feel like a native anytime soon, if ever. And that’s okay. I’m happy to approach this as an adventure in a new country, bringing to it the openness, curiosity, and tolerance for strangeness that have served me so well in other places and situations. And, though I’ve spent a lot of time in other parts of the US, Colorado and the west (east of California) are new to me – there’s plenty to explore and discover here.

I expect from time to time to feel frustrated, alienated, and foreign. Every culture has its baffling quirks and attitudes. I also expect that I’ll find much to delight in, as I have in every country I’ve lived in or visited. And I’ll photograph, film, and especially write about it all, because I’m glad to have you folks along on this new odyssey!

your thoughts?

Shut Up or Go Home – No Culture Likes a Kibitzer

I was recently interviewed for an article about third-culture kids, to be published in the Christian Science Monitor. In an hour,s taped phone conversation, Erik Olsen asked many questions, including: “Being an outsider in all cultures, how does that make you feel?” I thought for a moment, and said: “Superior.” No doubt that statement will Read More…

I was recently interviewed for an article about third-culture kids, to be published in the Christian Science Monitor. In an hour,s taped phone conversation, Erik Olsen asked many questions, including: “Being an outsider in all cultures, how does that make you feel?” I thought for a moment, and said: “Superior.”

No doubt that statement will be quoted in the article. <wry grin> I tried to explain that, as outsiders in every culture, we TCKs see things with a more objective eye than insiders who are familiar only with their own culture*. This doesn’t mean that we despise every culture we encounter, or have nothing but criticism to offer. But it’s common for a TCK to think: “In country X they do this differently, and it seems to have certain advantages. Why couldn’t it be done that way here?” This is NOT the stereotypical case of ugly Americans who think that everything is better in America. In fact, most TCKs, including American ones, tend to criticize their “home” culture more than any other.

The problem is: no one wants to hear it. Cultures and countries often suffer from a form of groupthink in which “our way is best” or “we’ve always done it this way, why should we change?”And people resent criticism of their culture, however well-intended, from outsiders.

I was reminded of this when last week’s article about Italian Freedom Fighters got a few Italian backs up. I was accused (justifiably, for that article) of stereotyping Italians as a race of unrepentant scofflaws. Of course I don’t really believe that ALL Italians routinely break the law, though I do feel safe in asserting that a larger proportion of Italians than, say, Americans or Germans or Swiss, are inclined to disregard or evade laws that are inconvenient to them individually, such as those regarding taxes. This attitude goes all the way to the top in Italy, with consequences far beyond the embarrassment of having people in high government posts under indictment for tax evasion, bribery, and fraud.

I can take some ironic consolation in knowing that, if that article had been written by an Italian, many Italians would have leaped to agree with it. Italians (as they themselves have told me) are very fond of criticizing themselves and their country – but apparently it’s not okay for me to do it.

Then I received an irate email from an Italian woman living in England. She took exception to a number of my statements about the Italian education system, and pointed out how much better it is than the British or American systems. I will certainly grant that for the average American public school (I don’t know enough about the British to comment), but the point of most of my articles was not to compare the Italian system (favorably or un-) with other systems. We’re in Italy, and can’t afford the international schools even if we wanted to, so our daughter goes to Italian public schools which, while they have pluses, also have minuses – as is true of ANY school system.

What got to me about this lady’s email was her concluding sentence (originally in Italian): “Don’t denigrate the country in which you are a guest. As they tell me and my kids when we comment on England: ‘If you do’t like it, go back to your own country.’ ”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this sort of statement, though it is a first for me in Italy. It raises some questions: At what point will I have a “right” to criticize? How long does it take to no longer be a “guest” but a member of the community? I’ve been in Italy for 14 years, my husband and daughter are Italian, I work for an Italian company. All that’s lacking is citizenship, and I could have that if I bothered to do the paperwork. At the very least, as a payer of Italian taxes, I have a right to complain when I’m not getting my money’s worth from state services – perhaps more so than the many Italians who evade taxes!

But, no matter how long I live here, there will always be Italians who will resent anything negative I have to say about Italy, and will invite me to “go home.” The sad irony is that the same thing happens at “home“ Americans are, on average, the LEAST tolerant of criticism of their culture, from insiders or outsiders. Many’s the time I was told: “If you don’t like it, you can just leave.” So I did.

And you still can hear me singin’ to the people who don’t listen,
To the things that I am sayin’, prayin’ someone’s gonna hear.
And I guess I’ll die explaining how the things that they complain about,
Are things they could be changin’, hopin’ someone’s gonna care.

I was born a lonely singer, and I’m bound to die the same,
But I’ve got to feed the hunger in my soul.
And if I never have a nickel, I won’t ever die ashamed,
‘Cause I don’t believe that no one wants to know.

Kris Kristofferson “To Beat the Devil”

Note: The term “culture,” as used by anthropologists, means (definition Webster’s): “the ideas, customs, skills, arts, etc. of a people or group, that are transferred, communicated, or passed along, as in or to succeeding generations.” Culture, in this sense, is a shared set of beliefs and behaviors, and does NOT refer to so-called “high culture,” e.g. art and music.

Share your own cultural kibitzes below.

Born into It: Why You Can’t Become Italian

Most of the world’s major religions proselytize (for some, it’s a major facet of the faith), and eagerly accept converts. Except Hinduism. Hare Krishnas notwithstanding, you really can’t convert to Hinduism, because it is much more than a set of beliefs and practices. Hinduism is a system that you are born into, a fixed hierarchy Read More…

Most of the world’s major religions proselytize (for some, it’s a major facet of the faith), and eagerly accept converts. Except Hinduism. Hare Krishnas notwithstanding, you really can’t convert to Hinduism, because it is much more than a set of beliefs and practices. Hinduism is a system that you are born into, a fixed hierarchy of families and castes. You are who you are because of your birth, and nothing can change that. Therefore, logically, anyone born outside the system must forever remain outside.

A non-Hindu can’t become a Hindu.By analogy, I’ve been wondering: can a foreigner become an Italian?

I don’t think so. Not in the same way that an immigrant to America becomes American. I think this has to do with the Italian concept of paese (hometown). You’re born into a paese, you grow up in it, absorbing its cultural and linguistic nuances, its history and traditions. “Italian” isn’t enough to define you; you’ve got to have a paese (and, often, a dialect) as well.

The attachment to paese begins early. Rossella has had trouble finding kids to hang out with after school, because most of her classmates commute to Lecco from smaller towns, where they already have firmly established social circles with whom they spend any leisure time left over from school and family. The frightening part (to me and Ross, anyway) is that, at age 14, they already consider themselves set for life, and will not move outside of their established places and groups unless forced.

They don’t get out, and no outsider (estraneo) gets in. This goes for other Italians as well. Italians who leave their paese to live elsewhere in Italy don’t fit in – they are not part of their new paese of residence, and never will be. One exception is Milan. I recently met an Italian who told me that, when he wanted to return to Italy after years abroad, he deliberately chose Milan as the most welcoming city in Italy, both to foreigners and Italian strangers.

Which is not to say that people in smaller towns are cold, far from it. My experience of the Lecchesi is that they are warm and welcoming and happy to have us here. But we’ll never be Lecchesi.

That’s okay with me. As a third-culture kid, I long ago resigned myself to never fitting in anywhere (except Woodstock). We have friends in Lecco whose company I enjoy, but these days I am expanding my social circles among expatriates. Interestingly, some Italians also seek out opportunities to socialize with expats, because they have themselves lived overseas and, as often happens to travellers from any country, find that they no longer quite fit in when they return “home.”

Apr 27, 2004

This article was widely read and responded to. One interesting thread came up on eGullet (I posted the article there at the invitation of one of the moderators), where some very knowledgeable people discussed the phenomenon in terms of Italian and European history.

Alienation

It’s 4:00 am. I’ve been awake since 2:00, thinking, and writing didn’t quite get everything off my chest. It’s partly about the concept of “home.” I don’t have one, you see. Well, yes, I have the type that you live in, and a very nice one it is; I’m very happy in it. But I don’t Read More…

It’s 4:00 am. I’ve been awake since 2:00, thinking, and writing didn’t quite get everything off my chest.

It’s partly about the concept of “home.” I don’t have one, you see. Well, yes, I have the type that you live in, and a very nice one it is; I’m very happy in it. But I don’t have a home town, or even a home country.

This is baffling to Italians.

“Where are you from?” they ask.

“I’m American,” I answer, hoping against hope that this will be enough to close the topic.

It never is. For an Italian, you can’t simply be “from” a whole country, you have to have a paese, a hometown. “But which part of America?” they persist.

“Oh, I lived all over the world when I was young,” I say uncomfortably, “I’m not really from any particular place in America.”

“But where are you from?” they insist (“Ma tuo paese qual’é?”)

“Well, I was born in New Orleans.” That works; everyone’s heard of New Orleans, and the ones who haven’t been there already would like to go. Me, too. I left when I was two, visited once or twice after that, but the last time was about 25 years ago. So I don’t feel the right to claim any attachment to it.

No paese, and not much nationality, either. It’s that whole TCK thing – disguised as American, but really not one, so I have a hard time feeling comfortable in my supposed home country.

I was already thoroughly discombobulated by the time I got to Woodstock School, at age 14, so it’s no wonder that I fell in love with the place and sunk roots there, as far as I was able. This happens with many Woodstockers. Some of us were fleeing from messed-up homes, some came from places where their parents worked but couldn’t raise or educate children. Some went into boarding so young that they never really had a family life, except for a few months of vacation every year. Woodstock became their home, as it did mine; staff became surrogate parents (a role which many carried out with amazing grace and generosity), and our schoolmates were (and remain) our siblings and best friends. Many of us continue to feel that Woodstock is in some fundamental sense our home, or at least where we “come from,” for the rest of our lives. But we don’t usually try to explain that to new acquaintances; it’s just too complex a story to tell in a few sentences.

I wrote about how “during my senior year, I got interested in the community around us, Mussoorie and Landour.” This was part of a deliberate, though perhaps unconscious, campaign to make Mussoorie, as well as Woodstock, mine – just before I left it. This was unusual behavior for a Woodstocker. The majority of students in my day had no ties in the town beyond commercial ones; when I dreamed up the Mussoorie history project, my homeroom teacher Mrs. Kapadia was enthusiastic – so few students showed any interest in the town. Their explorations, if any, went in the other direction, out to the Garhwal Himalayas. I was an anti-hiker, so that avenue was closed to me, but I walked and walked – all over Mussoorie, and beyond. I had friends in town, and avidly pursued its history, as well as its current life at all levels.

I’m not saying I got very far into Mussoorie society, but at least I tried. So, by the time I graduated, I felt I had some rights to claim “ownership” of Mussoorie, as well as Woodstock, in a way I never could any other community in the world. I don’t claim that India is my home, nor even Mussoorie, but Woodstock is the one place in the world where I’m never a stranger. Perhaps my involvement in this history book is partly about ensuring that my visceral connection to Woodstock and Mussoorie continues, and that I continue to be remembered there.

Cultural Assumptions

What You Think You Might Know About Somebody… Might Be Wrong Years ago, before we were even living in Italy, Enrico and I spent a night in Courmayeur, on the French side of Mont Blanc, on our way to somewhere. Our hotel included breakfast (most of them do), eaten at large, bare wooden tables with Read More…

What You Think You Might Know About Somebody… Might Be Wrong

Years ago, before we were even living in Italy, Enrico and I spent a night in Courmayeur, on the French side of Mont Blanc, on our way to somewhere. Our hotel included breakfast (most of them do), eaten at large, bare wooden tables with benches. We were asked what form of coffee we wanted, then crusty rolls, croissants, jam, butter, etc. were brought, and we began eating, scattering crumbs all over the bare table just like everyone else.

The waiter overheard us speaking English.

“Are you American?” he asked.

She’s American, he’s Italian, we explained, as usual.

“You’re American!” exclaimed the waiter in horror. “Then you want this!” And he rushed to set the table with paper placements.

I wonder what traumatic encounter he’d had with an American to fix that notion so firmly in his mind.

*******************

I picked up some pictures that had been framed, and remembered at the last minute that I should have told the framer to put two hooks on the sides, rather than one hook on the top as Italians always do. With the two hooks, I can run a wire between them and have the picture hang from a hook behind it, rather than seeing a hook in the wall at the top of every picture. This seems an obvious improvement to me, but Italians prefer a hook at the top, perhaps because that way the picture lies flat against the wall.

The framer was happy to do what I asked. “You must be English,” he said. “The English always want the two hooks that way.”

Once Enrico and I were on vacation in the mountains. He would go off hiking all day, I was working intensively and happily on my novel, but would go for brief walks to stretch my legs and enjoy the scenery. To amuse myself on these walks, I collected wildflower seeds, to try planting them at home. I strolled along a level path that had once been a railway line, and found a huge meadow full of flowers. I was in there, collecting seeds, when a young man passed by, supporting his aged mother on her daily constitutional. Half an hour later, when they came back the other way, I was still there, intent on the plants.

“Crazy Germans,” the man muttered.

*******************

Oct 21, 2003

Last October we drove to Munich for a friend’s birthday. On the way, we stopped in Vipiteno, a town on the Italy side of the German border. We’d been looking for an enoteca (wine shop) to buy Markus some wine, and found a very good one there. We sampled several good wines, and had selected two or three bottles when the shop owner asked us: “Who is this for?”

“A friend in Germany, it’s his birthday.”

“Oh, then you don’t need to spend so much. Just get him this [pointing to the six-euro stuff in the window]; he’s German, he won’t know the difference.”

We still got him the good stuff; Markus does know the difference.