Saturday, January 20, 2018

Global Views Don’t Just Come From Home: Making a Third Culture Kid

I’m a brat and proud of it. Now before you start scratching your head and wondering what I mean by that, let me explain. I am an Army Brat – a child of a military officer who was dragged up and down the East Coast and all throughout Europe during my formative years. By the time I was 10, I had been to more countries than states in the U.S. and that changed how I viewed the world. Granted, I didn’t know that at the time, and only as an adult did I realize my view of the world is far more global than my peers, some of whom may not have had the same opportunities as my father’s job afforded us. There is a term for people like me – Third Culture Kids.

In our ever-evolving and shrinking world, this new anthropological term has come into being specifically to describe people who had the opportunity to live within cultures not their own for a significant period of time during their most formative years. In order to understand why this new term is so important, you need to know a little bit more about us.

I was born on a military base in Germany. The base no longer exists, but the town where I lived my first year does, Idar-Oberstein. Because my family moved so often, we were due for another overseas posting when I was about to turn 8 and my sister was about to turn 5, putting us right into our formative years and therefore smack dab in the beginning of becoming Third Culture Kids.

The castle at Idar-Oberstein
The castle at Idar-Oberstein

So, what are these three cultures? How does that make people different? And what does it have to do with speculative fiction?

Defining a Place, Defining a Mind

Most children are born to a culture – maybe it’s the small town they’ve lived in most of their lives, or perhaps it’s the faith they are raised to believe. Whatever it is, that first culture typically comes from the parents.

When a family moves to an overseas location – or even a location that is so culturally different within the country you currently reside in, for example a move from a sleepy town like Savannah, GA, to Seattle, WA, or Los Angeles, CA – that family has to learn about the new place. This is the Second Culture.

After a while the children who are living in these conditions learn to adapt to their current surroundings. They begin to incorporate some of the culture from their new home with the at home culture they live every day. Taking German classes while playing Frisbee on base is a basic example. This incorporation of two cultures into one person is what is known as the Third Culture.

Looking Into It

Anthropological studies into Third Culture (TC), a field developed by John and Ruth Hill Useem in the 1950s, mostly focus on physical movement – actual packing up and moving to a new culture – but I contend that there is a way to bring TC to the lives of anyone as long as they have access to media, specifically speculative fiction.

Multicultural sci-fi (picture by
Multicultural sci-fi (picture by

Speculative fiction, in all its forms, has the power to transform people at the core of their belief system. Based on the studies into Third Culture, those who choose to look at humanity, or Earth in general, through completely different eyes because of what they have read, heard or seen via speculative fiction, may also become Third Culture Individuals – in this case by choice. There are some incredibly famous examples – Star Trek, for example, had aliens and a black woman at senior positions on the bridge, and a gay man piloting the ship all back in the 1960s. Was it odd? Strange? Even scandalous? Perhaps. But over time, those who watched the series started to think it would have been strange any other way. They walked into unfamiliar territory and walked out taking some of that new culture’s ideals as their own.  Today, most of us who read and consume speculative fiction take the way Star Trek was staffed and consider it what real life looks like in our offices, schools, and neighborhoods.

When we talk about speculative fiction today, we are talking about a great deal of content with so many sub-genres it is impossible to name them all. However, each series or short story is a canvas upon which paint from many sources is used. Everything from ancient mythologies, to historic ways of life, to militaristic sci-fi, to alternative realities or histories, each one of these tools help create cultures within the books that sometimes spill over into real life.

Steampunk is probably the most successful of these tools. The strict moral codes of Victorian England combined with the clothes bring the past to the present. Add in science fiction laden with steam and recycling and you suddenly realize that Steampunk is everywhere, including on the Game Show Network.

The cast of Steampunk'd on GSN
The cast of Steampunk’d on GSN

Speech Influences Culture

Another good example of how speculative fiction culture is added to the common Third Culture of those who consume this media is language. For years TV shows have struggled with finding words that are strong enough, but clean enough to get past Standards and Practices – the lawyers who keep the networks on the air by creating a very big swear jar. Writers have become incredibly creative in this endeavor, so creative that some of the words they created – frak, gorram, frell, shazbot, as well as others – have infiltrated everyday life and even other shows. This is truly an example of the creation of a Third Culture, in this case a shared one, without needing to leave your house.

The creation of new language and the re-discovery of history through a type of speculative fiction are only two ways these rich stories fully create a Third Culture. Third Culture Kids also accept aspects of the culture they are living in as their own. There are benefits from accepting new cultural norms, especially if they are positive. In order for these books, stories, TV shows, movies and games to be good, they must be convincing. This means they have to have a deep culture that does not rely too much on the past but is also well researched and brings in bits from the author’s own belief system to create a culture.

This means that when you watch Firefly, you are watching a mixture of research – from westerns to distrust in government to acts of torture to how a ship might fly if it was held together with duct tape, chewing gum and a lot of luck. But you learn a great deal about how the world might be; for example, companions are treated with respect. The higher end guild companions are not only out in the open, they are sought after. In today’s world, escorts are not looked after that much at all. Perhaps they should be.

It also means that when you read Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, you are introduced to two worlds – one in Prague and one in another dimension where the main character is a flying demon who wants nothing more than peace and to be in love with her angel. To do this she must do something she doesn’t want to do – fight. Two stories with deep culture, one that is familiar enough that we are not completely thrown as we start to incorporate that culture with our own.

Over the past few years, I have seen some interesting blog posts, tweets, Facebook feeds from my friends who write in the spec fic world. They are far more thought through and global. Perhaps it’s because those of us who read spec fic actually read. But I would rather believe that the benefits of being a Third Culture Kid are seen in these stationary readers and writers. Because that means there is a way to globalize our belief systems other than just the Internet. It means that if something were to happen to the Internet, we could still open eyes and hearts to learn more about the world everyone lives in through our stories. In other words becoming a world of Third Culture Kids.

You may also like


Leave a Reply