Third Culture Kids can help us navigate global conflict

What skills do we need to deal with global challenges?

A world map has pins sticking out of it.
Photo by Z on Unsplash

I recently listened to an episode of one of my favorite podcasts while hiking through a forest near my home. Throughline Podcast by NPR has been a go-to for a couple of years now, but the episode entitled A Story of Us? really struck me as I walked among the tall pine trees this particular Wednesday morning.

Throughline, if you’re not familiar, is a podcast that features stories about how events of the past influence where we are today. They have some really interesting episodes about a wide variety of historical and contemporary topics ranging from nostalgia as an illness to a deep dive into the history of capitalism to the end of the Bronze Age.

A Story of Us? is an episode from February 2022 that features an interview with Tamim Ansary, the author of The Invention of Yesterday: A 50,000-Year History of Human Culture, Conflict, and Connection. This post isn’t a promo for this book or even this podcast, really, although I highly recommend both if this sort of thing interests you at all.

Ansary speaks with the hosts of Throughline about the research he did while writing his book. Basically, he explores the role that storytelling has in relation to shared history and identity on macro and micro scales.

My interest in this topic springs primarily from how the interconnectedness of human experience through narratives may be best understood by people who experience and embody multiple distinct narratives and identities at once.

Third Culture Kids

In my previous post entitled My Son is a Third Culture Kid, I shared a little bit about my own family’s experience living in different countries and cultures and how my son is being raised as a Third Culture Kid.

I also outlined some of the history and unique benefits and challenges of living the Third Culture Kid (TCK) lifestyle. If TCK is a new term for you, I recommend checking out that post and some of the resources listed here to learn more.

To recap, though, TCKs are defined as people who spend a significant portion of their developmental years living in a country or culture that is different than one or both of their parents’ countries or cultures.

A traditional example of a TCK would be a child who moved from their passport country with their family for one or both of their parents’ careers. Think military family, missionaries, diplomats.

Since these kids grow up outside their home culture as sort of transplants in their host cultures, they often face challenges related to connecting with both cultures. They may not know where “home” is because their developmental years were defined by mobile lifestyles in different places.

Ok, so how does this all relate to the podcast episode I listened to?

Narratives and Identity

Historically, people existed in spaces where they shared narratives with those around them. The stories that people told about past events, origin stories, the way society should be, all of that were mostly agreed upon and shared among members of the group.

A neon sign reads “We are all made of stories”
Photo by S O C I A L . C U T on Unsplash

Tamim Ansary posits that there are three main factors that drive the human story on any scale: environment, language, and tools.

I’ll kind of summarize some of the points made in the interview related to these factors and then comment on how this all may connect to existing within and among multiple changing narratives through the TCK lifestyle.

Environment

This includes the literal physical environments in which people find themselves, are born and social environments that people build. Stories exist at the intersection of “in here” and “out there.”

An individual interacts with other individuals as well as groups of individuals. Groups of individuals interact with other groups of individuals all the way up the scale, from families to cities to countries.

Narratives are used to create and maintain boundaries of the various environments in which people exist.

Language

Language can be used to identify members of groups, of course, but it is also the primary means of intercommunication among individuals and groups of individuals. It is through language that stories are told and retold.

Tools

According to Ansary, we don’t have tools. Tools are an extension of us, features of us. Tools are how we interact with our environment. As our tools change, how we interact with our environment and each other changes, too.

How do these factors come together?

With all three of these factors driving the human story, when something changes, the environment or language or available tools, people have to adapt and adjust the narratives that are told to sync up with the new realities.

Ok, simple enough, I guess, but agreeing or not agreeing on narratives and identities seems to be where a lot of conflicts can occur.

Think about discussions in the US about which historical perspectives should be taught in schools or disputes over physical borders based on shared historical narratives in a variety of places around the world.

Ansary synthesizes the role each of the three factors I’ve outlined above interacts to create our existence:

Alone among the creatures of Earth, we humans use tools and language to deal with our environment effectively as groups. Language makes stories possible, and mythic stories are what knit human groups together. In our earliest days, our mythic narratives were spawned by geography. We formed webs of meaning with people in our immediate environment. Where we lived was who we were. Through constant intercommunication, we built up shared assumptions about deep matters, such as time and space, life and death, good and evil. We lived and died in symbolic landscapes woven of our ideas, and as far as we knew, those landscapes were the world itself.

Essentially, by living in the same place for much or all of our lives, we build identities inextricably linked to geography and the stories we told about where we exist.

Mobility, Globalization, and Identity

Through increased mobility and globalization, people encounter others from different places more and more frequently. At these interactions, these intersections, people can be faced with challenges to the narratives that form their identity.

Ansary talks about how in a quest to acknowledge and embrace diversity, society may, in fact, be breaking into increasingly smaller monocultural groups.

It is also the case that we are in our search for inclusion based on acknowledgement of diversity and acceptance of diversity also has had and is having a fragmenting effect so that instead of a multicultural society — somebody used the phrase I thought was really good. Frank Viviano, another writer — he said that instead of multiculturalism, we’re getting a shattered kaleidoscope of monoculturalisms. And what we want to try to do is build a new narrative structure, tell a new story that all of us can legitimately see ourselves as characters in. Then we can start to interact.

These interactions are happening on micro and macro levels in our current world, and Ansary suggests, “We have to find the narrative that will enable a human story to develop that’s the story of all of us that we can say, yeah, I accept that. That’s — I see myself in that story. And that sounds like it is my story. I’m in there validly. We don’t have that yet.”

Traditionally, narratives have been used by people in power in order to maintain that power. We’ve all heard about history going to the victor, right?

In times in which people are interacting and discussing and revising narratives all the time, everyone is looking for representation while fighting to maintain their identity.

People are walking around a busy sidewalk.
Photo by Timon Studler on Unsplash

Third Culture Kids and a Global Narrative

Third Culture Kids build their cultural identities through experience and participation in a third culture situated between their host culture and their home cultures.

Because of this unique upbringing, TCKs may be uniquely prepared to guide others with more monocultural backgrounds into conversations and interactions that might otherwise be too uncomfortable or challenging.

Perhaps, with the help of TCKs, a global narrative in which everyone can see themselves can be crafted and revised to address our current needs and global challenges.

By exploring and normalizing narratives and perspectives that don’t center just one story, one culture, perhaps everyone can gain a little cross-cultural competence and tolerance toward challenges to our worldview.

It seems like we are presented with an exceptional opportunity to build a future that serves more people, that allows more people to thrive, and that helps us meaningfully address the challenges we face globally.

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Crystal Rose-Wainstock

Crystal Rose-Wainstock

I'm a lifelong learner interested in the climate crisis, femtech, women's health, and parenting.

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