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An ABC of INTERCULTURAL IDENTITY

ATCK

When we are children, our lives are just our lives. We think whatever surrounds us is normal, usual. We have no control over where or how we are raised or who raises us. In my case, it was Dutch-American, conservative, Christian Reformed missionary parents, who brought me to the Navajo Nation when I was three, almost four. I was richly surrounded and gifted by Diné (Navajo) ways. Some of those ways had already been heavily impacted by colonialism. In my previous post, "ANETH", I wrote about the Christmas story and bags of treats brought to the BIA school there. Christmas had already been established then, in the Nation and had its own Diné name, Keshmish.

 

I took it as natural that Christmas was celebrated there. I had no idea that it had been brought by the settlers, of whom I was a representative. In my BIA school classroom at Teec Nos Pos, I learned to sing a secular Christmas song, "Up on the Housetop." I came home singing it in what some linguists have called "Dummitawry English," a Diné accented creole. I thought that was the right way to sing it because it's how my classmates sang it. Lustily. My mother could be counted on to correct my English, just as she corrected my father's Dutch, which she called "farmer Dutch."

 

That was the in-between world that made me part of who I am today, an ATCK. There are famous ATCKs. Barack Obama is probably the most renowned ATCK. Pulitzer Prize authors Pearl Buck and John Hersey were Adult Third Culture Kids. Freddie Mercury, Kobe Bryant, Yo-Y o Ma, Uma Thurmond, Madeleine Albright, Viggo Mortenson, Colin Firth, and Audrey Hepburn were all Third Culture Kids, and when they grew up, they became ATCKs. The list of famous and non-famous ATCKs is large, varied, and growing, thanks to an increasingly global society.

 

A Third Culture Kid, a TCK, who grows up to be an ATCK, is defined as someone who spent a significant number of their developmental years in a culture that was not their parents' culture. It is an enriching life, although as children, it is simply our life; we don't know anything different. At some point, when awareness of its in-between nature dawns on us, it becomes confusing. I found it hard to know just who I was and where I belonged. It's in the nature of being a TCK to not have full ownership in either or any culture. The third culture is the in-between culture, and those of us who live it, recognize it in each other. We share characteristics of having grown up in-between.

 

A few years ago, I was asked to make a presentation at a week-long, mountain-top gathering above Teec Nos Pos. The camp was attended by a mix of Diné, Anglo, and other ethnicities, by medical professionals and artisans and educators. My presentation was to be about TCK-ness. As I prepared, it dawned on me that the Diné who would be present also fit the definition of TCKs, though in a profoundly different way from how the literature generally describes us. Usually we are described as having been brought into the host culture by our parents because of their employment. But my Diné peers were also raised in a culture different from that of their parents' culture—boarding school culture––a culture that was determined to erase their home culture and language. Although I did attend boarding school more than once, my home culture was very much supported there.

 

When I recognized my Diné friends as ATCKs, I remembered a conversation I'd had years earlier with one of my colleagues at the Native American Materials Development Center, an indigenous educational publishing house. Lily talked about how difficult it was for college educated Diné to find their place in their different worlds. Somewhere in our conversation I said something about how, if I was in a group with Diné, I often hid what I knew of the language and ways. "I don't want to overstep or act like I think I know more than I do."

 

I am still moved by the gift of grace Lily extended to me in that moment. "You have an identity crisis just like we do," she said. "We don't know who we are, and neither do you." I was so grateful to be seen by her, even though I knew it wasn't exactly the same. I might question where I fit in, just as Lily did, but I was still white. I could avail myself anytime of all the privileges that came with my skin. But what she said confirmed my later realization: we were all TCKs.

 

TCKs, when we find each other, also find our commonalities. It is not just that we struggle to know where we fit, or that we are often restless, even rootless. We also share a richness of gifts. We see the world from a vantage point that may make us adept at bridging differences in a world torn by deep division, though we may be hesitant to offer that skill, not sure of its welcome. We are often expert observers, able to see patterns in the bigger picture as they occur. From our observations, we may quickly recognize how a new culture works, at least on the surface, so we are not prone to giving offence; we observe before we speak or act. We know how to be a guest in a someone else's land, though we're unsure of where home is. Although some life changes may upend us, we are adroit at finding resources in a new setting. We relate easily at initial meetings and appear to adjust quickly to a new culture, but we may have difficulty establishing deeper relationships and truly putting down roots. On the other hand, we tend to have friendships the world over.

 

My ability to observe manifested one day as I sat in a hotel lounge in San Francisco with two other travelers—one from New Zealand and one from France, both white. I watched them have an animated discussion and began to see that they were completely bypassing each other, going blithely along with what amounted to two separate conversations. Finally I said, "Wait, you guys!" They stopped and looked at me. "You're having two completely unrelated conversations. This is what Glen's saying," I summarized. "And here's what Chantal is saying." They looked at me and then at each other, aghast. "Really?" Now, for the first time, with that "Really?" they were on the same page. They looked at each other for confirmation that I was right. And both nodded at each other. We laughed together, and they began anew.

 

TCKs observe. We can bridge. We have an opportunity to bring together, to repair differences. 


 
Please share your thoughts in the Comments. Are you an ATCK? I'd love to hear about your experience, whether or not you are. Please feel free to share this website with others who might be interested. If you haven't read my previous post, "ANETH," you might enjoy reading it, too.

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