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Third Culturism

Photo+by+Timothy+O%27Keefe
Photo by Timothy O'Keefe

Photo by Timothy O'Keefe

Photo by Timothy O'Keefe

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“Wow, you grew up in Kenya – so you must be African, right?” my Uber driver asks. In the pause that follows, all I can do is fill the silence with a rehearsed laugh. My hesitant nervousness is a reaction that has echoed all around me since I arrived in the United States. Even though I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked if I identify as American or Kenyan, I still don’t know how to answer. As an American citizen with a lifelong home in Nairobi, the question of who I am, and to which culture I identify with, transcends the opposing jurisdictions of passports and location.

Though the factors that influenced my developmental years are very particular to my unique circumstances, individuals like me are not that uncommon. As patterns of globalization increase in both frequency and variation, more and more children grow up in communities that are defined by cultural fusion. In fact, it could be argued that the majority of millennials in much of the world are impacted by the global phenomenon of “third culturism.”

Third culturism, in its most direct definition, refers to individuals who were raised in a cultural environment different from that of their parents. Furthermore, being a part of this phenomenon often entails returning to the culture from which your parents originated. Prevalent “third culture” identities are widely recognized in expatriates, a group that includes the children of diplomats, aid-workers, military personnel, or entrepreneurs abroad. Perhaps the most notable person who grew up directly in a “third culture” is Barack Obama, who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia despite being born in the United States and raised by American parents.

In a more universal sense, third culturism applies to any individual who has been deeply influenced by two cultures yet feels no ownership or belonging to either of them. Do you navigate a culture different from that of your parents? Have you ever been forced to morph yourself into the space between two (or more) cultures? Even if you don’t feel as if either of these questions speak to you, chances are that you know someone who does.

In environments such as Oxford College, dialogue about third culturism is important because it validates students who are transitioning, yet again, between cultures. While there is widespread recognition of international students as a part of university communities, distinction needs to be allotted between international and third-culture students. International students transition to the United States from an identity that predominantly belongs to one culture; third-culture students arrive with an identity that interacts with and oscillates between many cultures. Though the issues that international students and third-culture students do overlap in many ways, different expectations and stereotypes are placed on both identities.

For example, this is why third culture students are typed by our accent, mannerisms, and preexisting stereotypes about our ethnicities that exist in an American context. Third culture students are expected to be familiar with subtle aspects of American culture, yet we may not always be. Just because we have American parents or went to international schools does not mean that we necessarily have watched American football, or know the characters from Sesame street, or have eaten a Thanksgiving meal. On the other hand, we’re rarely asked questions that don’t sensationalize our lives or stereotype the countries we have lived in. As a result, we’re left with feeling like invisible nomads, expected to be synchronized to a culture that we only partially inhabit.

I am far from being Kenyan. I grew up with American parents and the privileges associated with a passport from the United States. I have nuanced understandings of my parents’ culture that have greatly contributed to who I am and how I see the world. Yet is has taken me moving to the United States to realize that I am not truly “American” either.

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Third Culturism