Monday, June 8, 2009

Third Culture Kids and the Fork in the Road of Life

A recent post on the British Telegraph website by Gerald Warner referred to President Obama as “President Pantywaist.” Coincidently, I was reading my wife’s newsletter from the Alumni Association of the American Community School at Beirut. In that newsletter, there was a reprint of a January 31, 2009, post on The Daily Beast blog and the article describes the psychological phenomena called Third Culture Kids.

Third Culture Kids are people who spent some portion of their formative years living in a foreign country. The argument is that people who do part of their growing up outside their “passport country” have a global perspective, are socially adaptable and intellectually flexible. They are quick to think outside the box and can appreciate and reconcile different points of view. At the same time, Third Culture Kids (TCK) can demonstrate a certain sense of detachment and feel rootless. Barack Obama, the article goes on to say, is a textbook example TCK and this is highlighted in his book, Dreams of My Father, where he searches for self-definition. Obama’s Harvard Law Review colleagues observed his excellent negotiation skills as well as his “aloofness” or “above-it-all” attitude. The article goes on to talk about how the Obama Administration is staffed by a number of TCKs and how that affects their vision of the world and the Administration’s approach to international issues.

My wife is a TCK. At the age of 12 she lived for a couple of years in Maricaibo, Venezuela, and when she was a high school sophomore in the seventies, her family moved to Beirut, Lebanon. They witnessed the beginning of Lebanon’s civil war and were in Beirut up until all Americans were evacuated. Living in an apartment between the Black September and PLO camps with bullets and mortar rounds flying over head can and usually does impact your life and perspective. Such an experience during your formative years either matures you well beyond your years or it can reduce you to a shell-shocked hull of your former self. My wife came home from Lebanon a mature adult who demonstrated some of the classic traits of a TCK—adversity that does not kill you makes you stronger. I always likened her to being an Army Brat except that her father worked in the oil industry, not the armed services.

I believe there is a lot of merit to the description of the TCK profile and their approach to life. However, every TCK comes to a fork in the road of life and their choices are come home proud of your passport country or come home apologizing to everyone for some perceived shame of your homeland. It seems to me that most Americans who spend any time overseas, especially in third-world countries, come home with a much greater appreciation for America and what it represents to the rest of the world. Returning American ex-patriots often kiss the ground when they get back to the Land of the Free. There is a deeper understanding of the values this country holds dear and the quality of life it provides: freedom to move about the USA, lack of military or police harassment, habeas corpus and a trial by your peers instead of life sentences for trumped up charges and kangaroos courts, free speech, safe drinking water and cleaner air, and a cheeseburger along with all the other benefits of living in the most advanced society on earth where the poorest of the poor are often better off than the middle class of other countries.

I usually feel sorry for those who come home to America ashamed of what we do and who we are. But, now, we have a TCK President who has chosen to go around the world apologizing for America. He apparently took what I believe is the wrong fork in the road of life and at his core he is ashamed to be an American. His wife expressed similar emotions when she said, after Obama secured the Democratic nomination, that it was the first time she was proud to be an American.

I believe that greater understanding of other cultures is a strength. I believe when you grow up in the minority where the majority holds all the power and speaks a different language that you will come away with the kind of negotiation skills that will be of value throughout your life. I believe any American TCK should have, as a result of their foreign experience, recognized and gained greater appreciation for the values America represents and the good that Americans do. They should be proud to be an American. In my opinion, if an American TCK takes the wrong fork in the road and is ashamed of America and what it represents—which is their right as an American citizen, a right many other nations do not confer upon their citizens—then maybe they should not be President of the United States of America and I am fairly certain that they don’t speak for the majority of Americans.

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