My Leaky Rowboat: The Isolation and Beauty of the Third Culture
By RAMSEY BADEN | June 26, 2017
If you were to look at a map today, you would be presented with a deceptive picture of the world. According to that map, the surface of the planet would be neatly divided between nearly 200 nations, and all of these nations would have carefully-defined and bitterly-defended borders. The map would tell you that people come from specific places, and that their identities are defined by these places. However, this is far from the truth. In the mid-twentieth century, a new nation discarded its shroud of secrecy. Formerly hidden from the eyes of cartographers, it grew exponentially to reach tremendous proportions. Today, it is considered the fifth largest nation on the planet by its sheer numbers. The implications of this nation’s existence are quite literally ground-breaking. This nation does not exist on a map, and it has no borders. It has what is known as the “third culture”— a collective group of people who have ties to two or more traditional cultures, but do not have ownership in any.
For me, living in the third culture used to feel like sitting in a rowboat. I was placed there at birth, destined to float across endless oceans. Every time I reached land, the bottom of the boat would scrape against the sand of the beach. Just as I attempted to set foot on land, I was swept back into the ocean. The rowboat lacked an anchor, and it seemed forever destined to drift between worlds without ever being a full part of them. Water and fog stretched across the horizon, masking the way ahead.
I would spend eight years scraping against the sand of one such coast, trying to plant my feet on solid ground. My family moved to Taiwan. I was nine years old, and I had not really understood what it meant to have parents from two different cultures until that move. When I visited my 外公 ("maternal grandfather") in Taiwan, I would sit on the couch in his Taipei apartment and wonder how to connect with him. At times, my seclusion was as palpable as the tang of incense wafting across the living room – I was his grandson by blood, but by so many measures I was as foreign as any other 外國人 (“outsider”) walking the street below. While we were there, I never successfully shook the feeling that I was alien to my extended family and the country they called home.
Inevitably, the same thing would happen whenever my rowboat drifted back to the other coast that I knew. We took yearly summer trips back to see my family in the United States. In some ways, this was easier for me than living in Taiwan – I had a natural grip on English that I lacked with Chinese, and I had spent enough of my childhood there for some things to feel familiar. Yet, being in a country where you have few friends and even fewer attachments has its own challenges. I found that explaining my experiences and feelings was almost impossible for me. Even if I had found the words to tell my story at that time, I was not confident that there were any ears to hear it.
While enrolled in an international school in Taiwan, I began to reconcile these failed shore landings by playing the part of a foreigner. When I was physically in Taiwan, I thought as an American. When we made our way to the States for the summer, my mind was back in Taiwan. My cultural confusion had poked holes in my rowboat. I was bailing water, trying desperately not to sink into a sea of separation.
Then, I began to gain some clarity. I realized two very important things that have since allowed me to embrace the third culture. The first is that being part of a third culture has incredible benefits, even as constant moving results in plenty of isolation. Research by Ruth Useem, who pioneered use of the terms “TCK” and “third culture kid,” indicates that adult members of the third culture have “a higher degree of education” and that their “international childhood… [influences] their fields of study.” According to Useem, these third culture denizens also “seem to do their best when they find their own community made up of expats and globe-trotters like them.” This brings me to my second realization: I am not alone. More than 244 million migrants exist today, according to a 2015 UN study. This level of global movement has led many to refer to the third culture as a “great floating tribe,” with a rapidly growing number of people who can call themselves members. These are people who have all experienced similar forms of cultural disorientation, and who understand what it means to be out of sync with the place you happen to be in. We can sympathize and support one another, even though our experiences are unique and vary greatly by definition.
Today, we are building a new continent that transcends physical borders, where international experiences are cherished and the blending of different cultures is celebrated. I can finally step out of my rowboat and feel the sand between my toes.