Cross Cultures Symposium Summary

I’m back from Indianapolis and jet lagging now. How can I jet lag after only being in a time zone difference of three hours? Because I was stranded in two airports keeping me awake for over 27 hours.

You might ask why I mention my own story of traveling to Indianapolis (where the conference was held) and back. It is actually quite important because

Storytelling is the best way to communicate ideas, understand them, and remember them. When I think of some complex and simple ideas, I don’t remember the college lectures I sat in while playing solitaire on my laptop. Likewise, if someone were to give me a textbook with a list of theories, I would remember the examples more than I would remember the actual theories. You can throw the terms “Third Culture Kid”, you can elaborate on the nuances and how the “third culture” isn’t necessarily a third country you’ve lived in, or third culture that you’ve adopted, but most people will not understand its meaning.

However, when you tell them the story of how, for example, a young girl who looks white American is actually more Malaysian because she was raised in Malaysia for over sixteen years. Where does the third culture come in there? From living in-between, because of movement between cultures for one, and that the “American” culture in her family’s home is also changing as well as it is overseas. Fitting into neither the American culture box in America, nor being accepted as Malaysian even if she knows the language or the culture and is able to relate better than to Americans in America, she is then creating that third culture of movement and existing in that space between. By telling our stories, we actually need to stop trying to get everyone else to know our stories, but move toward

Sharing our stories by including people we meet rather than creating distance. Although it is good to share stories with one another to create understanding, we also need to stop creating distance through these stories and experiences. Instead of creating a dichotomy separating people into those who are Third Culture Kids and those who are not, we need to move to a point where we can share our story with someone–TCK or not–welcome them to be part of that experience.

An application of this is through the site Couchsurfing. My host John in Indianapolis told me that he has more fun and pleasure from his guests staying with him than we do passing by. It is as much an adventure to meet people who think and act differently as his guests, for he is able to reconsider the context he lives in–as a white American male in the Midwest, as a gay man, there are many cultures in his own home that he can reconsider from the perspectives of the French, Colombian, New Yorker, and Indian guests who constantly drop by on their travels.

John is part of my story and Adam, a fellow TCK who came out from New York to stay at John’s place and go to the conference, not because I interacted with him and told him about the concept of Third Culture Kids, but because everyone in the world–everyone— is part of the story of cultural encounters, exchange, and evolution. For that reason, there is a very strong

Need for more interaction and encounters. Without encounters or exchange, we only lose out on or growth as human beings. “Preserving” culture does not mean that someone should lock the door, or a country to isolate itself from the rest of the world like the Khmer Rouge did to Cambodia did with Year Zero and North Korea has been doing for over sixty years. Who preserves these cultures? They are captured in the stories, the art, and music of people throughout their history. Cultures evolve, they don’t get “tainted” by interaction from other cultures. Had it not been for cultural exchange, it would not allow for people such as those throughout Southeast Asia to adapt influences from China and India and make it their culture–key in point being Angkor Wat in Cambodia, or variations of local food based off of dishes brought in by traders and travelers from centuries of interaction, such as Shanghai lumpia in the Philippines, which has Chinese influence, but distinctly Philippine taste due to the adaptation to local preferences and use of local ingredients. Ultimately, though, we need to stop thinking of “preserving” culture, maybe we might even need to

Rethink the ways we are framing and understanding culture. Culture isn’t food, language, history, art, or music, even though those are what carry culture in them; culture is learned behavior, values, and attitudes, said one of the speakers. Sometimes, we are caught in the trap of anthropology to observe at a distance and compare another culture to our own and have ours as the base and standard.

Other times, there are people such as crazy Christian fundamentalists from Kansas who think that people should “act like Americans and Christians when they are in Kansas because that’s how everyone in that place is, and it’s their fault and a sin for not knowing how they should act.” Yes, I’ve been told that being a Third Culture Kid is a sin and it’s my fault for not knowing I “have to be like an American because I’m in America”.

The point of this example is that attitudes like these make culture something beyond inherited values and behavior, but into social norms that quickly become imposed like the rule of law for any deviations perceived. It is precisely because of this misunderstanding which comes from the framework that is used to perceive culture. Other examples are people who make statements like “Americans have no culture; they are just Europeans who live in another country they immigrated to” which leaves no room for evolution, adaptation, and reinterpretation of culture put in a new environmental context. Or, my favorite statement: “What is culture? There is no such thing as it” which I often heard from people in the Philippines trying to sound liberal and open-minded. Culture is more than just the community you live in, the passport you hold, or the ethnicity you belong to. Though many TCKs know this, part of the problem with the current framework to define a TCK is that it used to refer to people living internationally. What about a woman who is African-American, who is bused into the city with a predominantly white culture, and learns to adapt to those norms, then comes home via the bus and has to reintegrate herself into her family’s culture? The plane between Cambodia and Luxembourg now becomes a bus from the suburbs to the city. The Domestic Third Culture Kid label is fairly new, and there’s plenty of dialogue going on to expand the definition of who is a TCK, which is why in spite of the confusion that arises from being asked the dreaded question, we actually should begin to

Move beyond the literal interpretation of the question “where are you from?” in order to create better relationships with others. Many people seeking to find people who can understand their experiences as Third Culture Kids, relate to, or accept them fail to realize that the “Where are you from?” question is not an interrogation or an invitation to be judged based on their response–it’s a question that is used to help the one asking try to get to know the other person better.

Granted, we don’t need to tell our life stories, nor do we need to shove the definition of what a Third Culture Kid is down their throats. They can either decide for themselves what they want to know, if they are truly interested in getting to know us more, or if it’s just a simple party conversation akin to asking what the weather is like. Sure, there are people like a friend of mine who is Filipina by ethnic heritage, born in Korea, raised in the Caribbean, educated in the United States, and is a French-speaker who may have difficulty answering it, but I see it as an exercise in creativity rather than a crusade to make others understand our unique experiences. In spite of these experiences, it is our attitudes that molded us into who we are, for we can choose to take these experiences to elevate ourselves, or we can use them as a wealth of resources to take and learn from, since we are not limited to any one group or place’s way of thinking and being. If we continue to separate ourselves into being Third Culture Kids and everyone else who isn’t, then we have instead erected another barrier, a fortress, and closed it off from everyone else, putting us in an ivory tower, a prison. What we should do, in light of this revelation, is to

Move away from using the term Third Culture and instead using Cross Culture. As much as we enjoy the term of being a Third Culture Kid once we’ve discovered it, we are all ultimately still human beings. Our experiences may be different from the “normal” people, but our attitudes are what define us. It’s common for TCKs to adopt the term and use that to define them all their lives, but a label, a category–they all have their limitations. Just because it is associated with having a rich background of experiences that vary from individual to individual does not mean it is not ever going to limit us.

Similarly, because the definition is being redefined doesn’t mean we can throw it around liberally. Even as we move into cross culture instead of Third Culture Kid, ultimately, it’s trying to be more inclusive, which is a bit damaging to the psyche of those who wear their “otherness” as TCKs with pride as a way of making themselves feel superior to those who don’t have the label or experience.

One of the reasons to move toward using the term “cross culture” is because it refer to experiences locally and internationally, not just from living in other cultures, but encountering them, such as having international guests, trying new foods, interracial relationships, and so much more. What is the difference between a man who lived in Australia, England, and the U.S. and a man who lived in Java, Bali, and Aceh in Indonesia? How is the first man more likely to be considered “cultured” when he is in three countries that all speak variations of the same language versus a man who lived in the same country where each place spoke different languages? As I walk through the hallways of my apartment building, on the path toward my department, and sit in classrooms or offices, I see people of different ethnic backgrounds, speaking different languages and variations of the language (defined by their different socio-economical status, English as a second language, their slang, their education, and more). Every moment I am crossing cultures. Workplace culture, home culture, classroom culture, ethnic culture, career culture, sexual preference culture–there are too many category boxes for me to fit my entire being into, and even whatever gets placed in those boxes isn’t the sum of me, for they are only fractions of the whole picture–much like a jigsaw puzzle piece is only a part of the picture, not the whole.

An application of why we need to have cross cultural encounters and open our minds comes from how I left Indianapolis upon conclusion of the conference. My flight got delayed by two hours. Why? Because according to this article here, a man who did not comply delayed the flight when the attendants alerted the authorities and they spent over two hours telling us it was for our safety. Several people may have felt they were safer, but everyone else–especially those in transit who lived outside of the somewhat parochial environment–noticed that the man who was pulled was racially profiled. A man who managed to sneak not weapons that could harm passengers on the plane, but his brown skin and long beard that many ignorant, xenophobic and unworldly individuals associate with being the stereotypical terrorist that wants to destroy America.

There is no way he would have been noticed for his behavior had he been a white American on the plane. As a result, I ended up missing my connecting flight to San Diego from Denver, Colorado, where my flight from Indianapolis was headed. Ignorance and bigotry are bad for business, and definitely don’t make people from different countries, cultures–let alone different states in the U.S.–want to travel and encounter people in the Midwest. It’s a shame, because the culture and environment of what little I saw from my brief time in Indiana is something I truly believe everyone should experience–especially with the colors of autumn. For now, you can vicariously experience it through my short photostream on Flickr.

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