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Cultural zooming: From close-up to panoramic

Maxine Kelly

Abstract: Much like a biological culture grown in a scientist’s Petri dish, global concepts of culture have grown to include over one hundred and sixty definitions (Australian Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commission, 1998). Many of these definitions suggest that there is a form of cultural mitosis that allows a system of beliefs, values, assumptions, sentiments and perspectives to be reproduced, unchanged, in a group of people over several generations. This might have been true at some point in time, but "the compression of the world and the intensification of consciousness of the world as a whole" (Robertson, 1992, p.8) has blurred group boundaries and created a new level of awareness that is simultaneously liberating and frightening. This compression, also known as globalization, has "economic roots and political consequences" (Rothkop, 1997) that are nurtured and shaped by culture. This essay takes a personal close-up cultural snapshot and projects it onto the cultural landscape to find relevance and connectivity between the personal and the global, the immediate and the overall.

The stevedores on the dock in Port of Spain, Trinidad talked and moved with a rhythm that was both strange and fascinating to my 15-year-old eyes. Trinidad was my family’s third country of residence in my lifetime, and my senses anxiously panned the port for some hint of familiarity, but I found none. At that moment, nothing about this island nation was as I’d expected; the mountains seemed unfriendly, the smells were indistinct, and the rhythm of language and movement seemed strained. I was born in Jamaica of Jamaican parents, and had lived throughout Latin America since the age of four. According to historical and geographical accounts, Trinidad and Jamaica shared many similarities because of British and Spanish colonization. It was after all, an English-speaking island populated by groups of people who had shared many of the same life experiences. Still, nothing my parents had passed on to me prepared me for the strange rhythm. The crushing sense of alienation as we docked in Port of Spain did not restrain parental expectations that we "grow where we’re planted". My parents must have based this edict on Hall’s observation that "if one wanted to fit in, or not appear too conspicuous, it was helpful to begin to move to the local rhythm and conform to the local beat" (Hall, 1989, p.79). And conform we did, without apology, and without fear of betraying our ‘group’ we adopted the rhythmic speech and tucked our other language neatly into diaries and sibling conspiracies.

Sociologist Ruth Useem coined the term "Third Culture Kids" (TCKs) (Kidd, 2002) to describe children in families who reside outside their passport country for extended periods of time. Dr. Useem’s longitudinal research suggests that these children integrate elements of those cultures where they live with their own birth culture into a third, different and distinct culture (Eakin, 1998; Useem, 1999). Because TCKs have developed a unique culture of their own that incorporates elements of varied cultures, they often feel more at home with other TCKs, with no regard for nationality. For all of my childhood and adolescence I experienced life as a TCK without ever labeling or understanding the intensity of the experience. My friends were mostly other TCKs, and we nurtured our adolescent friendship with an endless stream of letters and cards.

Many years and countries after Trinidad, my ‘differentness’ invariably raised the question: "Where are you from?" which frequently elicited: "Where do you think I’m from?" Or the more straightforward: "I’m from many places". I indeed felt in sync with many places and simultaneously no singular allegiance to any of them. Sociologists might have ascribed my lack of connectivity to my own unarticulated sense of identity. The truth was that I was afflicted with cultural marginality – "an experience typical of global nomads and others (such as TCKs) who have been molded by exposure to two or more cultural traditions" (Schaetti). Cultural marginality, like any intense experience, has the potential to have either good or bad outcomes, depending on how it is resolved. For most global nomads or TCKs, resolution is usually jump started by their return ‘home’. At that time (usually late adolescence or young adulthood) resolution often takes one of two paths – encapsulated or constructive (Bennett, 1993). The encapsulated path is a less desirable resolution that leaves the individual with overwhelming feelings of failed authenticity, alienation and powerlessness (Bennett, p.115). Feelings of isolation and a pervasive sense of being misunderstood often dominate the psyche of the encapsulated culturally marginal individual. By contrast, the constructive resolution to cultural marginality leads to a resilient well developed sense of identity that "forms clear boundaries in the face of multiple cultural perspectives" (Bennett, p.118). While national identity continues to be relatively insignificant, constructively resolved culturally marginal individuals are able to use their intercultural skills and adjustment skills to further personal and professional goals (Schaetti).

Take me Home, To the Place I Belong…
My return to my passport country as a young adult brought with it lingering discomfort related to not belonging, the sense of not fitting in, the inexplicable detachment that didn’t measure up to expectations of coming ‘home’. More than ever before I felt dislocated and the usual tools of cultural reconciliation were evasive. My search for synthesis led me to migrate to Canada, a country whose acceptance of cultural ambiguity and people-centered (as opposed to nationality-centered) immigration policies seemed to invite resolution. It was there, with introspective anonymity that my own constructive resolution began. While I struggled with self-actualization, south of the border, the plight of hundreds of TCKs had finally attracted the attention of the U.S. diplomatic community through a report from the Association of American Foreign Service Women. From this report, the Family Liaison Office under the Department of State was formed to support and study the TCK phenomenon (Eakin 1999, p.5). These studies have pioneered new insight, descriptive terminology and support (Kidd, 2002) for us cultural mutants.

Constructively resolved marginality helped me to redirect my energies into working with children, particularly immigrant children who by default are left to struggle with being culturally marginal. But does resolution inhibit wanderlust? Can TCKs ever accept the cultural ties that bind? To date, there’s no research-based evidence to prove or disprove either question, leaving nationalistic devotees with fears of culturally diluted Americans. However, personal accounts (Schaetti) and my own experience suggest that global nomads need to feel fulfilled in their multicultural skins, and "cannot be contained within a single identity" (Schaetti). For us, it appears "better to acknowledge that nationality is only an overlay to the international experience" (Schaetti). Unfortunately, recent fears powered by global acts of violence have led many people unaffected by cultural marginality to believe "that ‘foreign’ is a synonym for ‘danger’" (Rothkop, 1997), and any attempt to shrink from nationalistic ideals is seen as an even greater indication of danger.

Heating Up the Melting Pot
Most of the existing research focuses on TCKs returning to the United States, a country long known as a country of immigrants. The American culture has even been conceptualized as a ‘melting pot’ of cultures, coalesced to form a single strong culture where the sum was more significant than the parts. If nothing, this conceptualization bespeaks inclusion, and implies that all cultures contribute to American largesse. In practice, this concept could have powerful and enduring value in its ability to enable the smallest unit of the whole, in its ability to seduce ex-patriots ‘home’. Unfortunately, the melting pot has for the most part remained a cultural construct that is difficult to enact, and TCKs continue to reject their passport country: "Physically, I am here. But everything that belongs to me, everything that defines me, is on the other side of the ocean where I left my friends" (Eakin, 1999, p. 12). I’m forced to wonder if the temperature of the melting pot were only slightly different, if it would not create a path home for TCKs; a path that embraces and values their nomadic core, a path that fostered their multicultural identities as synonymous with America. After all, the main difference between TCKs and non-TCKs is that non-TCKs have "roots that are strong and understood. While they may leave these roots, the sense of place, of where they are from is strong and grows stronger as the years pass" (Eakin, p.19). On the other, hand, " TCKs roots, are determined by people, not place" (Eakin, p.19).

Many definitions of culture call for interactions among people – behavior, tradition, and customs. It would therefore seem important to foster the strengths and skills of the global nomad or TCK and "encourage or facilitate the constructive experience of cultural marginality" (Schaetti). There is amazing power to be harnessed in the TCKs’ ability to be reconciled to each new culture and embrace their multiplicity without fear, a truly global skill. After all, is this not the conceptualized Melting Pot?


Bennett, J. "Cultural Marginality: Identity Issues in Intercultural Training." Education for The Intercultural Experience. E. Michael Paige, Ed., Maine, Intercultural Press

Eakin, K. (1999). According To My Passport, I’m Coming Home. Washington D.C., FLO, GPO.

Hall, E. T. (1989). Beyond Culture. New York: Random House, Inc.

Kidd, J. (2000). Third Culture Kids: Returning to their Passport Country. Retrieved June 30, 2004

Robertson, R. (1992) Globalization: Social Theory and Global Culture. London: Sage

Rothkop, D. "In Praise of Cultural Imperialism? Effects of Globalization on Culture". Global Policy Forum. June 22, 1997

Schaetti, B. "Phoenix Rising: A question of Cultural Identity". Downloaded on 3/2/2005 From

Family Liaison Office. "The History of FLO". Downloaded from  on 2/20/2003