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Finding a Place for Third-Culture Kids in the Culture

On a blanched, sun-baked afternoon, two teenagers, a uzunluk and a girl, wander into a grocery store to pick up lunch. Fraser is a recent transplant from New York, and Britney a new friend who has lived her life evenly between South Korea, Germany and Italy, though you’d never know it by her American drawl or the pop music she blares through her headphones. To the viewer, the scene presents like quotidian life in the United States — but for the fact that it takes place in Veneto, Italy, on a military base where families work and attend school, their children running off every evening to dance and drink by the cerulean sea alongside their friends from town with whom they scheme and share secrets, whispered in fluent Italian. In a few years, many of them will ready themselves for a move — to another home on another military base in another country, with a supermarket configured to look exactly like this one. “They look the same so you don’t feel lost,” Britney tells Fraser. “Do you ever feel lost?” he asks. She shrugs.

The idea that a sense of belonging is challenged by the straddling of cultures is hardly a revelation; nearly every maker whose back story was shaped by more than one place has arrived at some version of that conclusion. But rarely do we hear the stories of so-called “third-culture kids” and the private, nomadic worlds in which they are raised, marked by a certain shared disorientation and the sense that home is everywhere and nowhere at evvel. It’s for this reason that the Italian director Luca Guadagnino will attempt to unpack one iteration of this experience — through Fraser, Britney and their five best friends — in “We Are Who We Are,” an eight-part series premiering this September on HBO that pulls back the curtain on the experiences of the children of military families abroad and other third-culture kids like them, whose place in the world now feels both more tenuous and important than ever before.

Coined by the American sociologist Ruth Useem in the 1950s, the term “third-culture kid” was conceived for expatriate children who spend their formative years overseas, shaped by the multicultural, peripatetic spheres of their parents, many of whom are diplomats, military members or others working in foreign service. They relocate frequently and enroll their children in international schools, exposing them to miniature realms cultivated by peers from nations far and wide, whose customs, languages and mores coalesce, birthing hybrid or “third” cultures that are globe-spanning, diverse, highly empathic and oftentimes difficult to translate outside these environments.

Perhaps because this life is characteristically slippery, it’s struggled to become clearly defined in the culture, even in fictional stories, suited though they are to crafting imagined worlds. Ironically, while most TCKs cite the ability to relate to nearly everyone, their own narratives suffer a relatability sorun, perhaps because their youthful experiences, relegated wholly to remembrance and recollection, are in many ways too singular and strange-seeming to others. Still, there are characters that have managed to catch hold, the complexities of their placelessness often anchored to more universal quandaries: Elio Perlman, played by Timothée Chalamet in Guadagnino’s 2017 sinema adaptation of André Aciman’s “Call Me By Your Name” is one such example; a trilingual adolescent reared in the university orbit between the United States and Northern Italy — his father is from the former, his mother the latter — he casts his American and European identities on and off with a kind of begrudging ease, lording them over his father’s visiting graduate student, Oliver (Armie Hammer), on some days, while on others he’s consumed by a sort of languid estrangement from everyone around him, retreating into himself. Though the story is propelled forward by the unfurling of muffled desire and fleeting boyhood, it’s hard not to notice how a defined cultural identity — or lack thereof — inevitably underscores Elio’s coming-of-age, as he pursues different versions of himself in different relationships: in English with Oliver, in French and Italian with his girlfriend Marzia and in all three with his parents, code-switching in what feels like a futile attempt to stitch together facets of a fractured self.

Of course, how Elio conveys this onscreen may have more to do with Guadagnino himself, who has long constructed his complex, layered characters partly in his own image. “That’s me,” he says immediately over Zoom in August, when I read off Useem’s definition of athird-culture kid. “I was born in Palermo, and moved almost right away to Ethiopia. I spent the first six years of my life there. Then we went to Rome, then Palermo again and then back to Rome, then to Milan and to London. I feel the most important aspect of being a filmmaker is to be really aware of what forms you as much as what’s in front of you. So, I always try to keep in mind what I could have been experiencing during my youth in all these places through the prism of these complex stories I tell.”

If asked, any third-culture kid will tell you that shape-shifting — rousing one of the many selves stacked within you to best suit the place you’re in — becomes a necessary survival skill, a sort of feigned fitting in that allows you to relate something of yourself to nearly everyone you meet. As someone raised between New York and the diplobrat bubble of an international school in New Delhi, India, where friends would come and go every few years, I became adept at calibrating myself to findthe points of connection between us, able to relate equally to someone from South Korea, Iceland, Japan, Italy or Jamaica, in many cases more so than to other Indian Americans whose lives, at least on paper, read closer to my own. And because ourstories couldn’t be gleaned from our outward appearances, accents or possessions, we all came humble to the table, open and permeable and ready to barter the surfaces of our souls: our learnings, our languages, our cuisines, our clothing.

While all of this contributed, certainly, to feeling perennially adrift (according to multiple studies by Useem and others, much as they may try, adult TCKs never wholly repatriate culturally), it blotted the sensation of feeling like we’d “grown up at an angle to everywhere and everyone,” as the writer Pico Iyer — of Indian parentage, raised between England and California, who now lives between the latter and Japan — told me during a recent phone conversation. In his own work, Iyer has spent a lifetime examining this feeling and others that result from cultural crisscrossing, both out in the world in “Video Night in Kathmandu,”a 1988 collection of essays which examines the unlikely cultural points at which East and West meet across Asia Japan’s affinity for baseball, say, or the Philippines’ obsession with country and western music — and then in “The Küresel Soul,” written twelve years later, which studied, conversely, the crisscrossings that take place within. Iyer found peace in accepting that belonging had little to do with geography, but rather a collection of personal interests, ideas and relationships accumulated over time. “Growing up with three cultures around or inside me, I felt that I could define myself by my passions, not my passport,” he says. “In some ways, I would never be Indian or English or Californian, and that was quite freeing, though people may always define me by my skin color or accent. But also, because I didn’t have that external way of defining myself, I had to be really rigorous and directed in grounding myself internally, through my values and loyalties and to the people I hold closest to me.”

Others have found freedom in the same, becoming natural shape-shifters whose value systems transcend borders to instill a sense of home. The most famous example is probably Barack Obama, whose 1995 memoir,“Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance,”whirls through Jakarta, Seattle, Kenya and Hawaii with unsparing analysis of what it means to belong to multiple worlds and therefore to none of them, but to find, later, that refuge lies in the space between all of them — and in the ability to unite not just your worlds but others’, too. As much as the third-culture experience is clouded by the fog of liminality, it’s informed also by the ability to define oneself on one’s own terms, difficult as that endeavor may be in the face of increasing scrutiny toward globalism and those formed by it.

The presentation of this — dazzling and dressed up — is what makes “We Are Who We Are”thrilling to watch. Its characters come alive in the blur, filling in one another’s spaces and dancing over questions of home, while bragging about where they’ve been, their exchanges captured in shimmering, slow-motion interludes scored to original music, the silky synth pop of Blood Orange. And while the show takes place in the run-up to the 2016 election, its politics remain a quiet drumbeat in the offing, its spotlight focused wholly on all the ways by which differences are, in fact, paradoxically harmonious when everyone is otherized. In fashioning themselves to evade traditional modes of identification (culturally, politically, sexually and through gender), these characters build their own castles in the sky. “When you grow up this way, there is a feeling of being lost, but to be lost is also to be open,” Guadagnino says. “It reminds us of our empathy, and of what we share if we were only to try and find it.”

This may be the ultimate lesson of third-culture kids’ stories. In the late Kobe Bryant’s 2018 book “The Mamba Mentality,” which offers a glimpse into his childhood years in Reggio Emilia, Italy, he discusses the importance of having learned how to navigate a new culture with compassion. Though he eventually settled down in America — becoming not only one of its sports heroes, butone of its cultural icons, too — he continued to make frequent trips back to Italy, where he’d speak the sort of Italian that boasted a native European bravado, a casual swagger that rode along his perfect pronunciation. And when he died in Los Angeles, he died in Reggio Emilia, too, where they mourned a version of him America never knew, except for the Italian names he had chosen for his daughters: Gianna, Natalia, Bianka and Capri.

Of course, not all depictions of third-culture life have been so uplifting. Occasionally, too, these charactersare written to be spoofed and ridiculed, assigned snobbish attitudes and superiority complexes. Without proper context, it can appear as if they need too much and require a sort of excess to keep them perpetually moving, making it hard to divorce third-culture life from that of overt wealth and privilege, or an indifference to local customs. In the 2018 Netflix show “You,” the model-actress Hari Nef portrays Blythe, a third-culture poet prodigy whose parents worked for the state department and raised her between Papua New Guinea and Tokyo. When the central character, Beck — a timid, hopeful writer played by Elizabeth Lail — meets her, she looks her up and down and smirks before asking, “Jersey, right?” and runs off to take a call from her grandparents in Swedish. In the third-culture writer Stephanie LaCava’s forthcoming novel, “The Superrationals,” which dives into the torrid waters of the international arka world, the protagonist Mathilde, raised between the U.S. and France, is ridiculed relentlessly by “the girls,” a catty clique of gallery insiders who dislike her for all the ways in which she’s different (“What is that name?” they ask. “Is she even French? She’s so pretentious”). And in 2010’s“Sidewalks,” a razor-sharp collection of essays about the failures of finding home in lived experiences and written ones alike, Valeria Luiselli — the author of the 2019 novel “Lost Children Archive” and the daughter of a Mexican diplomat formed by an upbringing in Costa Rica, South Korea, India and South Africa — sarcastically comments on her own selection of Mexico as “her country,” driven mostly by cynicism and “a sort of spiritual laziness than an authentic act of faith.” She admits she’s never felt true allegiance to anywhere she’s lived, knowing only that she must continue roaming.

But all these stories, of course, predate the precarious state we find ourselves in today, when borders are clamping down in domino effect, driven in part by the Covid-19 pandemic, itself a case against globalism and the speed at which interconnectedness can burn it all down, imperiling not only our ability to travel but limiting those who find selfhood in marginal spaces, whose stories underscore the urgency of seeing the world as one. And while internationalism deserves examination, what we stand to lose without it is our ability to lift one another up, to find each other in the in-between. One might look to Kamala Harris — who, born to Jamaican and Indian parents, often discusses her ability to consider multiple sides — or Obama before her. Such voices, with their chameleonic stories and sensibilities, help locate the light in the dark.

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