I first heard the term “earned fact” from Katherine Boo, author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers. As an immersive journalist, she talks about being able to write, not because she saw something, or read something, but because she lived something. In order to write the book, Boo immersed herself in the lives of people in a slum in Mumbai. Daily, she went to the slum, sat with people, recorded stories, observed, and asked questions. She did this for three years. When she wrote about the slum, she described the people, the smells, the garbage and even the air as one who had experienced this world.
But the book itself is not the focus of this blog post. Instead, I am interested in this idea of “earned fact” and how it relates to the third culture kid conversation. I’m interested because many of the third culture kids I know, myself included, become weary of feeling like we have to somehow justify our experience through education or research. The reality is that we have something that education and research can never give anyone – we have earned fact. We have lived something extraordinary and our words and stories come from that place.
Our earned fact often begins at birth, where the first words we hear are not from our mother tongue. Instead, they are words said over us by a midwife, nurse, or doctor who speak Urdu, Tagalog, or any other of a number of languages. We don’t come into our lives as third culture kids with already formed world views. Instead, our world views are formed by living between. Our identity is shaped through interacting with our parents and their dominant culture and the dominant culture surrounding us. Research on identity formation does not apply in the same way. Instead, we move back and forth as little people whose identity is being forged and shaped between two, often conflicting, cultures. “A British child taking toddling steps on foreign soil or speaking his or her first words in Chinese with an amah (nanny) has no idea of what it means to be human yet, let alone “British.” He or she simply responds to what is happening in the moment” (Pollock and Van Reken, 2001).
The earned fact continues through childhoods lived on the edge and in between, picnicking in places that are far from our passport countries and participating in events that don’t make sense to peers in our passport countries. What is normal to us is considered ‘exotic’ by some, ‘extraordinary’ by others; ‘reckless’ by more than a handful. In the words of Liz Rice, in her memoir Rituals of Separation, one thousand things begin to separate us from the people we are related to by blood or by legal definition.
From the moment my life in Korea started, one thousand things began to separate me from the people of my bloodline and the country of my passport. My umbilical cord of identity stretched out to the city and the people in front of me.
“Closing one life door had opened up another. I was becoming part of a new family, not bound by blood or nationality, but created out of calling and circumstance, and the simple fact of what happens when a little girl’s parents decide to make a home in a new land.
Nothing about that life or my identity felt particularly remarkable until I came to the U.S. Nothing about my place in-between cultures and communities, between fundamentally different ways of understanding the world, seemed like something I needed to reconcile until the day we left Korea behind. I only look back now and try to analyze this time, to pick it apart, to understand the people and places that were forming me, to remember the ways of those who were teaching me how to greet and grieve.”Liz Rice in Rituals of Separation
This earned fact is not easily described. When I talk about negotiating across cultural differences, I don’t just have a theoretical understanding. I have experiences that began when I was very young. When I speak on culturally responsive care, and understanding the impact of culture on all aspects of life, it is part of my bones. I have sat on the sidelines of many conversations or discussions on culture. Because I have fair skin, and my features resemble many in the area where I live, it’s assumed that I have only lived here, that my experience does not include anything beyond the borders of Massachusetts. It’s a hard and discouraging assumption to fight. I have a notebook of things that have been said to me that dismiss my invisible experience – invisible until I tell stories that go beyond my skin color and show a life lived in places and cultures far different than the one where I now reside.
There is a skepticism of the term “Third Culture Kid.” Third culture adults don’t necessarily like it, and third culture kids don’t buy into it. It separates them. It is irritating and divisive. I hear that and I respect the sentiment behind it. We have enough in the world to divide us into the next millenium and beyond. But for some of us, this term has encouraged us to connect. It has given us a foundation from which to engage. It has given us hope that we are not alone.
Because here’s the thing – There was a time when we didn’t have a name. When we were forever told to pull up our boot straps and get on with life.
There was a time when we thought we were the only ones, traveling solo in our passport countries, not knowing how to put words to our longings, how to verbalize our pain.
There was a time when reentry seminars were non-existent and it was assumed that we would arrive in our passport countries without incident, when folks said to us “Aren’t you glad to be back home” and we nodded assent, but a part of us shriveled inside. We would assimilate and no one would ever know that part of us that shaped and molded us from birth.
There was a time when we over spiritualized and downplayed ‘place’ and ‘home’, convincing ourselves that since our real home was in Heaven, earth really didn’t matter too much. But ah….when we got to Heaven, that would all change. Except that we were young and Heaven seemed oh so far away.
There was a time when we failed to understand that throughout history, God has used place.
There was a time when we laughed at the thought that we had losses, we brushed away any grief. “That’s ridiculous” we sniffed! Other’s have far more losses. Others are far worse off. But then we faced one too many moves and in the back of our minds the whisper of losses began to shout.*
So, to those that don’t need the term “Third Culture Kid” – I hear you and I honor and respect that. But to those of us who do feel like the term has helped? Make no mistake that we, that you, have an earned fact and some of that earned fact can be represented in the phrase “Third Culture Kid” or “Third Culture Adult.”
As my friend Robynn so beautifully states, we are from this third culture, this nebulous nomadic space. Whether we are 13 or 50, we have these common traits and can proudly own our earned fact. And we can, if we choose, use the term Third Culture Kid or Adult Third Culture Kid. It’s our choice.
*Excerpt from Between Worlds: Essays on Culture & Belonging