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Gefilte bubbles

6 min read

My nuclear family - the one I grew up with - has four different accents. My mother's is somewhere between New England and California; my dad's is Dutch with some Swiss German and English inflections; my sister has traveled further down the road towards a Bay Area accent; and mine is just softened enough that most people think I'm from New Zealand. Thanksgiving, like Christmas, is for us a wholly appropriated holiday: not about genocide or holiness, respectively, but simply about being together as a family. Like magpies, we've taken the pieces that resonate with us, and left the rest.

Technically, I'm a Third Culture Kid: "persons raised in a culture other than their parents' or the culture of the country named on their passport (where they are legally considered native) for a significant part of their early development years". I'm not British, but grew up the place; I love it there, but I also did not assimilate.

I've never felt any particular belonging to the countries on my passports, either, which turns out to be a common characteristic among TCKs. Instead, our nationality and religion is found among shared values and the relationships we build. I've written about this before, although back then I didn't fully understand the meta-tribe to which I belonged. It's also part of the Jewish experience, and the experience of any group of people who has been forcibly moved throughout history. Yes, I'm a product of globalization, but that doesn't mean I'm also a product of privilege; migration for many, including my ancestors, has not been optional.

I was well into my thirties before I understood that my experience of culture was radically different to many other peoples'. It hadn't occurred to me that some people simply inherit norms: the practices of their communities become their practices, too; the way things were done become the way things are and will be done. If you live in this sort of cultural filter bubble, challenges to those well-established norms are threatening. We know that people prefer to consume news and information that confirms their existing beliefs; that's why misinformation can be so effective. The same confirmation bias also applies to how people choose to build relationships of all kinds with one another. It's at the heart of xenophobia and racism, at its most overt, but it also manifests in subtler ways.

I lost count of the number of people who told me I should give up my nationalities and become British, or who made fun of my name, or took issue with my lack of understanding of shared cultural norms. Food is just one example of something mundane that can be incredibly contentious: the dishes from your community carry the weight of love and history. When someone presents as being from your community - no visible differences; more or less the same accent, even if they mispronounce a word here and there - but doesn't have any of that shared understanding, it simply doesn't compute.

I'm fascinated by this survey of Third Culture Kid marriages. The TCK blogger Third Culture Mama received 130 responses from TCKs and their spouses, in an effort to discover how cross-cultural relationships can thrive. It's the first time I've seen anything like this, and I found some of the qualitative responses to be unexpectedly comforting. For example:

When multiple cultures are involved it’s easy to idealize your own culture and how you were brought up. But if you can set it aside to listen to another point of view and another way of doing things, you realize there isn’t only one right way. As a couple you need to decide to say “this is how WE do things. This is what WE believe.” Not “this is what she did. Or this is how my family did it growing up.” There is great validity in understanding both of your pasts and how you were raised. But you need to move on from there and choose a path that you go down together. Doing this takes humility, love, and a desire to do right more than to be right. Listen to one another.

Particularly in startup-land, but in the media in general, there is a glut of how-to articles that assume what worked for the author will work for you. It's a great idea to read other peoples' experiences and learn from them, but you can't apply them directly: you have to forge your own path. Rather than take someone else's pattern verbatim and throw yourself into it, you need to build something that is nurturing and right for you. That's true in relationships, and it's true in business. Over half of all billion dollar startups were founded by immigrants, and I think this mindset is one of the reasons why. As an immigrant, you don't have the luxury of following patterns; you have to weave your own from first principles. You can't make assumptions about how people will behave; you have to study them. Taking this outside perspective is a path to success for everyone.

Another response:

Ask questions, let them cook food from their childhood, look at pictures, learn key phrases in their language. Understand that we’re constantly fighting against this dichotomy of wanting to venture off, but also wanting a place to belong. Realize that we approach emotional intimacy and relationships very differently.

For me, the relationships that have worked are the ones where we've made the space to create our own culture together. I'm drawn to outsiders and people who are willing to question established norms, and over time, through trial and error, bad interactions and good, I've found that I find slavish adherence to cultural norms in a person as threatening as some people find the opposite in me. I've decided that the edge of established culture is where the interesting work happens, and where some of the most interesting people can be found.

In other words, my filter bubble is my psychological safety zone. It's an emotional force field, just as it is for everyone. We all choose who we interact with, who we listen to, and the spaces that we inhabit. The important thing is not that we blow those bubbles to smithereens, but that we see them for what we are, and - just as those happily married TCKs have - let people in to help us grow and change them.

This weekend, children were shot with rubber bullets and tear gas at the US border with Mexico. The root of America's refusal to let them in is a fear of a disruption to those norms. It's in vain. Populations have been ebbing and flowing for as long as there have been people. America is changing, just as all countries are changing, how they always have been, and how they always will. And people like me - those of us with no nationality and no religion, but an allegiance to relationships and the cultures we create together - are growing in number. Selfishly, but also truthfully, I believe it's all for the better.


Photo by Elias Castillo on Unsplash