My name is Benjamin Self. I’m 28 years old, and I’d like
to talk to you today about something I call the weak ‘connectivity’
of my third-culture upbringing. First, let me give you some background. I was born in Florida,
lived there for a year, then we moved to Georgia,
lived there for 5 years, then my family moved overseas, we lived in Cyprus for 2 years, Denmark for 3 years, Germany for 3 years,
and then Saudi Arabia for 3 years, and that was where
I graduated from high school. And then I came back to the US,
I went to college in Indiana for 4 years, then I moved to DC,
lived in DC for 2 years, then I moved to Ottawa, Canada;
lived there for one year, then I moved to Toronto, Canada;
lived there for one year, then I moved back to Ottawa,
lived there for one more year, finished my graduate program, then I finally came back
to my home state of Kentucky, lived and worked a year in Lexington before making it back to
Louisville last year which is the closest thing
I’ve got to home base. So I’ve done a fair bit of moving, and, in case you’re wondering,
both of my parents are teachers, they teach in international schools. So all of this makes me
pretty much a classic case of what’s known as
a third-culture kid, or a TCK, sometimes referred to as a global nomad. So what is a TCK? “A TCK is a person
who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years
outside the parents’ culture.” So TCKs are distinct from immigrants in the usually temporary nature
of their lives overseas, and the term originally applied
primarily to the children of expatriate US military
and foreign service personnel, scattered missionaries,
aid workers, that sort of thing. But because of how the world
has changed over the past half-century, it now applies to a much broader
swath of people. So TCKs are a vast, highly diverse
and still ever-expanding group who have essentially been born out of the interconnectedness
of modern life. Now, as you can imagine, there are many, many benefits
to this sort of an upbringing, and I don’t, in any way,
want to discount those. But at the same time, it does present
a lot of challenges for a kid. Social scientists talk about
2 different types of social capital or 2 different processes
for building social capital: bonding and bridging. So, in the image above me, bonding is on the x-axis,
and bridging is on the y-axis. Bonding is what happens between
similar people who are in close contact, and it helps to build a strong sense
of community, shared identity, shared values, social trust,
social support networks, a culture of civic engagement,
that sort of thing. Bridging, on the other hand, is something that happens
between more dissimilar people, and it helps those bonded communities
to engage fruitfully and productively with people who are external to them
or different from them. Ideally, we’d all be good at both,
we’d all be in that top-right quadrant. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. TCKs tend to be really good,
as you can imagine, at bridging, and that’s a major asset
in the world we live in today. But because of the way they grow up,
they tend to struggle more with bonding, they tend to be
in that top-left quadrant. And it’s the struggle with bonding,
with this weak connectivity that I really want to get at. As wonderful as my childhood was, it has left me feeling,
well into adulthood, a nagging sense of what might best be
summed up as rootlessness, and it’s this rootlessness
that I think is at the root of this problem with bonding
or this weak connectivity. There are 3 aspects of this rootlessness
that I want to touch on: social instability, cultural instability,
and an enduring restlessness. First, the social instability. This one’s pretty obvious: TCKs move a lot when they’re growing up,
and I certainly did. And, every time you move,
you go through this painful, stressful, and, for a kid,
ever-so-slightly traumatic cycle of first saying a whole lot
of usually pretty permanent goodbyes, and then turning around and saying
a lot of usually pretty anxious hellos, and trying to muster the courage both to not feel too sad
about losing all of your friends, and then put yourself out there
and try to make all-new friends. As you can imagine, the more times you go through
this process, this cycle, the harder it is to maintain
a healthy, nurturing social life. And, at the same time, if you keep moving, you don’t get the benefits
that can come with long-term friendships, and long-term membership
in a close community, what I like to call a network
of caring and sharing. Second, the cultural instability. On the one hand, if you move a lot from country
to country when you’re growing up, you always have the obvious issue
of having to play catch-up culturally, being ignorant wherever you go
of local customs, local trends, local knowledge,
the local language, local norms, like what’s appropriate behavior,
or what’s funny, what’s not funny, and for a kid, this can be
a significant social handicap. At the same time, this cultural instability
can be a big problem in the process of forming an identity. Because we have a reductionist,
mechanistic concept of human nature, we often tend to talk
about culture, primarily, in terms of the surface-level stuff
that you might see on the Travel Channel. The reality is, to use Gary Weaver’s famous metaphor, culture is more like an iceberg. So, most of a culture, and what constitutes
an individual’s identity, is below the water surface. It’s invisible to outsiders, and it’s learned implicitly
and largely taken for granted by insiders. So the problem for TCKs
and cross-cultured people of all kinds is that, because of their confusing, contradictory,
diffuse experience of culture, there are these massive cracks
all through their iceberg so that their whole identity, and by extension their sense
of belonging, of purpose, their sense of meaning for life,
all of which comes from culture, is highly tenuous and unstable, at least until the cracks are sealed. And so this can be the cause
of a lot internal struggle growing up and on into adulthood, and combined with the other things
that I’ve already mentioned, it can be the cause
of a lot of insecurity. And for me, this insecurity manifested
in three different sorts of behaviors. ‘Performancism’: obsessive attempts to prove your self-worth
through all manner of performance; attention-seeking, acting out,
over-sharing, that sort of thing; and, of course, self-medication: unhealthy coping mechanisms
and/or withdrawal. The saddest thing
about these sorts of behaviors is that they all tend to make us
feel more isolated rather than less. And yet they pretty much reflect just a massive, frustrated desire
to connect deeply with others, to be known, and accepted,
and loved for who you are. The third issue:
an enduring restlessness. A lot of TCKs – certainly
this was the case for me – move a lot when they’re growing up
and so, when they become an adult, this habit of moving tends to stick,
they tend to continue to follow it, moving every few years,
not out of necessity, but out of habit. At the same time,
I think this restlessness, this urge to keep moving
or to make a change, is also grounded in a kind of
an addiction to novelty that you develop; an addiction to the thrills
and constant stimulation of new people and new places, so that anything less than what’s novel quickly starts to feel
difficult and boring. So, moving becomes
just another coping mechanism. And so when you take these 3 together, on the one hand, because of all
the cultural and social instability, it makes it difficult to form and maintain
deep, long-lasting connections. But then, because of this
enduring restlessness, the problems with instability
extend well into adulthood. In fact, for me, since I graduated from college in 2008,
I’ve now moved cities 6 times in 8 years. But finally, within the last few years, I’ve started to realize
some of the problems with this, I’ve started to realize
what I’ve been missing in life because of the rootlessness
that I’ve been experiencing, and in fact how sick it’s been making me. And, as this woman puts it,
I’ve started to realize that all this moving and traveling
is like flirting with real life. It’s like saying: “I would stay and love you,
but I have to go; this is my station.” I’ve realized that, in part
because of my wonderful childhood, I’ve nevertheless been suffering
from a kind of debilitating condition, which is what I call a weak local connectivity
or network connectivity. And that is both a limited capacity
and a limited inclination to fully connect, participate, and invest
in local networks of caring and sharing, which, it turns out,
are exactly what we all need for our own long-term health
and happiness. So what I realized is that what I need
is not ever-more-fleeting stimulations and weak, short-lived connections, but relational and spiritual depth, a stronger connectivity which can only come through
a sustained commitment and experience of both culture and community. And yet, I wonder… I wonder if my experience
of weak connectivity is not just kind of an amplified version
of what most people experience nowadays. I wonder how different
growing up amid the social anonymity and extreme cultural diversity
of major modern cities actually is from
a third-culture upbringing. A couple of years ago, this guy named Stephen Marche wrote
an excellent article in The Atlantic about our epidemic of loneliness: “For many of us, our web of connections
has grown broader but shallower. We’re living in an isolation that would
have been unimaginable to our ancestors. We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected, or interconnected
we become, the lonelier we are.” Well, that contradiction is one of
the defining contradictions of my life, and I think, for a whole host of reasons,
it’s increasingly becoming one of the defining
contradictions of our time. I think clearly what we all need
are better communities, cosmopolitan villages, you might say, a stronger connectivity. And my hope for TCKs
and for cross-cultured people of all kinds is that we will increasingly learn to bring the many benefits
of a multicultural upbringing to bear in sustained ways in our communities, wherever we ultimately
decide to take root. Thank you. (Applause)

Author Since: Mar 11, 2019

  1. Something thing I have noticed about TCK presenters is their restless, pacing body movements as though they are in an overseas airport lounge waiting for their final boarding call to be announced in a foreign language. Once they are on board and seated with a copy of The Times or the New York Times they generally settle down. They feel most at home when they are on their way to somewhere else.

  2. The Chinese have a saying:

    "moving house three times equals one fire".

    Actually, this is a really, really insightful presentation. Thank you!

  3. Thank you for this. The amount of clarity I received from this allows me to understand myself a lot better now.

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