This video was made by myself and David Mckenzie as part of a film festival at the University of St Andrews. The topic was culture and identity. The film finished 2nd place, mainly thanks to David’s efforts. Second place is still an award.
People often view culture as the clothes set upon a mannequin. All mannequins are roughly the same. If you have seen any that are radically different please pretend you haven’t as part of this thought experiment. The culture is simply what makes the mannequins obviously different. For the most part everyone is the same with some surface differences. These are things such as language, clothes, and social taboos.
Culture plays a relatively insignificant role on this understanding. The surface level from person to person is very different. It is clear that someone from Kenya and someone from Scotland often dress differently (and not just because it seems to be permanently cold in Scotland!). However, the cultural differences do not accrue to a radical difference in the people. They are seem as mostly the same with minor changes.
However, to put it in terms too direct for a real British person, this view is irreconcilably wrong. Culture is far more than simply the surface level. Although the similarity of all the mannequins does capture the shared nature of all humans, it fails to account for the role that culture plays in shaping each human. It is not what happens to top off a person, but rather plays a critical role in their development. Culture is the way in which we perceive and experience reality.
In the Potter’s Hands
A much more accurate portrayal of this situation is to see all humans as clay. Importantly we all share the same essence and nature. There are things which we all have in common because of what it means to be human. However, unlike the mannequins, we are much more diverse.
Clay can be used to form many different things. When in the hands of an expert potter its shapes bends to the will of the hands. I have seen many beautiful pieces which all started as dreary slabs of clay. The proper influences shaped them into beautiful mugs, plates, bowls, statues, or vases. Each one has started with the same nature, but is transformed and often finished off with a beautiful glaze.
Just as the clay is shaped by the potter’s hands, humans are shaped by the hands of culture. We all share a nature. We have glory shining through our cracked and decrepit nature. This nature does not translate directly into unique, individual people, but rather is a template from which our lives begin.
Culture is the primary player in determining the way that our lives are shaped. Just as the potter’s hands determine what the clay looks like, so the culture determines the way in which our lives are shaped. It is true that culture determines the way we dress, but its totality is far more exciting. It is the way you speak language, which also determines the way in which your brain develops. This also shapes the way one does mathematics. I do maths in Base-10, yet other languages have different mathematical approaches. Some cultures do not have languages that have words for 10, which shapes the way in which they perceive numbers.
Some people have vastly different metaphysical commitments because of the culture that they were brought up in. People who have been raised in western settings are less likely to have a belief in the spiritual world than their counterparts from across the world. Even if you are brought up in the west and believe in the spiritual world, your conception and realizations of it will be radically different, because of the place where you grew up.
In no way am I trying to rob the individual of the responsibility, or culpability, of their actions. As volitional beings we do have a necessary contribution to the way in which we are shaped. The way in which we react to situations, learn from tough times, or be a blessing to others is largely down to us. Even two clay mugs may look radically different. Although we have no say whether we are shaped as a mug or not, we can determine the shape of the mug through our actions. A lot about how we are shaped is due to the unavoidable connections we have to our community and others. Yet, this does not excuse our own responsibility.
One of the primary ways in which I feel this personally is the way in which people prioritise certain parts of their life. Different elements are prized in different cultures, here in the UK there seems to be a big emphasis on working hard, getting a successful job, and making money. Whilst these things are not ignored or derided in Kenya, they tend to fall short of relationships. In Kenya people are taught to value relationships as having a much more critical importance.
The way in which this manifests itself is very different from person to person. It does not mean that people do not get jobs and just sit around all day hanging out with friends. It does not mean that people are unwilling to work hard either. Work can be carried out in a relationship centric way.
When a British person wakes up and thinks through their day, which involves going to a full day of work and then spending time with friends, their first thought is how to engage with work, and then how to engage with friends. A person who prioritises relationships primary thought will be how to engage with the relationships of the day, and then how to engage with the work of the day.
This difference may seem inconsequential when put like that, however it does seriously affect the quality of relationships. What does it say about the relationship if you think work is more important than it? For one person who prioritises work, when planning their week they try to design their plans around their work timetable. The person who prioritises relationships tries to design their plans around building relationships.
A Mug or a Statue?
In the example above British culture can be thought of as a mug and Kenyan culture as a statue (or vice versa). Although bother are using clay to create, they result in two vastly different pieces of pottery. The mug has many advantages over the statue, it can be used to drink. The statue cannot be used to drink. However, the statue can be put on display as a treasure, something the mug does not excel at.
All cultures have parts of them which are brilliant and priceless. However, all cultures also have darker elements which arise in various situations because of the defect of the clay. This diversity is a very good thing. It is a beautiful display of glory and creativity. Although all cultures have cracks in their design, they all have a lot of beauty.
This understanding of culture raises difficult questions for people who don’t belong to any of the particular cultures, or are multicultural. Being formed by one pair of hands is fairly straightforward. Yet, if there are two potters working on the same piece, both trying to form a separate piece, the result can get very messy. Often times for people one culture or another will win with elements of the other breaking through occasionally. This could look like a mug which has the arm from a statue instead of a handle. Although the mug culture is dominant, the statue culture cannot be fully suppressed.
Part of the challenge of understanding this dynamic is the surreptitious nature of culture. It is not consciously knocking at your door, but rather constantly shaping you from the shadows. It is remarkably difficult, and sometimes impossible, to understand how culture has shaped you. There is no way to form an objective view of yourself.
This is part of the reason why being a Third Culture Kid (hereafter TCK’s) is so difficult. TCK’s are people who have spent a significant portion of their formative years in a culture other than their parent’s culture (Polluck). The reason we are called Third Culture is because of our legal culture, our geographic culture, and our culture. The legal culture is where our passport (or passports as is often the case) is from. The geographic culture is the places (or usually places) where we have been brought up. Our culture is the third culture. It is what binds us together as a cultural group.
Unlike other cultures we are not influenced by race, religion, creed, or even a shared history. We are united culturally by shared experiences. In a bizarre twist, people are often part of this culture without even knowing it exists. You don’t even have to have met another TCK to be a TCK. We are shaped by a culture, sometimes with minimal influence from others in a very unique way. In this sense we are the most bizarre and special cultural group. We are not tied to down to a location or a language, yet are shaped in a similar fashion.
Given that we are a one of a kind group, it should come as no surprise that we have challenges and benefits that other pieces of clay don’t have. The way we are shaped has ramifications, both good and bad. One good example of this is identity. Trying to discern the identity of a mug can be done in many ways. Perhaps listing the characteristics of it, such as having a handle. It could be done by listing its relationships to other things, such as its ability to carry water. Or it could be done by discerning its purposes as a mug.
However, these approaches yield no results for TCK’s. The cultural identity of a TCK isn’t a mug. It isn’t a statue either. It is a beautiful and messy conglomeration of multiple potters with different goals molding a single piece. One difficulty TCK’s face is not knowing which of the many cultures influences them in which areas. Some parts are easy, such as how one dresses. However, how one prioritises relationships, or does maths, or relates to members of the opposite sex are much more difficult to pinpoint. Even if it were possible to determine which cultures had shaped us, it still wouldn’t reveal which parts of us were shaped by which culture.
Without having a good understanding of our identity relating to other people becomes vastly more challenging. Thus, for the TCK, building relationships with people is really tough. Because friendship looks different from one culture to the next, not knowing which culture has shaped how you perceive relationships makes building relationships very tough. Ironically we are often adept at understanding each of the cultures’ ways to build these relationships, but not knowing which one has shaped us is confusing. We often have a plethora of social skills, even across cultures, but these do not always make up for the uncertainty which our lack of clear identity can cause when building friendships.
We are like a piece of pottery that is composed of many different elements. We are part mug, part statue, and usually many other additions. We will never be able to be a proper mug. We will only ever be able to carry a small amount of water and we might not even have a proper handle. We will never have the same purpose of a statue. Part of us has its same grandeur, but the rest of us doesn’t. We will never fully fit in in any culture. This is disconcerting and challenging.
The Chameleons Blessing
However, I am very grateful that I am a Third Culture Kid. I will never be a proper mug, but I can understand some of what it means to be a mug. I can relate to mug people much better than any other non-mug people. Then when I spend time with statue people I can fit much better than a mug person can. In many ways we a pottery chameleon. We understand and see the work of a wide variety of potter’s hands. Even if we encounter a new culture which we have never seen before we have a great advantage over monoculture pieces of pottery.
Also the constant shaping of clay, although sometimes very painful, is also very exciting. Our lives are much more up and down than other peoples, but we are saved from monotony. I have had many exciting experiences because I am a TCK which are unique to people like me. I am happy to take the lows in exchange for the blessings that the highs have given me.
I have eaten a wider variety of food in my life than most people would in ten life times. I have heard languages which most people don’t know exist. I have seen and been immersed in ecosystems which people only know from TV. I have seen some of the beauty and diversity that this world has to offer, and realise that it is only the slightest part of how brilliant creation is. TCK’s are blessed with these, and we will carry these experiences our whole lives.