Thursday, April 19, 2012

A third culture princess

It was a rainy night in London when I turned on the television set and was swiftly transported, as if by magic, to a “mystical land known as India.”

By the end of the movie – A Little Princess, the 1995 film based on the 1905 children’s book by Frances Hodgson Burnett – I had cried my way through a box of tissues and couldn’t stop. So I phoned a South African friend who I knew had also experienced the pain of homesickness, of longing for a faraway place where “the sky is all different colors, like a peacock’s tail.”

The story of Sara Crewe, a girl born in India who moves to New York at the start of World War I, is the classic third culture kid narrative. (*) Sara, whose parents are English and American (like mine, it so happens) has spent her childhood in India (mine was spent in the Middle East). It is the place she calls home; but at the same time it is not her home. So when her father goes off to serve in the war, she is brought “home” to New York, and enters Miss Minchin’s Boarding School.

Here she is noticeably “different,” attracting both the distain and the delight of the other girls for, among other things, her attitude toward race and the exotic stories she tells from the Ramayana.

She introduces her classmates to a new way of thinking, a new way of living: a global perspective.

But following an unfortunate reversal of fortune, she finds herself both fatherless and penniless. For a time she loses the belief in magic that has sustained her, her desire to tell stories and her sense of self.

Much of the beauty of this story lies in its message that kindness begets kindness, and in the way the other girls help Sara regain her identity, holding out to her shining fragments of the stories she has shared. But for me, the most powerful moments are those in which Sara encounters Ram Dass, an Indian immigrant who is caring for the rich old man next door.

That visceral recognition of someone from home, a kindred spirit who understands on a deep level who you are and where you come from, is at the heart of the immigrant experience. It’s the reason immigrants band together, seek each other out, find comfort in their tribe.

But it’s also the very essence of the third culture experience. The mutual recognition in these cases is less obvious to the casual observer – in this case a little white girl and an Indian man – but no less authentic: It is, in the words of the film, a heart kindling a heart.

Cue the swirling snowflakes and the sitar music.

* According to American sociologist David C. Pollock, “a Third Culture Kid is a person who has spent a significant part of [their] developmental years outside the parents' culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK's life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.”

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