Global Nomads and TCKS- 1: Colin Firth: “Exiles…see everything with two pairs of eyes”

In the following series of posts I will be offering a variety perspectives on the experience of growing up as a “Global Nomad” or “Third Culture Kid.”  I will present bits of wisdom on growing up in different cultures from such luminaries as Colin Firth, Czeslaw Milosz, Andre Aciman, Edward Said, and Eva Hoffman, and now and then, toss in a thought of my own.

First, the basic definitions of the terms used for people who grew up in countries not their own due to a parent’s job.  They come from the classic volume on the subject, Third-Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Renken (2009):

Global Nomad: “A global nomad is anyone of any nationality who has lived outside their parents’ country of origin (or their “passport country”) before adulthood because of a parent’s occupation.”  Norma McCaig coined this in 1984.  It is synonymous with “Third Culture Kid.”

Third Culture Kid (TCK): “Dr. Ruth Hill Useem and her husband John Useem, social scientists, coined the phrase third culture in the 1950s when they went to India for a year to study Americans who lived and worked there as foreign service officers, missionaries, technical aid workers, businesspeople, educators and media representatives…The Useems defined the home culture from which the adults came as the first culture.  They called the host culture where the family lived (in that case, India) the second culture.  They then identified the shared lifestyle of the expatriate community as an interstitial culture, or ‘culture between cultures’, and named it the third culture.” 

And now, here is Colin Firth talking about his global nomad childhood, spent partly in the U.S., partly in Africa, and partly in the U.K.  This is extracted from a delightful interview with presenter Mariella Frostrup on BBC 4’s “Open Book” program of December 27, 2012.  In the full half-hour long program, Firth talks about his five favorite books.

Mariella Frostrup: It’s interesting your interest in all things Italian.  I mean, obviously, you’re married to an Italian.  You live part of the year in Italy…and it seems an embrace that’s in direct contrast to the image that people have of you, which is perhaps formed from the parts you’ve been asked to play, but often of an inscrutable, buttoned up, very English character.  Is the real you, Italian, do you have, deep down, a beating heart of Latin fervor?

Colin Firth:  I wish I could say it was.  No, I’m probably every bit the chinless, stiff Brit that I seem to be, but I am an actor and we are all phonies, and we all have an ego that’s a bit fractured and confused, and I think, like a lot of people who do what I do, I’m a bit of a composite.  You know, I’m obviously very connected with this country and I seem to represent the kind of Englishman that I’m not sure really exists very often, but my father is fifth generation Indian-born.  My mother was born in India. She was raised in the United States.  She didn’t come to England until she was 16 years old.  My sister was born in Nigeria.  My brother I, I think, are a rare breed in that we were born in the UK.  I’ve lived in Nigeria and the United States.  Um, somebody said, you know, that exiles have a bit of heartache in being away from the country you live in, you know, but there’s also an immense gift because you see everything with two pairs of eyes.  You see everything from the eyes of a visitor and from the eyes of a native.  Although I do think I carry a lot of what England’s given me, I feel partly a visitor here as well…

Originally posted on Friday, February 1st, 2013

What of Spying? Two Books, Two Faces of Espionage

I have been thinking a lot about espionage lately—its noble aspect and also the messiness of an enterprise based on secrecy, manipulation, and deception.

Spying, by nature, has these two faces.  To look at the first, its noblest mien: espionage is an attempt to gather information about the actions of other countries, and particularly bad actors in the world; to stop aggressions, if possible; to undermine or change inhumane regimes; and to support democracy, and protect the lives of ordinary people, around the world.  All of these objectives may be criticized, but the CIA was created in the wake of Hitler’s devastation, and under that light in particular, espionage might be seen as not only necessary but among the higher callings.

To look at its other face, there is an inherent murkiness, ambiguity, and morally-troubling side to spying.  The disasters and long-term ripple effects from its mis- or faulty-use are legion: Iran, Chile, Vietnam, to name three.  Back to the other face again, the CIA contributed to the ending of Osama Bin Laden.  If one tries to reckon with espionage, the two faces of the spy service swing in and out of relief…

A pair of books into which I have dipped have, for me, shed clear light on these two faces of intelligence work.

I will begin with the volume that shines a startling and penetrating—not to say dismaying—beam on the series of mistakes, havoc-wreaking, and deaths-of-thousands that can result from espionage mis-handled, mis-used, and gone rogue.  I cannot recommend enough Curveball by the Los Angeles Times investigative reporter Bob Drogin.  Drogin was assigned to the intelligence beat for his paper before 9/11, and was central to the investigation of, and reporting on, the WMD search preceding and following the start of the war in Iraq.  The book follows, beat by beat, the series of mis-steps by American spies, the State Department, and the executive branch, that followed the claim by an Iraqi con man-asylum seeker in Hamburg that Iraq had, hidden in its outlands, a series of mobile bio weapons labs—the faulty intelligence upon which the war in Iraq was based, and which Secretary of State Colin Powell called up as key evidence, in his fateful speech to the United Nations on February the 5th, 2003.  It is a crystalline example of an instance in which, as Drogin puts it, “The defector didn’t con the spies so much as they conned themselves.”  He sums up this story of disastrous espionage:  “[Curveball’s] marginal story took on an importance it did not deserve.  Senior intelligence officials irresponsibly hyped his claims and accepted unconfirmed reports.  They cast aside contradictory evidence, brushed aside clear warnings, and ignored a rising clamor of skeptics.  Time and again, bureaucratic rivalries, tawdry ambitions, and spineless leadership proved more important than professional integrity.”

New York Times reporter Benjamin Weiser, has written a book that presents the other face of espionage.  His fascinating book illuminates spy-craft at its finest.  Here again is a story of an informant and CIA operatives, but this round, all the actors concerned are models of nobility, rigor, and integrity.  A Secret Life is an account of the life of a Polish colonel who, out of a deep love for Poland and a drive to help his country free itself from Soviet domination, volunteered to secretly supply the Americans with information pertaining to Soviet weapons and military planning.  The reams of documents he handed over in the course of nine years, at great personal risk, contributed to the freeing of the nations of Eastern Europe.  The commitment, consideration, loyalty—and perhaps even love—that undergirded the relationship between the agent and his CIA handlers are deeply moving, and remind the reader of what under-cover, inter-cultural alliances can accomplish at their best.

Espionage has two faces, dark and light—and most spying is probably a mix of the two.  A look at these two starkly contrasting books sheds brilliant light on its grey world.

Originally posted Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

A SPY STORY: A Spy Beholds Himself – I recollect the day my covert operative father saw le Carré’s first film

EntRichard Burton as Alec Leamas in “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”er a caption

For me, a convention-bound girl, it was a glimmer of something significant.  For my father, it was as if the very first day had dawned.

The year was 1966.  My family was on vacation in Germany—we were posted to The Hague then, I was about twelve—and my father, who I thought was a diplomat, had gone out to see “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” the film based on John le Carré’s novel, at a U.S. army post, alone.

My mother, brother and I spent the evening lounging about our Heidelberg hotel room, taking baths and reading after a day of castle-viewing in the wet.  We were all in typical fettle.  I was reading my umpteenth Enid Blyton and begging my mother for a green purse I’d seen in a shop window.  My brother, two years my junior, was gobbling one of his World War II accounts, and my mother was snuggled under her covers with a mystery, grateful, at last, to be warm.

Then, about ten o’clock, my father appeared.  He walked in from out of the drenching German rain, dripping in his Balmacaan raincoat, crossed the threshold, and it was as if the world was stunned.  The bustle stopped.  My father stood there, all joy, illuminated by a Renaissance beam from heaven.

“Well?” my mother said, putting down her book.

“It was very, very good,” he said, his voice full of a hoarse breathiness.

He walked around the room—it was as if he was so abuzz with energy he couldn’t sit down—and then he came over to my brother and me on our beds and gave us big, hard squeezes.  My squeeze was delicious; it thrilled with an exuberance I hadn’t sensed in my father before.  I forgot myself for a moment and watched this new, charged father.

In the film, the washed-up British covert operative, Alec Leamas, played by Richard Burton, pretends to defect to East Germany, and, at the behest of “Control,” the British spy-master,  sacrifices an earnest, truth-telling East German secret serviceman, a would-be whistle-blower, in order to keep in place a ruthless but useful tyrant-traitor, so that he can be further exploited by the British intelligence service.

Leamas has fallen in love with Nancy, the Communist woman he’s used in the operation. When she protests, during their flight along a dark East German road, that he’s killed a good man, he says, “The only rule is expediency. Mundt gives London what it needs, so Mundt lives and Fiedler dies…

“You think spies are moral philosophers measuring everything they do against God or Karl Marx?” he continues.  “They’re seedy, squalid little bastards like me—little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives…It was a filthy operation to save Mundt’s skin.  God save us both.”

Then, taking on Nancy’s belief in the Communists’ purity, hard-bitten Leamas says, “How big does a cause have to be before you kill your friends?  There are a few million bodies on that path.”

I don’t know to what in the film my father most chimed. Perhaps it was the ending, really, in which Leamas dies for love rather than country, that so moved my father.  Or all the complex all of it.

My father was a man who, quite young, had cut himself away from his origins.  Having sipped the elixir of Japan in the army, he’d left his large St. Louis family behind to join the federal government—and not just any arm of government.    He’d joined a club—the covert operations side of the C.I.A.—in which all his activities were secret and those secret activities were fraught with moral quandaries and logistical puzzles of serious consequence for foreign affairs and human lives.  In his daily work he was nameless or falsely-named, engaging in activities he supposedly wasn’t engaging in, invisible.  Neither my brother nor I, nor anyone in the outside world, knew about the underground democrats inside China he lent secret support, the agents he recruited and hid from despots’ torture, the daily work of weighing: Is that worth this?  He often felt un-recognized even at the CIA, where—ironically, but like everywhere—the most visible got the attention and rewards.  Elegant in a khaki suit, kind, a man of thoughts—but misty, my father easily slipped into the backdrop.  He had a talent for “hiding in plain sight.”   The ideal spy in a sense, he was never, literally, seen for who he was.

My father asked for little, and as the years passed, it seemed he cut more and more ground out from under himself, living on less and less.  He believed in living for a higher good.  His ideal was Gandhian renunciation.  But everyone, even a man who can subsist on a couple of sardines and a chunk of carrot, needs affirmation.

Around the time he saw the film, I later learned, my father was liaison to Dutch intelligence during a murky episode in Dutch-American-Chinese relations in which a Chinese “welder,” possibly a would-be defector to the West, fell to his eventual death from the upper story window of the The Hague row house of the Third Secretary of the Communist Chinese diplomatic mission, under very suspicious circumstances.

I have no idea what my father’s specific involvement might have been, nor what he thought of the affair.  What I do know, from my father’s rapt face that rainy night in Heidelberg, is that, to see Alex Leamas–caught up in morally dubious schemes, engaged in relationships behind the Iron Curtain wherein people are supported and used and sacrificed in the name of national security — must have been like seeing himself.  All the passions and perplexities of his own life, usually cached in his mind, there to behold, flashing before his very eyes.  At last: here I am.  I exist.  I am not just a phantom slipping into mist.  What relief, what gladness—even, or especially, to see the hardest and most troubling things.  Oh the joy in my father’s face—at beholding his reflection.

There is something so deeply human–and urgent–about the need for confirmation: to see one’s experience shown, concretized, reflected back.  This is what movies provide, and art, and books, and friends:  They allow one to see oneself, in essence, in action in the world, bulking around.  To a mirror, the heart trills.  And for the spy, whose life is hidden away, how much more powerful such a reflection must be.

But what was it, I wonder, that made this particular moment stick in a self-absorbed twelve year-old girl’s mind?  I knew nothing, at the time, about the true nature of my father’s work.  I think it was simply the experience of seeing my father in a new light: standing tall, apart from me, elated.  Usually, in his daily life, he was intent and hard-working, always attending to the home- or work-related crisis at hand.  His brow knotted behind his horn-rimmed glasses as he tended to multitudinous needs, ever endeavoring to be someone for others.  He was the opposite of unfettered and free.  But in this moment, in that hotel room in Heidelberg, I saw a man on his own, cut loose on his own raft—affirmed and completely joyous.

What I absorbed, as a young girl on the cusp of adolescence that evening in Heidelberg, was a picture of my father as he seldom seemed.  To put beside the busy, buffeted, burdened man, invisible but giving himself away drop by drop: here was a man easy inside his own skin, buoyant with happiness.  And this gave me a kind of permission: to not just bend to demand, but to look out for a sort of cut-loose joy.

Originally published Sunday, January 15th, 2012

A Spy Story: How my Friend Discovered her Father was a Spy

One day last fall I saw an old friend from childhood days in The Netherlands.  It was the first time we’d seen each other in forty-four years.  I had always liked her, but we’d lost touch once we both left Holland, she for boarding school in England and me for my father’s new assignment in Washington D.C.  In the long interim, just a few months before, I had discovered that her father had been a covert CIA operative just as mine had been.  It was a shock to me.  I’d believed her father’s cover like everyone else, assuming he was what he said he was, that is: a foreign service officer.  I thought my father was a foreign service officer too. Our fathers, unbeknownst to us, lived under the same cloak.

As we got to talking, at the Silver Spring, Maryland Starbucks, my friend told me (I still have an instinct to hide people’s true identities) the story of how she found out her father was a spy.  She learned the news a few years before I did, and she just stumbled onto it.  It was while she was in eighth grade, in Holland, back when we were in school together.

This is how it happened:  Our eighth grade class had gone that day on a field trip to the American Embassy in downtown The Hague.  Our school, The American School of The Hague, periodically took its students there, to give us a little taste of America.  The ambassador greeted us, and then we had American cookies from the P.X. and coke. When Celia, as I’ll call her, got home that evening, she and her father went out for a walk with their Irish Wolfhound.  These walks with her father were special to my friend: for once she had her father to herself.  She was one of four children all competing for their busy father’s attentions.

As they set out into the night, her father asked her, “Well, Celia, how was your day?”

“We had a field trip to the embassy.”

“Good.  What happened there?” her father said.

“We met Ambassador Tyler.”

“Oh?” her father said, “And what did he have to say?”  Celia’s father was slightly British in manner.  He had served in England, and in then-Rhodesia.

Celia thought it would be boring to say just that the ambassador said “Hi.”  Her family was the kind that fooled around and matched wits, and Celia wanted to entertain her father, so she thought, “Hmm, well I could say the ambassador said Dad worked for the FBI, but no…they only work in the States.  I’ll say he told us Dad worked for the CIA!”  Not thinking her father’s job was anything different from what she’d been told, she just made something up, to kid around.

“Well…” she said, drawing out her clever-but-oh-so-innocent response.  “He told me you actually work for the CIA.”

Her father didn’t say anything.  There was a pause—a long pause—and then he said, “That’s very interesting.”  And then: “I wonder why he would say that.”

As Celia described this at Starbucks, she said, “It was a noticeable pause.  He didn’t say anything for about thirty seconds.  A lot of thoughts must have run through his mind.  Would the ambassador have said that to her?…Maybe Thomas (my older brother) told her?  Or maybe Cheryl (my mother) told her?…”

It was that noticeable pause that gave it away.

Celia doesn’t remember what happened after that.  Her father didn’t tell her the truth that day.  She doesn’t remember when he did, but she thinks that sometime not too long afterward he probably told her, “I do work for the Agency, but don’t say anything about it.”  In any case, after that conversation, she knew.  It was all totally accidental.

Originally published Thursday, January 5th, 2012