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

Lisbon Book Launch

It seemed both needlessly grand, and yet somehow fitting, for Lisbon to be the place I should launch my new book, set my newest baby in its paper boat out to sea.  As it happened, this was how things came to pass, and it was my great luck and privilege that they did.

I was invited, in November, to give a couple of workshops and a reading from my new book, Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a cold War Spy’s Daughter, at the Portugal meeting of the European Council for International Schools.  This is a yearly event at which teachers from around the world gather, in a rich and festive atmosphere, to share tricks of the instructional trade as well as the emissions of their bright, curious and adventurous minds.  Yes.  Bright, curious, adventurous: this was my impression of school teachers, of whose company, it turns out, I have been too long deprived.  Teachers of the young, it seems, are an exceptionally interesting, hospitable, polymathic and world-gobbling breed. As they graciously greeted my suggestions for drawing writing from their students, and warmly welcomed into their midst my young book—as I imagine they greet the young beings who fetch up in their classrooms—I spent my time soaking in their zest for the world.  I am immensely appreciative of this rare treat.

As for my impressions of Lisbon, the site in which all this eager exchange was taking place:  This former empire, a place of once-gleaming tiled abodes and grand palaces, seemed down at heel—and somehow, spectral.  (Aren’t we all, perhaps, from our imperial babyhoods onward, and in the end, former empires?  And on the broader canvas, and in the end, and especially now, aren’t all countries headed that way?)  At the same time, it seemed a place where the best things are available: meals of fish, potatoes and olives, rides in tiny, old wooden trolleys, and warm people, with nothing to prove. Simple, delicious.


I would like to share with you, in photographic form, my two strongest impressions of the place. This first image shows the Monument to the Discoveries, a massive, stone, peopled prow which honors Henry the Navigator, Magellan, Vasco de Gama, and others who opened up sea routes through the world during Portugal’s Age of Conquest.

This second image shows just a few of the winged cherubs that seem to pop out—laughing and cavorting and generally creating mischief—from alley niches, cathedral alcoves, and, indeed, atop serving tureens, turning Lisbon to a celebration and festoon of romping babies.

It occurs to me that this is how we should all take up life: with the grand vision of a Portuguese explorer and the unself-conscious chortle of a baby.

My Eyewitness Lisbon guide reads, “Although the Hindu ruler of Calicut, who received him wearing diamond and ruby rings, was not impressed by his humble offerings of cloth and wash basins, da Gama returned to Portugal with a cargo of spices.”  In Lisbon, I launched—with trepidation, gulping for bravery–my little prow, my book, my humble offering of personal perspectives.  Perspectives on: what it is to grow up the daughter of a spy; what it means to live with secrets; how it is to traipse across the world, discovering other cultures but in a pitched battle for identity; how it is to watch a father and a spy engage in secret activities and grow increasingly dismayed; and what it means to be an American in this world.  I returned from that still-grand city with a cargo of spices.

In this periodic blog, it is my plan to offer my cloth and wash basins: my thoughts on writing, global nomad adventures, spies, and other clandestine and miscellaneous affairs.   I will try to make the missives shorter than this one.  Perhaps you will share your spices with me.

Originally posted Thursday, December 29th, 2011