Bridger, Third-Culture Kid, Xenophile

[warning: not your normal tech-in-Africa post, continue at your peril.]

I’ve been off on a mini-family vacation, unconnected from the grid – not even taking my mobile phone with me. It gave me time to think, and one thing I started thinking about was the world I grew up in, and how my daughters are growing up today. It brought to mind a recent post by Ethan Zuckerman, and how it hit home to me. It’s who I am, and might help explain why I do what I do.

What are bridge figures, xenophiles?

(Stolen shamelessly from Ethan Zuckerman, please go read the rest):

Xenophiles are people who are fascinated by the whole world, by things other than their ordinary experience. They’re people who want to connect with people who see the world very differently. Some of these people are born this way, lots more are made – a good recipe for xenophilia is to raise a child in a culture deeply different from that of her parents – people call these kids “third culture kids”. Third culture kids have one foot in each of two cultures – the culture of the country they grew up and the culture of their parents, and as a result they don’t really live in either, but a little bit in both. Some kids hate this – many love it, and they end up bridge figures, natural xenophiles who can help translate cultures for other people. Barack Obama’s one of them.

It’s my theory that xenophiles are going to be very powerful in the future. We’re living in a world that the pro-globalization folks refer to as “flat”. That’s bullshit, obviously. The world is flat as far as stuff is concerned. In my hometown of 3000 people, I can get water from Fiji and fish from Chile, but I’m not going to encounter any Fijians or Chileans. I’m not even likely to encounter information from those countries, news, opinion or cultural influences like films or TV… not unless I very actively go looking for it. So the world’s flat in terms of stuff, but not in terms of human interaction. It’s flat, but in the least important ways – in the ways that matter, in the ways that would allow us to connect with people from other cultures, allow us to share ideas and solve problems together, the world is disconnected. It’s lumpy.

Xenophiles are good at making connections in this lumpy world. It’s a good idea to have them if you’re trying to do business in another country – some of the people who are making lots of money in this economy are people from developing nations who study in Europe or America and then return home. They can bridge between cultures in a way that helps them make smart economic decisions. They’re even more important if you’re concerned with security or with diplomacy, because their ability to cross cultures makes it far more likely that they can collaborate and create solutions with people from other cultures.

Normal is relative

I don’t think it strange at all switching from the US to Africa and back again. You shift, that’s all.

When you grow up like we did, “normal” to you isn’t the same as “normal” to either the Africans you live with or the US family you go see every 4 years.

It’s what makes these images look so strange to some people, yet so normal to me.

Lauren in Uganda (2002)
My daughter taking a bath in Uganda. The lady closest to her, Alice, I called mama mbili – my second mother growing up. She’s part of why I find it easy to switch gears so easily.

Me, in Southern Sudan (1978?)
This one is me back in 1978 or so, way out in the bush in Southern Sudan where my parents worked with the Taposa tribe doing Bible translation.

There really isn’t that many of us yet relative the all the “normal” people, but the bridgers, xenophiles and third-culture kids of the world tend to either have an inordinate impact or be spectacular failures. Maybe average is just a little harder for us to achieve?

18 thoughts on “Bridger, Third-Culture Kid, Xenophile

  1. Nate Berkopec says:

    Excellent post and great point – we’re globalized in stuff but not in interaction. What darling entrepreneur will fill that void?

  2. Hash,

    Great post. TCK’s do see the world from a unique perspective. Certainly, it’s one reason why the world celebrates Rais Elect Obamas election as US President. As I read Ethan Zuckerman’s post, I couldn’t help but think how that neutral way of thinking could finally find its way into some of the most powerful political circles around the world. A real challenge to partisanship and tribalism.

  3. @Nate I’d argue that Casey Fenton (founder of Couchsurfing.com) doesn’t get enough credit for creating his niche community of global nomads.

    @Erik Great post, something I don’t think people quite realize enough. A lot of my friends thought I was crazy for packing up and heading to Eastern Europe for a few months but to me that was no more or less intimidating than moving to Uganda for three years. IMHO, It’s definitely a cure to a lot of the ‘naitionalist’ and ‘tribal’ mentalities that rule developing regions.

  4. Vethno says:

    I think this post is extremely relevant, especially in today’s global ‘market’. Those of us who have grown up with exposure to other cultures – in many cases – retain an intellectual and emotional curiosity about other countries, cultures, practices, etc., and retain an interest in translating our experience and professional training into capabilities that cross boundaries.

    Xenophiles are born and also developed. There are those individuals that are naturally curious about the world around them – without prior exposure. There are also those that have experienced the ‘other world’ out there and continue to seek out opportunities abroad – being, in a sense, the ‘tie that binds’. The technology available to the world today allows us to retain connections to those abroad that historically would have been impossible to maintain without regular personal exposure. It is exciting to see the potential.

  5. I really like this post, especially because as the daughter of Nigerian parents who migrated to England I consider myself very much a Xenophile, although one with many conflicting influences.

    One thing I would disagree with is that it’s very hard to see this ideal of the ‘Bridgers’ as Ethan puts it. In my experience, Xenophiles are more likely to be Xenocentric (hate or dislike their culture of origin) because it’s cooler to be part of the same culture as their peers. As much as Barack is now a very public ‘bridger’ I’m pretty sure even he would confess to having strong xenocentric feelings about his name and Kenyan heritage while growing up. That world ideal has a long way to go.

  6. Being a bridger is a great opportunity, its fun and makes you a cut above the rest as you have experience and know how that your neighbors may not have. It means that you have an opportunity to make a difference because you have both local understanding and external input.

    You err in one thing. I believe that bridging goes beyond location – in africa its mainly opportunity. The huge difference between the classes has to do with opportunities. The opportunity to get a different education, the opportunity to make new money, the opportunity to lead and hence the opportunity to make a difference. Usually non-bridgers do not have these opportunities – the old is not always gold.

    Great post!

  7. Hash, funny what a mini-van and a little distance can do to the head. I agree that the world isn’t “flat” – but isn’t that metaphor mostly invoked in terms of information and capital flows? The transaction costs of getting either from point X to Y are so much lower that, yeah, for all intents it is flat? (Might it be “flattening”? Aren’t your odds of bumping into a Fijian much higher today than ever? That said, isn’t the bullshit how the pyramid is narrowing: fewer and fewer are traveling more and more?)

    The ‘net has long been criticized for its “echo chamber” effect and how it can “harden” our views as much as “crack them open.” Does anyone really look for the ‘net to convert (other than clicks to sales) in the way we see the world?

    IOW those with a disposition to a broad world view (born or ‘developed’ as Vethno observes) are likely to find it widened on the ‘net, and those with interests closer to home are likely to find those reinforced on the ‘net.

    But I like the hypothesis very much: that “bridgers” are going to be more important. My question is, in what ways? Is there a “bridger manifesto,” some statement of values that are derived from this experience that can serve as instructive for others?

    I know that as someone who had the very great privilege of growing up in Asia and Africa as well as the U.S. – and I do consider it to have been a privilege in the fullest sense, with the positives and negatives aspect implied – that I have been *driven* to create these opportunities for young people – these windows or portals into the variety of ways that life has been interpreted… and I’m still left with the question, “So what?”

  8. India J says:

    Hi,
    I read about xenophiles on the “my heart is in Accra” blog – I’m most definately a xenophile, as are my children, and proud of this.
    Another Zuckerman (maybe some relation) has recently produced an extraordinary work of art, check it here, I’m sure you’ll love it:
    http://off-thebeatentrack.blogspot.com/2008/10/ubuntu.html
    I love this post + photos, I have many similar of me in W Africa in the 60s and early 70s.
    Happy Thanksgiving..:)

  9. India J says:

    Hi,
    I read about xenophiles on the My heart is in Accra blog – I’m most definately a xenophile, as are my children, and proud of this.
    Another Zuckerman (maybe some relation) has recently produced an extraordinary work of art, check it here, I’m sure you’ll love it:
    http://off-thebeatentrack.blogspot.com/2008/10/ubuntu.html
    I love this post + photos, I have many similar of me in W Africa in the 60s and early 70s.
    Happy Thanksgiving..:)

  10. Flavia says:

    @Jon Gosier Let’s not forget that it can also be a cure to the ‘citizen’ mentalities that rule the developed nations.

    @ Lola Oyelayo “In my experience, Xenophiles are more likely to be Xenocentric (hate or dislike their culture of origin) because it’s cooler to be part of the same culture as their peers.”

    Do you feel this is also applicable to the xenophile whose parents are from the West but who lives in the East? Is this just a revelation of hegemonic undertones in our global society? I am myself a xenophile from Tanzania who grew up in Italy and the U.S. I never felt these sentiments that you refer to, although my brother did. I would like to go out on a limb and say that ‘dislike of one’s culture’ is based on personality, for although we were raised by the same family, I was always proclaiming my ethnicity loudly while my brother used to hide it and as good as disowned it.

    @Hash I loved your story. I agree with your statement about xenophiles being powerful in the future. Although the ‘flattening’ of the world can be debated, I certainly feel that technology has made the world more accessible. I feel that it is specifically for this reason that xenophiles, who are accustomed to freely moving in and out of different cultures without an acculturation period, will be highly desirable as colleagues and therefore quite powerful.

  11. Great post Hash. I have been thinking about something similar with people who move to other countries either to study or whatever in their teens. If you meet them ten years, later, they are very much trying to bridge the gap between two conflicting cultures and can’t fit perfectly in both the world they left behind and the one they currently inhabit.

  12. nice article hash, just translated it in french.
    with recent development in information technology and low cost travels, real xenophiles are revealing themselves more and more. i’m loving it!

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