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Finding a Place for Third-Culture Kids in the Culture


Others have found freedom in the same, becoming natural shape-shifters whose value systems transcend borders to instill a sense of home. The most famous example is probably Barack Obama, whose 1995 memoir, “Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance,” whirls through Jakarta, Seattle, Kenya and Hawaii with unsparing analysis of what it means to belong to multiple worlds and therefore to none of them, but to find, later, that refuge lies in the space between all of them — and in the ability to unite not just your worlds but others’, too. As much as the third-culture experience is clouded by the fog of liminality, it’s informed also by the ability to define oneself on one’s own terms, difficult as that endeavor may be in the face of increasing scrutiny toward globalism and those formed by it.

The presentation of this — dazzling and dressed up — is what makes “We Are Who We Are” thrilling to watch. Its characters come alive in the blur, filling in one another’s spaces and dancing over questions of home, while bragging about where they’ve been, their exchanges captured in shimmering, slow-motion interludes scored to original music, the silky synth pop of Blood Orange. And while the show takes place in the run-up to the 2016 election, its politics remain a quiet drumbeat in the offing, its spotlight focused wholly on all the ways by which differences are, in fact, paradoxically harmonious when everyone is otherized. In fashioning themselves to evade traditional modes of identification (culturally, politically, sexually and through gender), these characters build their own castles in the sky. “When you grow up this way, there is a feeling of being lost, but to be lost is also to be open,” Guadagnino says. “It reminds us of our empathy, and of what we share if we were only to try and find it.”

This may be the ultimate lesson of third-culture kids’ stories. In the late Kobe Bryant’s 2018 book “The Mamba Mentality,” which offers a glimpse into his childhood years in Reggio Emilia, Italy, he discusses the importance of having learned how to navigate a new culture with compassion. Though he eventually settled down in America — becoming not only one of its sports heroes, but one of its cultural icons, too — he continued to make frequent trips back to Italy, where he’d speak the sort of Italian that boasted a native European bravado, a casual swagger that rode along his perfect pronunciation. And when he died in Los Angeles, he died in Reggio Emilia, too, where they mourned a version of him America never knew, except for the Italian names he had chosen for his daughters: Gianna, Natalia, Bianka and Capri.

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