Obama's 'Third Culture' Team

Obama has packed his staff with so-called “Third Culture Kids”—people who grew up outside the U.S. New research suggests this group shares common psychological traits that could shape his administration.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais

John Quincy Adams lived in France, and young Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited Europe often enough to master French and German, but Barack Obama is the first modern American president to have spent some of his formative years outside the United States. It is a trait he shares with several appointees to the new administration: White House advisor Valerie Jarrett was a child in Tehran and London, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner was raised in east Africa, India, Thailand, China and Japan as the son of a Ford Foundation executive, and National Security Advisor James L. Jones was raised in Paris. (Also, Bill Richardson, tipped as Secretary of Commerce, grew up in Mexico City.)

This is more than a trivial coincidence. So-called “Third Culture Kids”—and the adults they become”—share certain emotional and psychological traits that may exert great influence in the new administration. According to a body of sociological literature devoted to children who spend a portion of their developmental years outside their “passport country,” the classic profile of a “TCK” is someone with a global perspective who is socially adaptable and intellectually flexible. He or she is quick to think outside the box and can appreciate and reconcile different points of view. Beyond whatever diversity in background or appearance a TCK may bring to the party, there is a diversity of thought as well.

“Third Culture Kids” share certain emotional and psychological traits that may exert great influence in the new administration.

But TCKs can also feel rootless and detached. The great challenge for maturing Third Culture Kids is to forge a sense of personal and cultural identity from the various environments to which they been exposed. Barack Obama’s memoir, Dreams of My Father, could serve as a textbook in the TCK syllabus, a classic search for self-definition, described in living color. Obama’s colleagues on the Harvard Law Review were among the first to note both his exceptional skill at mediating among competing arguments and the aloofness that made his own views hard to discern. That cool manner of seeming “above it all” is also a classic feature of the Third Culture Kid.

The TCKs’ identity struggles can be painful and difficult. The literature documents addictive behaviors, troubled marriages and fitful careers. But meeting this challenge can become a TCK’s greatest strength. Learning to take the positive pieces from a variety of experiences and create a strong sense of “This is who I am, no matter where I am” gives a steadiness when the world around is in flux or chaos”—which helps explain “no-drama Obama.”

Among those of us who study Third Culture Kids (almost always because we are TCKs), it has been both gratifying and frustrating to watch “one of us” run for the White House. We began obsessively pointing out to each other the telltale signifiers of the TCK that so often went unremarked in the mainstream press.

“I laughed when I heard a commentator call Barack exotic and elitist,” says Lois Bushong, an American who grew up in Costa Rica and now works a therapist for internationally mobile families. “How exotic or elitist can it be to go home to visit your grandmother, even if she lives in Hawaii? She’s still your grandma. This TV guy seemed to forget that the world many see ‘exotic’ is simply home for TCKs.”

But we also despaired when his opponents denigrated the importance of Obama’s childhood in Indonesia and Hawaii. “How can they say his international childhood doesn’t count when it comes to foreign affairs?” sputtered my friend and colleague, Paulette Bethel. “That’s just crazy. Barack’s been negotiating between cultural worlds since the day of his birth. No one will have to teach him this skill. It’s already second nature to him!”

Bethel feels vindicated by the collection of strong personalities that Obama has invited into the new administration. “He’s lived with so many differences around him in his lifetime, they don’t threaten him anymore,” she says.

In 1984, Dr. Ted Ward, then a sociologist at Michigan State University, called TCKs “the prototype citizens of the future,” anticipating a time when a childhood lived in various cultures would be the norm rather than the exception. It seems that time is now.

And the characteristics derived from an expat childhood may be well suited to the challenges facing the new administration. The economic crisis, for one, demonstrates how interdependent world cultures have become, and its solution will undoubtedly require the unconventional thinking that comes more easily to a Third Culture Kid. Even though Tim Geithner is not an economist by training, he apparently demonstrated such a keen problem-solving skills in the financial arena that the stock market jumped 500 points on the news of his appointment. Returning to Japan as an adult and speaking the language he learned as a child have given him an unusually deep understanding of the global economy.

As TCKs, we have had the joy, and the challenge, of being raised in many places and cultures. Now we get to see whether the values of the TCK can be a force for good on the world stage.

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Ruth E. Van Reken is a second generation adult TCK and mother of 3 ATCKs. She speaks nationally and internationally on issues related to global family living. She is co-founder of Families in Globlal Transition. In addition to other writing, Ruth is co-author of Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds.