When I was in grad school, I went home to visit my parents and, as usual, I perused their book collection and looked for anything new as my winter break reading. My mom, who is an educator, had books that pique my interest because I was teaching undergrad design classes, very much following in her teaching steps. She had a book called Third Culture Kids, and something about that name made me grab it. I grew up at a school where the flags of every student painted up on the walls. U.N Day was a K-12 celebration of dressing in our home country’s clothing and each classroom turned into a different country we could visit, learn about, and enjoy food from. We had assemblies full of dance and song. Cultures were everywhere in my life growing up. And so I grabbed the book and snuggled into my old bed, in my old room, still with its photo frames of my friends and I and the not so great sponge-painted pattern walls I painted when I was in middle school. The book brought me to tears.
When I was 5, my parents explained to my sister and I that we were moving to a Caribbean island from India. First, we asked what an island was, and then we learned how we’d get there; one two planes with a stop in Schipol Airport in the Netherlands (which would later become one of my favorite airports, because of its supergiant Nintendo store). While I can’t remember much of the trip, I’m sure I was a jet-lagged and cranky kid the whole way through. But, eventually, we got to our tiny island, our home, then when I was 5, and what I still call home today, in my thirties, even though I live in Texas. Curaçao is a wonderful place, a Dutch island, and now it’s own autonomous country within the Dutch Kingdom. Curaçao, 40 miles north of Venezuela and next to Aruba, is a place where the average person speaks all four of the local languages—Dutch, English, Spanish, and a Portuguese Creole called Papiamentu. Food, music, and customs hail from everywhere.The languages alone speak to the multi-cultural island of 444 square kilometers. It’s where I’m from and I’m proud of it, even though I frequently have to explain to puzzled-looking strangers that an Indian girl can ride a plane and grow up somewhere else, and how she doesn’t have an accent—be it Indian or, for some reason as they think, a Jamaican accent. And I’m proud of where I’m from, my family, and our history and cities we lived in and visited in my years there. I’m equally proud and equally both of my countries.
The book made me cry because it explained what Third Culture Kids (TCKs) are, and the characteristics of adults who were TCKs. A Third Culture Kid, in the simplest terms, is a kid who has moved around some or a lot. The book, by authors David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, goes into deeper definitions, describing TCKs as kids who were born in one place and grow up in another, or more, like those in military or missionary families. It also They’re the expat kids. The book talks about the growth of a kid with high mobility. It also defines Cross Culture Kids (CCKs) separately from TCKs, as those who span multiple cultures, like children of immigrant or bicultural parents. Throughout the book, frequently shared characteristics of the average TCK or CCKs are described, including how TCKs process grief from moving away and even in friendships and relationships, to those who have a high emotional care for others, and why high mobility matters in their growth, to name a few. Certain characteristics, especially around adaptability and mobility helped me learn a lot about myself. It also helped show how TCKs and CCKs crave and then create a sense of belonging, either to a place or cultural grouping. It put a lot in perspective about things I knew about myself but didn’t have words for or fully understood in a concrete way. It made a lot of sense to me as a twenty-something and a lot more now, as a thirty-something with a lot of change in 2017.
After almost 10 years in a Design and Education space, and recently part of winding down a company, I took some time to think about how design fits into my life now. Was I going to choose another place to be involved in education, or do what I spent countless traditional education and self-taught hours on? Did I want to do both? What was I most excited about. And then, I let it dance around in my brain as I caught up on years of missed sleep, made a whole lot of food, and volunteered in my neighborhood. And somewhere in that time off, I realized how much of TCK characteristics were in my characteristics as a designer. I realized that Design, itself, is a Third Culture Kid and that place of my own. A sense of belonging that I feel for India and Curaçao is also how I felt about design. When I think about my approach to design, I think about what I already know and what I don’t. Recently, I’ve stepped fully back into a Design role at thoughtbot with a team of expert designers and developers, finding myself as a different designer than my early days at an ad agency before teaching. And being back in the day-to-day practice of design has confirmed my realization.
I’ve found that, inherently, my awareness of being a TCK or CCK, has influenced my practice of design. I’ve been melding together the ethnographic side—what we learn, gain, and analyze going through life—and what I was taught and what I practiced—grid, typography, color theory, web design, art history, usability, accessibility and more. One does not exist without the other—my experience in design and life influences the decisions I make in design, and it’s strategically planned as it is natural. It’s always two-fold. The things that maybe started as something learned, now exist as a part of what is natural and something else feels new and existing to learn, and usually, the end result is the place we were looking for. It’s influenced by the work we do, the clients’ perspectives and goals, the problems we solve together—the end result is a TCK. But, many designers aren’t TCKs and being a TCK isn’t a qualification to be a designer. However, the contributions we all can and do make in design are more than the grid system we learned years earlier. I can think of many times I thought my work was supposed to look like 'flat design' because that’s what others were doing. It feels silly to look back on. Designers have the ability to look at things uniquely, bringing in their own experience into whatever problem we’re trying to solve, and that end result could be different for so many people. And, that’s incredibly fascinating to me about Design. Design is a culture, and design is culture.
It’s fascinating, now, to think about any other occupation and what they can and do bring into it. It’s also fascinating to think about our non-work lives this way. It might be a sweeping generalization, but in a way, we all have a third culture that is made up of what we know and what we’re faced with. I think if we all spent more time appreciating that ideal and opening ourselves up to bring in more of our selves into the work we do, into the things we create, and into the relationships we build, we’d be a lot better at it all, and happier. Rather than trying to conform to one type of flat design project (because that’s what others around us our are doing) or cookie cutter life (that doesn’t feel authentic to us but its what we’re supposed to do), we could allow ourselves to discover something else about the work and something about ourselves, again, we might be a lot better at it all, and happier. Our sense of finding place and belonging, maybe, just maybe, has always been there, looking to find something else to relate to, and it’s waiting for us to create that culture and share it. I’m interested in that and hope to contribute to a third, fourth, fifth culture. I’m interested in being kind to myself as a designer to not conform to the trend but create a design culture within my work. And I hope you are, too.