Embracing the third culture


Ever since we moved to Israel 20 years ago, I’ve always felt like I don’t quite fit in anywhere. I’ll never be truly Israeli, since I didn’t grow up with all the pop culture references someone born in the country knows intuitively. And I’m not fully American anymore either, since I haven’t resided in the US for more than a month at a time for nearly two decades. 


Now, it turns out, there’s a term to describe me: I’m what’s known as a TCI – a “third culture individual.” 


The expression isn’t new. It was first coined by researchers in the 1950s to describe the children of American citizens working and living abroad (in that case, they’re often called TCKs for “third culture kids”). These TCKs are not part of their parent’s culture and not entirely at one with their new country’s culture, hence the appellation “third culture.” The term received visibility when a very famous TCK became president of the US (Barak Obama was born in Hawaii but grew up in Indonesia). 


While TCKs are generally children and young adults who have spent a good chunk of their developmental years outside their parents’ culture, a TCI can be anyone who has significant living experience in a culture outside his or her own. Which means that I am a TCI, but my kids are not: even though two of them were born in California, they came here when they were young enough that their culture is 100% Israeli.


Lital Helmal, COO, GradTrain


Despite being a TCI for close to half of my adult life, I hadn’t realized that I was part of a specific subculture until I met Lital Helman, COO of the web startup GradTrain. Helman was sitting next to me at a networking event sponsored by JNext, a new organization in Jerusalem that is working hard to foster an interdisciplinary ecosystem for entrepreneurs in Israel’s capital. 


The event was an invitation-only moderated discussion between Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and ex-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg prior to the latter’s receipt of the Genesis Prize last month. It was held at the Hansen House, the former leper hospital turned hi-tech and design hub. Helman and I struck up a conversation while drinking mid-day champagne and eating mini-quiches and chocolate éclairs. 


Helman was born in Jerusalem and grew up here, but has been TCI’ing it in New York and Pennsylvania for the past seven years. She moved there for school where she quickly discovered that a preference for hanging out with her fellow ex-countrymen was not unique to Israelis. In fact, TCIs often have more in common with other TCIs – even those from entirely different countries – than with the majority culture around then. 


So, for example, I as a TCI in Israel might relate quite resonantly to the travails of an American expatriate who has lived for 15 years in Japan or a Swedish Ph.D candidate in Canada, even though it would seem that our day-to-day experiences would be quite dissimilar.


Helman ought to know. Her company, GradTrain, is a peer-to-peer video coaching platform that helps students from one country wishing to study at a university in another figure out the nuances of everything from application essays and scholarship options to what to expect from roommates and healthcare. The company was founded last year and is growing steadily with several thousand unique visitors a month, a couple hundred active coaches and 20,000 social media followers. Coaches charge for their insight and time; GradTrain takes a percentage. 


While most students come to GradTrain to figure out how to get into a graduate program overseas, many return to their coaches for follow-on sessions once they’re been accepted to school, as “third culture” issues start to arise. (All of GradTrain’s coaches are themselves TCIs, so they’ve walked the same road as the people they’re mentoring.)


Language is a big part of being a TCI. Helman gives the example of someone saying “that’s interesting.” In Israel, she says, “that means the person wants to hear more. In the U.S., it often means ‘let’s change the subject.’” The same is true when an American says, “let’s have lunch. The real meaning is often just ‘nice to meet you.’ In Israel, I’d invite that person for a meal!”


This lack of understanding can be very disconcerting for a TCI in a new culture. “People who travel abroad to study are usually very motivated and talented. They’re used to having conversations where they understand what’s going on, so not getting the reaction they expect can be very confusing. It can really break a person,” Helman says. “They wonder if something has happened to them, if maybe because they’ve moved to a new country, they’re not the same person anymore. It takes time to learn the rules.”


Helman advises TCI students to do the opposite of what’s often suggested for faster acculturation, to hang out only with locals from their adopted country. Rather, “they should keep some friends from back home, or hang out with other people with international backgrounds,” she says. “That way, you won’t be the only one around who doesn’t get what’s going on.”


I’ve certainly seen the language issue in action with my TCI friends in Israel. Even the most Hebrew-fluent Anglo might not fully appreciate the word play of the legendary Israeli pop band Kaveret like a native. In the same way, Israelis will never get the cultural “stickiness” of Gilda Radner’s “Never mind” or Steve Martin’s “Excuse Me” on the gut level of a 70s child growing up in the U.S. with the first generation of TV’s “Saturday Night Live.” 


Another example, this one not from Israel: on a recent episode of the U.S. public radio show “This American Life,” author David Sedaris described his experience living in Paris. He shared how he structures which establishments he patronizes and which he avoids in large part according to where he’ll have an easier time communicating in his limited French. 


Maybe it’s because we’re both writers, with all the perfectionism we attach to communicating with grace and facilité, but like me, Sedaris is devastated daily by the withering comments a salesperson can lob in his direction for an awkwardly constructed phrase in a language not his own. All the more so in Israel, where the resurrection of an ancient tongue is a source of national pride and, even after two decades in the country and attendance at no less than six Hebrew ulpans, my still fumbling attempts at ordering anything more complicated than falafel are fodder for communal outrage.


Helman, 34, ultimately found she was tired of being a TCI in New York and together with company co-founder Jacob Bacon (despite the unlikely name, he is Israeli like Helman), returned to Israel earlier this year to run the company from the city of her birth. They are currently operating out of the JVP incubator in Jerusalem.


Helman discovered upon her return that being a TCI can go both ways. “When you come home, it can be like starting all over again,” she says. “You’re not the same person. People and places have changed. You sometimes feel like you’re now a foreigner” in your own country. 


Do most TCIs stay in the country they’ve found themselves in or return home? Helman says it depends on the nationality. “People from Eastern Europe want to stay in the place they’re moving to and often use their studies as a gate to immigration. Israel, Germany and China have programs in place that provide a lot of incentives for students to come back.” The Chief Scientist’s “returning academics” program in Israel is an example. 


As for TCIs from the United States, “99 percent of Americans who study abroad go back,” she adds.


I’m not planning on becoming part of that 99 percent and abandoning my own TCI status to return to California. Indeed, I think there’s probably something a little different about the crazies among us who make aliyah, at least in terms of our commitment to a new culture.


After 20 years, though, perhaps now is the time to embrace my essential TCI-ness, awkward moments and all. After all, I''m not just an anomaly. I''m a trend!