The Devil Is In The Detail


Third culture kids (TCKs) are individuals who have grown up in a culture (or multiple cultures) different to that of their parents' culture, for a significant part (or all) of their lives.

This brings into question the definition of ‘culture’. The general sentiment is that it is defined by country borders and nation states. The body politic is supposedly uniform, cohesive and seamlessly bound together, to the point that cultures can only be drastically different when compared ‘inter-country’, as opposed to ‘intra-country’.

This sentiment made me believe I had a greater ability to juxtapose cultures than a non-TCK. Living half my life in Australia and the other in Pakistan, (in multiple cities from each country) gave me an upper-hand - or so I thought. I had been constantly looking over new horizons instead of exploring within the borders I had been living in.

Pakistan, after independence from India and until the late 1960s, was considered an ‘Asian Tiger economy’: South Korean government officials would come to understand the vision behind Pakistan’s 5 year plans; the Singapore port was modelled on the Karachi Port, and Emirates Airlines staff were trained by Pakistan International Airlines crew - a flagship airline through the mid to late 1900s.

Tourism in the 1960s & 70s was embraced and Karachi was considered the ‘Paris of the East’, with its roaring nightclub scene sporting live bands, great food, plenty of booze (they had their own brands of beer, vodka and whisky) and dancing.

Pakistan was also one of the last stops on the ‘hippie trail’, a trail used by thousands of young European and American backpackers in the late 60s and 70s. It was an overland route that began in Turkey, ran through Iran, curved into Afghanistan and Pakistan and ended in Nepal. This resulted in hippies being pictured enjoying puffs of hashish in hotels, restaurants, bars and tourist spots all around the country, and quite often, protesting at anti-war rallies. My friends find this horrifying, but their parents find it nostalgic.

However, by far, the greatest testament to the Pakistan long gone, was the cultural diversity it espoused. There were churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and gurdwaras. Many of my friends are products of inter-religious and inter-sect marriages - reminders of a time when there was strength in difference.

Even if this was all a romanticized past, it was a simpler and better past. Back then cultures were embraced, not chided. The whole is after all, much more than the sum of its parts. This was a vibrant nation of many castes and creeds, built on mass-migration where cultures were made to ebb and flow - a fact of life which gave much more than it took. Why is it then that Pakistan veered off the straight and narrow? If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, but all the same, Pakistan over the last 40 years has made a beeline for self-destruction. As a TCK in Pakistan, I find my identity has become a scathing reminder of a Pakistan that was, back when cultural diversity was the trump card and not the Achilles heel.

Another emergent truth is that much of Pakistani youth are TCKs. Throw in partition from India, independence of Bangladesh, three military coups, dynastic politics, and a plethora of other ideologies, and what do you get - a cultural enigma. Generation after generation, the rug has been pulled from under their feet, and in the midst of all this socio-economic, geopolitical anarchy, what was it that kept them alive and kicking? Cultural adaptation. To my non-TCK Pakistani friends, my existence as a TCK has brought a fresh perspective on how foreign lands mould us. For me, it has brought nostalgic introspections, where the cultural melting pots I have yearned for are closer at hand than I was aware.

A note to all TCKs (myself included) who huff and puff and beat their chest (inwardly, if not outwardly) about being more exposed, and open-minded: read between the lines wherever you are. The people there have a story to tell, a narrative to sow - the silhouette may be nuanced, but is just as profound.

You don’t need a third country to experience a third culture. The devil in the detail, and what a devil she is.