Standing out in a crowd
I grew up in an Italian-American family, surrounded by people that were the first or second generation of their families born in the United States. My parents, themselves the first generation in our family, always felt a strong connection to the community of Italians in New York City and I have fond memories of big dinners and after dinner walks around Little Italy and Arthur Ave. But I never felt a connection to the community the way that my parents, aunts, and uncles did.
It wasn’t until a recent hike with a good friend of mine that I gained some insight into why I’ve felt this way: I like being the outsider in a group. My friend highlighted that despite my lack of affinity for the Italian-American community, I do enjoy being the Italian guy in a group, cooking for my friends and telling my favorite Italian jokes and stories. Which reminds me: I need to get outside more.
Thinking about it further I realized that I’ve always been drawn to situations where I have an opportunity to cross cultural and language barriers, whether the significant amount of time that I’ve spent traveling recreationally, the time I’ve spent living as an expat overseas or just the fact that I’ve worked three-quarters of my career for foreign firms.
There is much written about “Third Culture Kids”, that is, kids raised in a country other than their nationality. I always resisted that label for myself, mostly because my parts were citizens at the time that I was born. But maybe all we really need is a new definition. Passports aside, the third culture comes about when living your life requires that you be a boundary-spanner on a regular basis. Maybe growing up in that mixed-cultural environment fostered this sense of desire to be the outsider, maybe growing up in New York City had something to do with it, maybe I’m just wired differently; Probably all of the above.
I remember my first day of grad school at Thunderbird vividly. One of the most exciting moments came when the class took turns introducing themselves; for the first time in my life I was in a room filled with third-culture people, people just like me. Since then I’ve lived, work, and traveled all over the world, and met more people like myself. Mostly in bars. In fact, one of my favorite things to do in new country (besides sample all of the street foods) is to look for a pub and spend time meeting the local expats.
There’s a great video on TED about fostering the natural inclinations of children, where Sir Ken Robinson talks about the career path that Gillian Lynne took when her parents finally enrolled her in dance school. It’s worth a watch if you haven’t seen it.
So what have we learned today? It’s ok to stand out in the crowd, it makes you an ambassador for your culture (for better or worse). Also, I need to take more hikes in the woods.