iC Dingbat

Citizens of the World

Story by: Teko Mmolawa '12

If Cassie Clemmer ’15 had stuck around long enough to blow out the candles at her fifth birthday party, she might not have lived to see the next day. As she awaited that first bite of her ladybug cake, news arrived that Congolese rebels were in town, and she and her family had to flee for their lives. She left behind unopened presents and learned early on that change is a constant and at times a necessity.

Clemmer is what is known by some as a “third-culture kid”—a person who grew up in a culture different from that of his or her parents. At Colby, at least 22 American students are dual citizens. Others have residency to another country and may have spent time abroad in childhood. For many of these people, college is the first time they’re living in their “home” country. They may look and talk like Americans, but culturally they may not identify as Americans, making for a potentially complicated adjustment to Colby and the United States.

“It’s easier when I am here to say that I am French,” said Zoe Paddon ’15, who considers herself a third-culture kid. “But then the immediate question after that is, ‘Well you don’t have an accent.’ Then I have to say, “Well, I’m actually half-American.’ So it’s just a little bit hard sometimes to not have just one culture.”

Clemmer feels the same. Born in Limbe, Haiti, to American parents, she moved to Vanga, a village in western Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) when she was only a year old. Her father worked as a doctor and her mother as a teacher. She attended an international school where she was exposed to all kinds of languages and people. In Vanga she felt at home amongst the Congolese people and their culture. Despite living without running water and electricity, Clemmer enjoyed her life there. She says she’ll never forget hearing music outside her house at three o’clock in the morning and seeing the spirit in people’s eyes. 

Although she called Vanga home for most of her life, Clemmer occasionally came to the U.S.—when her parents came to promote her father’s medical practice and once to Colby, when her older brother was looking at colleges. Her longest stay was as an exchange student at Orono High School in Maine. During that year she became immersed in American culture for the first time.

She was in for a surprise, she said, and was at a disadvantage because she did not know who Ke$ha or Lady Gaga were, among other things. “It was really hard to relate to people, because there was so much I didn’t understand, there was so much that they didn’t understand about me,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of stuff that they haven’t seen, and they’ve seen a lot of stuff that I haven’t seen—we grew up in different worlds.”

“I’ve lived through government turnovers, rebel soldiers, coup d’états, tanks on the street, shootings, dead people,” said Clemmer.

By the time Clemmer enrolled at Colby, she had experienced the initial culture shock. But Winsor Wesson ’12 encountered cultural challenges at Colby, especially when it came to popular culture—like cartoons his friends had seen when they were younger. Though he spent summers at a camp in Maine, his childhood was mostly growing up in Brazil, Romania, Peru, and Japan. “I think at Colby... they don’t entirely understand why you wouldn’t understand these things,” he said.

Wesson was born in Vermont, and his father worked as a headmaster at different international schools. To date, six years in Bucharest, Romania, is the longest stretch he has ever stayed in one place.

Now, in Waterville, Wesson feels that, in some ways, he has found a home. Having lived on most continents, he defines home based on the people he is closest to. “I like Maine, I like the landscape, but it’s not just the trees and the landscape that I call home,” he said. It’s the people, he said.

So ask Wesson where he is from and you may not get a direct answer. “Sometimes I lie; sometimes I just make up an easy answer,” he said. “I don’t usually really get into it, unless it’s someone I know, because it’s kind of a long answer.”

But sometimes he has to get into it, like when he crosses the border into Canada with his family and girlfriend and they have to spend some time explaining where everyone lives. Although it can be a funny experience, it’s not always easy for third-culture kids.

With many more people being sent overseas by big companies, more people may soon be asking themselves: where is home? Or struggling to answer it. “There’s a whole cultural shift going on in the world of how people grow up and how they are going to have to learn their place of belonging,” said Ruth Van Reken, author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, an American who spent most of her childhood in Nigeria.

For James Hootsmans ’13 it was his father’s job at United Technologies that took him to Japan, Connecticut, and then China. He was born in Boston to a Dutch father and South African mother. Spending different holidays in different parts of the world, at times in Holland or South Africa or in China where his father works, Hootsmans considers himself a global child. While most students study abroad for a semester or year to get a once-in-a-lifetime experience, Hootsmans’s fall semester in Spain was like walking in his own backyard, he said, because the world is his home. “I can go around the world and be open to people,” he said.

After living in Florida, New Caledonia (a French island in the southwest Pacific), Madagascar, and France, Paddon can relate. But despite being comfortable in many cultures, sometimes she doesn’t feel at home anywhere. When in the United States she feels French because she lived in France for nine years, and when she’s in France, her friends call her an American. “I’ve never fully felt like I was a part of one particular culture,” she said. “I don’t feel Malagasy or New Caledonian. I’m a little bit of a mix of everything, and I can’t identify to one culture.”

Being a minority much of their lives can give third-culture kids a more rounded view of the world when they come to their “home” countries. Paddon remembers a class photo from her time in Madagascar in which she was one of two white people. “It was just different, because I was trying to get into this culture, because I wasn’t necessarily associated with it in any way,” she said.

With culture and sense of home becoming so fluid as globalization shrinks the world, the term third-culture kid, which originated in the 1950s, could be replaced with what Professor of Anthropology Catherine Besteman calls a cosmopolitan view of the world. People with a cosmopolitan life experience, she said, are more inclined to develop global ideals rather than patriotic ones. “I think of it as a consciousness and a perspective, not a culture,” she said.

And, though having no fixed home can be confusing for most third-culture kids, it can have an advantage. Said Hootsmans, “I am a citizen of the world.”

Teko Mmolawa '12
Gaborone, Botswana
Majors: English & French Studies