No matter what country I was living in while growing up, there was one television show that was constant and served as “comfort TV”: Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone and it so happens that the first episode touches on Third Culture Kid themes.
(*** WARNING *** SPOILER ALERT *** for those who have not yet watched this episode ***)
Recently, I decided to search for the first episode to see how this classic TV show, which had me glued to the TV screen for each airing in any language at any age, started. Of all the topics in the science-fiction-psychological thriller-fantasy-suspense, short-story-with-a-twist-at-the-end world, Rod Serling started this classic TV program, which first aired in 1959, with the theme of aloneness in Where Is Everybody?
In this first episode, a man wanders into a completely deserted but fully functioning town he doesn’t recognize, with no memory of who he is, how he got there or why the town is empty. The town is complete with running electricity, shops open for business, and cars as if they had just been parked. In a diner, the man finds freshly prepared food and a burning cigar resting on an ashtray, but like everywhere else in town, nobody is around. The man, dressed in an Air Force suit, roams through the town looking for anyone to talk to. However, he only ends up speaking to himself and gets as far as figuring out part of his identity when he sees a movie poster of a film based on the real life experience of Air Force pilot Col. Dean Hess.
At one point in the episode, the man says outloud, hoping for anyone to hear him, “You see, there’s some question about my identity. Let me put it to you this way, I’m not sure who I am.” Finally, he breaks down and starts despereately asking for help. At the end, the reality of who and where he is is revealed.
The plot twist in this The Twlight Zone episode involves references to isolation and the American entrepreneurial spirit in space travel. A quick Google search about the days of the original airing dates of the The Twilight Zone shows that they were aired every Friday at the time. This episode, originally aired on October 2, 1959 may or may not have given a one-year anniversary homage to NASA, which “began operations on October 1, 1958” after being established through the National Aeronautics and Space Act signed by President Eisenhower on July 29, 1958. There is more to be said about the political and historical context about the purposes behind American space travel at the time, especially during the Cold War, but to summarize a few, part of the purposes include: representation, opportunity and positioning.
The general reasons why Third Culture Kids (TCKs) grew up in different countries are due to a similar entrepreneurial spirit. In most circumstances, global expansion can be seen as a socio-economic-political after-effect of historical Western expansion and imperialism, if considering the root reasons of how TCKs and the parents who raise TCKs came to international assignments in the first place. The series of developments leading up to the economic structures and globalization trends we know today have roots in the economic intentions colonialists like Christopher Columbus and other settlers had in seeking new territory for expansion. Although not all intentions for international assignments are imperialistic in nature, of course, the economic relationships between the global North and South and the context of international commerce cannot be divorced from the past of colonialism.
While there are various sectors within the global nomad community of individuals with families sent on international assignments by host nations as well as individuals with personal economic and other interests, representation, opportunity and/or positioning have been common purposes for international presence, most obviously for the military, corporate and diplomatic sectors. There are similar, but more faith-based and/or philantrophic intentions for missionaries. The decisions and options of those who become migrant workers who relocate for a job and others who do not fit the above categories are also influenced by the state of international commerce as we know it today.
Along with the benefits of a cross-cultural life, TCKs can also make personal sacrifices as a result of nations expanding their interests into new frontiers, similar to the man in Where Is Everybody?, who symbolizes the sacrifices NASA astronauts and other employees made as space travel became one of the nation’s priorities. (I left a few details out so you could possibly enjoy some element of surprise if you have not seen it yet). The children (TCKs) and spouses (Third Culture Adults) of those with a globally mobile career have our share of sacrifices as a result of being sent out to international postings. TCKs and Third Culture Adults sacrifice stability of the living environment and staying close to family members, such as parents, siblings, other extended family members and, in some cases, children. TCKs and Third Culture Adults also experience feeling different and isolated as a result of frequently being uprooted, which has the greatest impact during the developmental years, and experiences like feeling like an outsider in your own birth country. (You may read more about the the experiences of Third Culture Kids in David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken’s Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds)
With the topics of identity loss, isolation and loneliness brought up in Where Is Everybody? and the parallels I saw between the character’s experiences in the episode and expereinces common to TCKs, I could not help but reflect back on the time when I felt so displaced about my own identity and felt so alone because of it. Throughout the years before I discovered I was a TCK, especially when I was not surrounded by other kids who grew up internationally, I had to internally try to deal with feeling so different by myself in ways I could not even speak to others about because I lacked the language for it at the time. I could not name my losses and much like this man who was tortured because he did not know who or where he was nor where everybody was, there was a large part of my identity and therefore ability to connect with others with my whole self that was suffocating and suffering.
Even Rod Serling has language for isolation being a serious “enemy”: “Up there, up there in the vastness of space, in the void that is sky, up there is an enemy known as isolation. It sits there in the stars waiting, waiting with the patience of eons, forever waiting… in the Twilight Zone.” Towards the end of the episode, one character states, “The barrier of loneliness — that’s the one thing we haven’t licked yet.”
Without a langauge for my experiences and without acknowledgement of who I genuinely was or what I’ve struggled through as a child, I felt invisible in front of everybody and therefore very alone and isolated, like the man in the Twilight Zone episode. Without acknowledge of who you are and your personal journey that involved struggle, it can feel like being in a deserted town, speaking only to yourself, questioning your identity and maybe even mental state. Some throughout the years have been able to only see the “me” that was familiar to them or that they could relate to. However, they could not see my whole self and everything I fought hard to not be defeated by throughout chidlhood, even though I had no words for it at the time and had no idea how many other people felt the same way I did.
The threat of isolation only points to the very basic need for human connection, which validates why TCKs feel the sense of urgency to just be seen, understood and connect. This is also why today, I am so very grateful for coming across the cross-culture community of global nomads and TCKs. Thank you to you all who have spoken up and created space for us to connect. The moment I discovered you all, I was able to start feeling like I knew where everybody was at.
(Photo credits: “Message in a Bottle” by Kraftwerck)