Roots are for trees. That was once a distinctly leftwing argument: the idea was that the political right had a vested interest in people staying, geographically and psychologically, in their place. When, during the second world war, General de Gaulle approached the philosopher Simone Weil to write down her ideas about the future of France, she called the resulting book Enracinement – Rootedness (though the English translation, a little plonkingly, calls it The Need for Roots). Her ideas were seen as conservative, expressing a nostalgia for a world in which people did not move from where their feet were firmly planted in the soil. When T.S. Eliot argued against “rootless cosmopolitans” – in his lexicon, a code phrase for Jews – he was making a similar point. People should be where they are from.

Now, curiously, the politics of rootedness seem to have reversed. It is the left that argues for protection from the forces of modernity, for the importance of the local, while the right argues that mobility and transience are simply unavoidable conditions of modern economic reality. The slogans of globalisation are “get on your bike” and “the world is flat”. People who want to get on have to be willing to move, often and unhesitatingly, at the behest of their employer or to seek work.

I’ve always been interested in rootedness, mainly I suppose because I had very little experience of it. I grew up mainly in the Far East, where my father worked for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, which was then a small, well-run colonial institution and not the global colossus it is today. The company was in many respects a good employer – but it was no shyer about moving around its employees, even those with small children, than its equivalents would be today. By the time I was three years old, I’d lived at 10 different addresses in six different countries. We had lived in Hamburg, where I was born, and then in Hong Kong, Rangoon, Calcutta, Brunei and (in between postings) Manchester. While I was in Brunei – or more accurately Labuan, a tiny island off Brunei – I fell madly in love with the gardener’s daughter, Ming Jah, a glamorous older woman (she was seven, I was three). We spent so much time playing that my Malay began to overtake my English – at which point my mother intervened to separate the star-crossed lovers.

After that, we mainly lived in Hong Kong, in the kind of bubble in which overseas life often takes place. I didn’t even realise that it was an odd kind of childhood to have until I arrived at boarding school in England at the age of 10. It might seem strange to send your children 8,000 miles to school but, at that time and in that place, it wasn’t just normal, it was actually one of the reasons people went to work for overseas companies, which paid part of the school fees and travel costs.

I was immediately in the grip of a kind of reverse exoticism. When I came “home” to England, which hadn’t been home for either of my parents, I couldn’t help but notice how alien everything seemed. Everyone was so white, for one thing, and so restrained. It was cold – though I quickly grew to like the cold and to prefer it to the permanent mugginess of Hong Kong.

But much more than any of this, it was cultural. Today this is easier – children from Shanghai to Shinfield know about Nike and Nintendo and can quote from favourite episodes of The Simpsons. That wasn’t true when I was growing up and I remember spending a great deal of intellectual effort on trying to work out what people were talking about and/or pretending that I already knew. What was the Tube and in what respects did it differ from the Underground? Was it always underground or were there bits of it that weren’t and were they the bits that were called the Tube? What was The Magic Roundabout? What was a jumper and what was the difference between it and a sweater and a pullover, and was there one name it was all right to use but another that would be babyish or stupid?

This didn’t happen all day every day but it happened a lot and the feeling of not knowing what people were talking about gradually wore down to a slight but permanent cultural dislocation. Someone once said that for V.S. Naipaul’s characters, the most difficult question was always “where are you from”? I felt – still feel – that. There was a permanent sense that I was, to use the period phrase, “picking up fag ends” – overhearing scraps of other people’s talk, or understanding scraps of it, and trying to put these together to make a coherent story. All children do this, to an extent, as they try to crack the codes of adult talk and adult lives. I’m not claiming to be unique, just that I did a lot of it. And, crucially, I grew up with a sense of linguistic dislocation so that English was my real home, much more than any specific place – which was a big part of why I became a writer.

When I was growing up, there was no name or label for these experiences but there is now. A sociologist at the University of Michigan, Ruth Hill Useem, spent two years in India in the 1950s and became interested in the effect these experiences had on her own children. She went on to study children who accompanied their parents when they went to live in countries other than their own. These children, she believed, took elements of the “home” culture from which their parents came and the culture of the place in which they were being brought up. They turned them into a personal hybrid culture of their own – hence the label “third-culture kids”. This term is now well known in sociology, and third-culture kids are a much-studied phenomenon in the US. The State Department, which has many workers whose children grow up in these circumstances, has a particular interest.

Third-culture kids were once mainly missionaries’ children but are now an increasing feature of business life. I bet that quite a few readers of the FT were brought up like that and that even more are bringing up third-culture children of their own. The academic research points out the facts that, because of the career patterns of their parents and because it’s expensive for companies to send people abroad, third-culture children often belong to families in which the parents are educated to a higher-than-
average level. These families have a low incidence of divorce and have, through the experience of being thrown together in a foreign culture, an additional reason for being close-knit. The third-culture children who grow up in these circumstances are likely to be
multilingual, relaxed about cultural differences, well educated, to marry late and to stay married. They also have a relatively increased risk of depression and suicide.

One of the distinctive features of third-culture kids is that, while they are abroad, they feel a strong connection with the “passport country”. When they go to that passport country, they feel a sense of loss or nostalgia connected with the country where they were brought up. They tend not to feel completely at home anywhere – or, to put it slightly differently, they feel equally not quite at home wherever they are. They often have a sense of rootlessness that is matched with a willingness to get on with people. They are quick fitters-in.

It is an item of faith in the academic study of third-culture kids that they feel a sense of belonging with others who were brought up in the same circumstances. That is what the third culture is: the shared culture of expatriate children, who supposedly get on better with others of their ilk than they do with anyone else. This is one area in which research on American “military brats” (as they call themselves) might not apply as readily to the experience of Spanish telecoms advisers resident in Dublin, French bankers in London or German software engineers who have moved to Barcelona. A country in which only a minority of citizens owns passports is likely to have a more charged sense of abroad than countries in which abroad is all around; and modern urban Europe is a place with an increasingly marked, increasingly lively cross-cultural vibrancy.

I suspect that being a European third-culture kid is an excellent training for modern life. As the speed of change increases, it gets harder for people to have a sense of rootedness, even if they are living in the place where they grew up. This is not exclusively a question of technology – indeed, you could well argue that a Victorian who lived through the birth of the railway age, of mass industrialisation, the mass reading public, the birth of the suburbs, the invention of the machine gun, and the birth of the British Empire, lived through just as many fundamental technological shifts as are taking place today. But the speed of cultural change is increasing and the pressure of economic change is faster. If your father works as a coal miner, and you grew up with that as your determining idea of what work is, it will be something of a jolt or paradigm shift for you to find that the only available work is in a call centre – but that is a manageable jolt, a liveable degree of change. But to expect someone to start life as a coal miner and then to switch to working in a call centre is too much. People can’t change that much without a permanent psychological cost. That, however, is for many people the condition of the modern workplace, which offers high rewards for some in return for offering total insecurity to all and demanding total flexibility from everyone, all the time.

Can we live like that? Can we live with the degree of change that a fully networked, fully competitive, economically “flat” world demands? I’m not sure. But I am sure that a sense of not quite belonging anywhere is an increasingly pervasive phenomenon. In fact I’ve come to think that the childhood I once thought of as displaced and anachronistic was one of the best preparations for the modern world I could possibly have had. I’ve never felt the sense of connection with other third-
culture kids that the research says exists but the other things in the description ring true. I’ve met lots of writers and every single one of them has had a sense of dislocation: it might be rooted in class, geography, sexual identity, gender or individual psychology but it’s always there. Mine is in no small part to do with being a third-culture kid. At some times and in some places it would have been a life-disadvantage but here, today, I think it’s the reverse. I live in London, a city that is full of people who feel as I once felt: that they never entirely fit in, often aren’t quite sure exactly what people are talking about, have a faint nostalgia for something they know they can never get back, and feel that they live in a place which is deeply familiar and yet slightly estranging. There’s no better training for the 21st century than being a third-culture kid.


‘I spoke the equivalent of barrow-boy cockney’

I was very fond of Ah Luk, my amah, and she of me. She had a mouthful of gold teeth and was gentle and kind with a sly sense of humour. Ah Luk didn’t speak much English and she and I communicated in a kind of English-Cantonese pidgin. One upshot of this was that until I was about eight I could make myself understood in rudimentary Cantonese. I would translate for my mother at markets, that sort of thing – and because Cantonese is a good language for swearing, and no doubt also because of Ah Luk’s sense of humour, I spoke the equivalent of barrow-boy cockney. When I asked the price of something on my mother’s behalf, I would say something like, “Oy, cock, how much is this fucking fish?” The stallholders would laugh and tell me the price. I would then tell my mother. My mother would then ask why they were laughing, and all they would ever say was, “He one very clever piecey small boy, missy.” All that was thanks to Ah Luk.

The emotional ties between amahs and their charges aren’t often discussed. I suppose children forget as they grow up and there are no written accounts, as far as I know, from the amah’s point of view. It’s a pity. In colonial days – up until the early 1960s or late 1950s – families who were returning to England for good could buy a special group ticket that featured one-way first-class travel for them, with a free third-class return ticket for the amah thrown in. It’s a sad image, those amahs on their solitary journey home.

This is an extract from John Lanchester’s latest book, Family Romance: A Memoir, published by Faber and Faber, £16.99

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