Three weeks ago, I finally got around to reading Obama’s A Promised Land. Being, as my 8th grade teacher proclaimed, a “voracious reader” — I call myself an “unpicky reader” — I’ve recently picked up books with hopes to gain a stronger foundation in political discourse. My whole life, I’ve been consuming literary content, so college, I decided, is prime time for me to read and articulate my own opinions on, you know, relevant important things. A book by our nation’s first black president seemed like a good place to start.
To give you an idea of how it went, here are excerpts from my bookstagram review written the morning I finished:
Finishing the thicc A Promised Land in 14 days was a challenge, but I did it by hybreading — using both this hardcover (thrifted for only $1.99!) & its audiobook on Libby, read by Barack himself.
[note: highly recommend Libby; amazing library app & free]
Reading about Obama’s political career & first term as potus wasn’t as eye-opening as I’d expected, but worth reading nonetheless. His upbeat attitude, cooperative nature, hopeful outlook, & almost-childlike empathy & heart were visible thru his presidency; this memoir upheld that image of him. White House stories are also fun (& educational).
At the same time, I gained more detailed, POTUS-POV insight on what working in politics entails, and how important garnering mass support is to literally get anything done. I also found it interesting how every president seems to have 1-2 main goals or dreams, sustaining not just their campaign & reign but also their attitude & values — for Obama, it’d probably be democracy.
Overall, I’d recommend Promised Land if you want more storytelling & reflection. If you want more democracy advocacy & urgency, read Ben Rhode’s After the Fall: Being American in the World We Made.
That night, I ruminated over the fact my biggest takeaway from Obama’s book wasn’t related to his presidency, or even politics, but instead his character, values, and outlook that indirectly shone through his writing. I was even shocked that I found his thoughts extremely relatable, despite having zero right (literally who am I to feel that I could in any way relate to Obama himself).
I marveled at his open mindedness and “almost child-like empathy.” Where did it come from? Why was I so drawn to this? In my 3 AM shower, I suddenly remembered his reflection on living in Indonesia during formative years of his life. Eureka! We are both TCK.
Third Culture Kid is a term coined by sociologist Ruth Hill Useem to describe children who spent formative years living in neither their own nor their parents’ homelands (not to be confused with immigrant families). For Obama, that was living in Indonesia with his American mother. For me, that was moving to China when I was 9 with my Taiwanese-American parents. As this BBC article describes, TCK are “citizens of everywhere and nowhere.”
I learned this term from Brian Grasso ‘18 last year, founder of Duke Crux. From a conversation about authors (Pearl S. Buck was a TCK) he described TCK as “if the country your parents were from is blue, and the country you were from were red, you wouldn’t be a perfect mash of blue and red, or even purple. You’d be green!” Other famous Third Culture Kids include Kobe Bryant, Yo-Yo Ma, and Richard Dawkins. I have yet to read any books they wrote, so let’s get back to Obama.
His political strategies usually leaned towards cooperation and compromise, even at the expense of losing supporters who critiqued him for being too friendly with, or lenient towards the opposing side — for example, his dealings with Wall Street, his “softness” towards Russia and China, and handling of environmental movements. In his memoir, Obama acknowledged these criticisms, but stood firm in his own beliefs, even sharing his frustrations of how easily observers skim over complexities of a single issue and its interrelatedness to other matters as well. Now I’m not making excuses for Obama (no presidency is perfect), but he’s got a point.
I oftentimes find that my own ideals and centrism come off as naive, hopeful, or even passive. While some have praised my open mindedness and amiability, I’ve condemned myself for what I see as indecisiveness and un-opinionated, weak logic, which may be a reflection of how we oftentimes view politicians. After reading 706 pages of Obama’s thoughts, however, I’d like to think that he and I perhaps exhibit a different sort of open mindedness, a hypersensitivity to hearing both sides, developed from our similar childhood backgrounds as TCK.
You can’t simply achieve this form of open mindedness by traveling. I’m not trying to make “this form” sound superior — it’s simply different. Traveling places you in positions of being an outsider, knowing you belong in that space as an outsider. On the other hand, TCK would attempt and may even succeed to blend in, becoming an insider, while ultimately still being an outsider. It’s a more dynamic state of being. Another notable difference between a TCK and other sojourners, is that the K stands for “kid.” (If you’re reading this, your fundamental transformative years as a kid are probably over, oops!)
College is a time when much of our attempted transformation through traveling may occur. An inherent part of higher education is the widening of our worldview and greater participation as global citizens. DukeEngage is an example of how traveling does not work, since the program, as this 2019 Chronicle article claims, “separates students from the local culture,” “fosters a savior complex,” as is ultimately just performative altruism. The problem stems mainly from the fact that the program “frames the students as privileged outsiders.”
I agree with these claims. When I first heard of DukeEngage, I felt doubtful of this elitist program’s ability to accomplish its mission. During my family’s four years in China, we experienced many hardships, which contrasts hopeful expectations for cultural or community immersion. In fact, when we moved, I was absolutely pissed at my parents for forcing me to endure so much. Maybe Obama didn’t feel as much dread moving halfway across the world, but immersion for TCK is not a self-chosen challenge. Nor do kids consciously hold concepts of social norms and constructs; it’s an experience of simply living, surviving, and learning, day by day.
A final similarity in my TCK experience with Obama is living as a BIPOC in an eastern country that’s majority people of color. Like traveling or participating in immersion programs, being white in eastern countries makes the individual part of the desirable Eurocentric norm. As a global citizen, they move and participate in cultures differently than BIPOC individuals. This is not to say that white individuals cannot escape separation from local cultures. But it can be difficult, since the only thing left to change, then, is the individual mindsets.
To achieve open mindedness, and value cooperation more highly, seeing more of the world will most definitely help, but you must experience it through the lens of trying to fit in. Instead of thinking you must “experience other cultures,” try asking how you, individually, can make “other” cultures your own. Disclaimer: I am not endorsing cultural appropriation. A great emphasis recently has been placed on the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, and I wholeheartedly agree.
But I also challenge this: appreciation in and of itself is not enough! It still frames you as an outsider. Instead, try to assimilate. Cultural assimilation in America today carries a negative connotation of erasure, but that does not have to be the case. Cultures — even multitudes of cultures — exist in and through individuals. BIPOC TCK are out here creating entire worlds of thinking within themselves. If you’ll only rewire your comfort zone, step out of your natural line of reason, and embrace the “other” more willingly, you may find the “other” within yourself, and find yourself within the other. And maybe you’ll find them to be simply another fellow human, an individual not so different from yourself. Or as Obama might suggest, a neighbor.
Jocelyn Chin is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays.
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