In the early 60s on a pleasant August morning in San Francisco, Kate entered this world as the first daughter of her parents, Brandan and Ruby O’Brien, both firstborns in their respective families. They, all three of them, were members of the firstborn club — the club of overachievers, of type A personalities. Three type A’s in a four person family — perhaps a bit much for that fourth person, Kate’s younger sister (affectionately still thought of as her “baby” sister).
After Kate was born, Ruby stopped working in public relations and personnel at McCormick-Shilling to stay home with her daughter. Brandan worked for Standard Oil as a chemical engineer. When Kate was two, her father had an opportunity to move to Saudi Arabia to work for Aramco — then Arabian American Oil Company (now Saudi Aramco or Saudi Arabian Oil Company). The three O’Briens moved to Saudi Arabia where Kate lived for five years, from the ages of two to seven.
When Kate was almost three, her mother Ruby gave her a baby sister. Yep. That baby was hers. Kate considered the baby the best birthday present ever. Her sister was far superior to any of her lifeless boring dolls. She moved of her own volition, cried, laughed, peed, and had her very own personality.
When Kate’s mother Ruby was pregnant and after she gave birth to her baby sister, Kate would inform everyone within listening distance that she had itsy bitsy teeny weeny babies inside her and that once she grew up she’d go to the hospital and have them cut out, just like her mom did. Clearly, she didn’t understand the fine points of reproduction or birth. She just reasoned that her sister grew inside her mom’s belly until her mom had to the hospital to get her out. To her, going to the hospital meant getting surgery. How else would they get her sister out of her mother’s belly?
About this time, Kate developed her skills as a surgeon by operating on her stuffed animals. She’d cut them open to remove unwanted parts — usually pesky noise-makers — and then would sew them back up. Perhaps, she operated on her toys when she was older than three. Well, she knows that she did it when she lived in Dhahran. That much she remembers clearly.
As for that adorable baby sister, Ruby and Brandan considered naming the baby Jamila, which means beautiful in Arabic, for she was born in Saudi Arabia. Though they didn’t name her Jamila, in this story she’s named Jamie, with a nod to Jamila, as she was and still is quite beautiful. Kate will do her best to leave her far more private sister out of this story, except to boast from time to time. As a proud big sister, she has bragging rights. Plus, remember, this is fiction.
The O’Briens lived in modest 2-bedroom garden apartments within company compounds in Dhahran, Abqaiq, and Ras Tanura. Kate remembers going to the compound fence while her mother played tennis, looking out and seeing unending desert and nomadic Bedhouins traveling with their camel caravans.
Saudi Arabia was really hot and sandy. Kate doesn’t miss extreme heat or sandstorms. To this day, she can’t stand heat, be it dry or humid. She was made for foggy boggy places, like the climates of her Irish and Germanic ancestors. In company compounds, they dressed as Americans did in the 60s. So when Kate got stuck in a sandstorm, wearing a sleeveless minidress that left her face, arms and legs unprotected, the sand blinded her and felt like millions of needles cutting into her exposed skin. Robes are functional in the desert. You need to cover your face, too, during a sandstorm.
Kate attended preschool, kindergarten and first grade in Dhahran. In the private Dhahran American school within the compound, Kate had both Arab and American friends and classmates. They were taught an advanced American curriculum, plus the English-speakers learned Arabic (and the Arabic-speakers, English). Even though she did learn some Arabic in school, she no longer remembers it. To go to high school, kids had to go to boarding school outside the country or their families moved. Many families moved rather than send their teens to boarding schools.
What she misses most from her years in Saudi Arabia is Abduh, their Yemeni domestic worker. The term used in the mid-60s among Americans in Arabia was “house boy” — clearly offensive. Abduh was not a boy. He was a dignified man, a husband and a father. Though we all lived in modest apartments, everyone had help. The men lived in dormitories on the compound and sent their earnings back home to their families.
Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien taught their daughters to show Abduh respect. They explained that he had a wife and daughter Jamie’s age back in Yemen and had come to Saudi Arabia to support his family and save money to open a shop one day. Kate loved Abduh. When he babysat, he brought 6 oz bottles of Coca Cola and Juicy Fruit gum. He let them watch TV. Her favorite program was Daktari about a veterinarian in East Africa. Kate loved the antics of the chimp named Judy and lion named Clarence.
Back in the 60s, most American Aramco employees and their spouses didn’t bother to learn Arabic. Kate’s parents did. When her mother was in the hospital having her sister removed (in labor), the Bedouins were fascinated by her mother, as she was the first white woman they had met. The nursing staff intervened and tried to separate them from her mother. Ruby refused to let the nurses keep them apart. She spoke to the Bedouin women in Arabic, for she was just as interested in them as they were in her.
Once when Ruby brought Kate and Jamie to visited their grandparents in Seattle, she knew something was wrong with Brandon. She frantically called Aramco and demanded that she be told what was wrong with her husband. At that exact moment, there was a poisonous gas leak where Brandon was working. He didn’t want any of his workers to climb the ladder to close the valve, for inhaling the gas stopped all body functions immediately. Brandan took a deep breath, climbed the ladder, closed the valve, but on his way down gasped, inhaled the gas and fell to the ground. He was not breathing and his heart had stopped. His workers carried him to safety and resuscitated him. Kate’s parents believed that the workers saved his life because he had taken the time to learn Arabic and speak to them in Arabic (plus he risked his life to save theirs).
Kate’s proud of her parents. Both Brandan and Ruby were pretty kick ass.
Third Culture Kid
As Kate spent the formative years of her life outside her parents’ culture, she is what is called a “third culture kid.”
A third culture kid is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture. The third culture kid builds relationships to all the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the third culture kid’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of the same background, other TCKs.
— Ruth E. Van Reken, co-author, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds (2009)
Common characteristics of Third Culture experience (for adults as well as kids)
- Cross-cultural lifestyle
- High mobility
- Expected repatriation
- Often a “system identity” with sponsoring organization/business (e.g. military, missionary, corporate, foreign service)
Common personal characteristics of TCKs (children who grow up in this world)
- Large world view
- Language acquisition
- Can be cultural bridges
- Rootlessness—“Home” is everywhere and nowhere
- Sense of belonging is often in relationship to others of similar background rather than shared race or ethnicity alone
- Cultural identity
- “ Cultural marginality ”
- “Cultural marginality” describes an experience in which people don’t tend to fit perfectly into any one of the cultures to which they have been exposed or with which they have interacted, but may fit comfortably on the edge, in the margins, of each. (For how that relates to TCKs see http://www.worldweave.com/BSidentity.html)
- “ Cultural marginality ”
- Unresolved grief
- Many of their losses are not visible or recognized by others. With no language or understanding to process these losses, many TCKs never learned how to deal with them as they happened and the grief comes out in other ways (e.g. denial, anger, depression, extreme busyness, etc.).