The denationalisation of COVID-19: third culture experiences

By Matthew Short

The way we have been experiencing the pandemic has become culturally constructed in a very interesting way. On the one hand we are driven to create habits, behaviours, beliefs, and understandings based on the national structures within which we are directly moving. Then, on the other hand, we are made aware of news from elsewhere, of strategies adopted by other countries, of the experiences our friends living somewhere else are going through. Typically, this latter awareness and cultural sense can have a limited impact on our lives. It may not directly affect our being in the environments we have to move around. Yet, as the world becomes more globalised, and cultural and national identities become more fluid, there are swathes of third culture individuals who find themselves impacted by these national strategies in a unique way.

Third culture individuals are usually described as those who grew up within a cultural context which is different to that of their parents or primary caregivers. This experience shapes the individual’s identity construction in myriad ways. The perceived bridging of two cultures is seen to then create a feeling of being within a third culture. Such third culture identities are becoming more common as global flows make it easier, or otherwise more necessary, to move across national borders. I discussed the experience of the pandemic from this particular cultural perspective with three third culture individuals. The glimpse into their worldview is a starting point to help us understand how national strategies can slip between the balance of uniting people or alienating communities. By tracing such global movements and experiences, we can start to imagine a future that allows third spaces to be fostered within the creation of larger impacting policies.

Nancy grew up in the UK with a Ghanaian background. She and her family regularly visit Ghana so she was able to bridge the two cultures quite easily. During the pandemic, Nancy has been living in Hong Kong and unable to visit her family members in both countries.

“Well at the beginning I was very worried when it happened in Hong Kong, but I was happy with the way people dealt with it here. I was worried about my family in Ghana because I wasn’t sure how the government was going to handle it, so I was having a lot of conversations with them. But when it started here I was able to warn my family so they could stock up on masks and everything.”

A lot of the anxiety that Nancy felt seemed to come from a lack of certainty about how Hong Kong and Ghana would approach the virus. With Hong Kong, her personal experience of the busyness of the city and her lack of cultural awareness about their crisis management made her unsure on how they would cope. Her experiences and knowledge of Ghana, and awareness of how the government usually manages things, then made her question how this would manifest in this particular crisis. In both instances, she was surprised in a positive way. Her bridging of cultures between Hong Kong and Ghana also allowed the opportunity to share knowledge with her family in a way that anticipated the spread of the virus. Interestingly, it was the tactics of the UK, the place she is most culturally habituated with, that led her to reassess her feelings of trust with that country.

“Watching how people in the UK were not taking it seriously was very worrying. I had someone die of COVID there which was very stressful. Also, it had me worried as my parents are elderly with underlying illnesses. In truth, I would actually like my family to be back in Ghana as I feel they handled it very well, much better than the UK which is very sad to see.”

This shift in thinking of a place you thought you were familiar also happened with Maria during the pandemic. Maria is from Brazil with family also from Italy. She’s been living in Sweden for over two years now and has stayed here throughout the pandemic so far due to the risks of travelling. Her mind about Sweden re-shifted much in the way Nancy’s mind of the UK shifted.

“People tend to have this idea about Sweden as a very democratic country that cares about everyone and about the common good, a very collective kind of thinking, but this pandemic made everyone re-shift that, I think, and start to think how selfish they were: putting their personal life first before the common good… My friends here, who are Swedish, they responded very differently to the pandemic than my international friends and that made me feel that they’re not caring and collective about others as they think they are.”

Maria felt forced to adopt the Swedish strategy whilst she was living there. She had to actively make herself stop caring about certain things that appeared more normal elsewhere in the world because it caused too much stress due to its ‘otherness’ in the Swedish context. Despite adapting to the Swedish way, she still felt it was wrong and had her doubts about the approach. This mix of feelings, and a sense of difference to other places’ strategies, left Maria in a flux, feeling like she was living in a place that wasn’t part of the same world anymore.

“It’s like you’re living in a parallel world, because things seem so different, and yet you know it’s not a parallel world because bad things are still happening here, but you can’t really see it, and people are responding to it in a different way. It brings a lot of unnecessary anxiety.”

We can find how consuming conflicting information from a scattered cultural awareness has affected Layla too. Layla comes from a culturally Indian family. However, she grew up in Dubai and spent a significant part of her adult life living and studying in the UK. Now she finds herself living through this pandemic in India, in a different state to where her parents live, and watching the news of various countries across which her friends and family are scattered.

“It’s been really hard… All my friends in Dubai are now like ‘we go to bars, we go to clubs, we’re going out, we’re doing this’, and my brain is going ‘what? how?’ and then I kind of wish I was there because it would just make my life easier. But it’s strange… I read the news from the UAE, the UK, and Canada… and I’m just picking things from different countries to inform myself and make sure that’s the one I follow because I don’t trust my government currently to give the information I need.”

Many countries have been using leading figureheads such as presidents, prime ministers, or members of royal families to bolster a sense of national unity. When we are receiving direct recommendations from leaders of our nations, we typically “work together” to abide by the rules and feel a sense of being a part of something larger than ourselves. Layla, however, didn’t feel stirred by the Indian prime minister’s attempt to bring his people together because his methods seemed uninformed and the citizens took things in ways Layla didn’t feel comfortable with (such as banging on pots outside of one’s window turning into a sort of street party). She mentions a lack of trust in the governing officials of where she’s staying, so resorts to picking information from other places to inform her own way of tackling the virus. As such, she creates a space removed from national strategies, a non-place, which in a way expresses her third culture identity physically.

“Because I’ve been in this little bubble in my apartment, I honestly could be anywhere in the world, I know I’m in India but I don’t feel like I’m in India… As a third culture kid, we are so adaptable, and the pandemic hasn’t been hard for me in the sense that I have to stay at home, that’s fine, I’ve made a home within myself. I can never guarantee where I’m going to be… you cannot just be like ‘this is my forever home, this is the place I’m going to be’. Honestly, no one wants me. The UK didn’t, Dubai didn’t, even India, I don’t feel like it wants me in this country.”

When devising strategies, leaders typically rely on their own cultural background to help shape their plans. This is particularly easy to do when there is a perception that a group is united by a common culture. Yet, when these strategies have an ambition of further uniting, we often find that there are people who end up feeling more alienated or unwelcome. By understanding the experiences of trust, change in appreciation, and creation of neutral spaces that third culture individuals have undergone throughout this pandemic, we can note how these then become shared with other individuals in large-scale policy changes. With further research we must pose the question: how can we foster shared spaces that are more inclusive and don’t rely on an assumed shared culture?