I’m American. My Wife’s British. Here’s How We Are Raising Our Third Culture Kid

I can only hope his participation in, and understanding of, different cultures will help him play with, and for, everyone. 

by Tommy Mulvoy
Originally Published: 

“Who do you play for?” I asked my wife, in a serious tone, as I placed her coffee on the bedside table. Vicky ignored my question, grabbed her coffee, and started reading the news on her phone. Twenty minutes later, before heading downstairs to leave for work, I paused at the bedroom door and asked her again, with a bit more intensity, “Who do you play for?” This time she looked at me, laughed, and said she was looking forward to the weekend.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that the mixing of my American and Vicky’s British cultural mores was going to lead to some seriously befuddling situations. The second time that I casually slipped my hand into Vicky’s on our third date, she didn’t return her hand to within an arms distance of mine for the rest of the evening. Vicky’s actions, I later learned, didn’t have anything to do with her attraction towards me but were in line with a reserved nature that is common in Brits.

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In order to bridge the cultural gap, Vicky and I partook in a variety of experiences in our respective countries during the first years of our relationship. On my first trip to England to meet Vicky’s parents, we walked on Hampstead Heath, with what seemed half of London and their dogs. The following day, we headed to a local pub to take in a West Ham United football match. When I put on my new West Ham jersey that morning, Vicky told me that I was not allowed to wear it as most pubs prohibit team gear on match days so as to avoid fights. And to think that I thought Madison Square Garden in the ’80s was rough.

Last fall, we celebrated Guy Fawkes Night in Battersea Common, which made the homecoming bonfires of my youth seem quaint. And, last summer, I studied at Oxford University with the hope that I might have a better appreciation for the three years Vicky spent studying amongst the ivy encrusted walls and Augusta-like quads of the colleges.

Although Vicky had lived in the U.S. for six years before we met and had experienced a number of American cultural events, it was important for our relationship that we share some of these experiences together. Six months after we started dating, I took Vicky and her parents to Yankee Stadium for a baseball game. When starting pitcher CC Sabathia was pulled in the third inning, the entire crowd, minus the three Brits next to me, reigned boos down on the pudgy pitcher as he walked to the dugout.

The following summer, I brought Vicky to a Fourth-of-July barbecue in my hometown with 17 family members who kept reminding her of the reason we were all celebrating. And, during hockey season, we went to a handful of Rangers games where Vicky, much to my astonishment, stood in awe during fights and crooned during goal songs.

My favorite experience, though, was taking in what was supposed to be one of the last New York Islanders games at the Nassau Coliseum. I spent the entire first period reminiscing about the countless games I spent in the old barn as a kid watching my beloved Mike Bossy and the rest of the game wondering if the rabid fan next to me in the Tavares jersey drinking a 24-ounce beer was really my soon-to-be wife.

This enculturation helped, but seemingly mundane occurrences, like when Vicky reminds me to get a “jumper” or when she mentions that I need to buy a new pair of “trainers,” still leave me puzzled. In addition to word choice, cultural references and idioms also pose difficulty. In order to get her caught up on these lighter, though at times more important, allusions, I decided to show her Miracle and Hoosiers, two of my favorite American movies.

As the young American squad worked their way towards Lake Placid in Miracle, Vicky was glued to the edge of her seat. And, when Mike Eruzione finally grasped Herb Brooks’s “Who do you play for?” Vicky screamed “USA.”

When we sat down to dinner last Friday, I casually reminded Vicky not to ask Jimmy to play ball. She looked at me and asked, “Who is Jimmy?” Two hours later, Vicky was once again on the edge of her seat, this time as the boys from Hickory fought their way to the 1951 Indiana State Basketball Championship.

The cultural hallmarks of Vicky’s and my lives are clear, but I can’t say the same for our two-and-a-half-year-old son Aksel. He is what is commonly referred to as a third-culture kid — a child who’s is raised in a culture different from his or her parents. While he has celebrated two Fourth of Julys in the U.S. and Thanksgiving and Halloween during his first year, his ties to both Vicky’s and my cultures are starting to wane. Busy work schedules prevented us from preparing and celebrating Thanksgiving last year, and this year’s trips to the U.S., to attend another Fourth of July barbecue with my extended family, and London, to visit Vicky’s parents and Aksel’s cousins, were cancelled because of COVID-19.

Switzerland has their own cultural celebrations, most famously Fasnacht, but the draw of dressing up in elaborate costumes, throwing confetti, and rising at 3:00 a.m. in order to catch the start of Morgestraich, the traditional marching tune that kicks off the celebration, has put our participation on hold until Aksel is a bit older. A more appealing event is the more than 500-year-old Basel Herbstmesse, or Autumn fair, where Aksel enjoys the carnival rides and Vicky and I sample the regional foods. And, we have started to follow the rhythms of the small mountain town in the Alps where we own an apartment. Aksel eagerly watched the farmers dress their cows with flowers and bells for their walk into the mountains this spring and we will watch the “Alpabzug,” or the cows return to the valley, in mid-autumn.

In these times of upheaval, the question of “Who do you play for?” has a deeper and somewhat darker connotation. World leaders and those on both sides of the political spectrum seem to want more clear dividing lines between peoples, cultures, and beliefs. As a third culture kid, Aksel won’t likely ever “play for someone,” and I can only hope his participation in, and understanding of, different cultures will help him play with, and for, everyone.

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