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Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind



In what’s perhaps the single greatest moment in Marjane Satrapi’s brilliant autobiography Persepolis, the 8-year old protagonist buys a denim jacket on the black market, decorates it at home, and hits the street with the text PUNK IS NOT DED embroidered on her back. Aside from being adorable, the reason it’s such a great moment is that we as a Western audience recognize both how silly a statement this is in a society where punk hardly ever existed in the first place and how incredibly empowering the statement feels to the young heroine.

Satrapi is a typical Third Culture Kid, a child raised in between two cultures. Although the term applies to her quite literally (she spent her childhood in both Iran and France), it can also refer to children growing up with parents of two different nationalities, or children who spend a significant amount of their childhood traveling. American sociologist David C. Pollock described them as follows: “A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.”

Lately, however, there has been talk of expanding the term even further. The culture these children are exposed to growing up, the reasoning goes, is not just limited to the background of their parents but also includes popular culture from around the world, with its own unique sets of codes, symbols and injokes. What is wrong, right, normal and, most importantly, “cool” to these kids is determined as much or even more by (American) pop culture as by the culture of their parents and the country they live in. And you can count on the Fourth Culture Kids to use this pop culture for their own goals.

A selection of their videos will be shown as part of the No More Westerns program at this year’s Impakt Festival, and what’s remarkable about these videos is that they feel familiar and foreign at the same time. There’s sketch comedy from Ghana and Indonesia that’s instantly recognizable as such, but which is incredibly unfunny unless you’re familiar with what they’re satirizing. There is a clip of the sitcom Growing Pains that is lip-synched by two Chinese youngsters, who can barely keep themselves from laughing. My personal favorite is a flashy, Kanye West-style hiphop video about a fictional Kenyan superhero, although I don’t know how much of what makes the video so screamingly hilarious is intentional.

On the other hand, however, we find Mexican emo’s that are being beaten up for their subculture, and Indonesian Lady Gaga fans who engage some pretty heavy social taboos in the overwhelmingly Islamic country. It’s in these videos that we get to the bottom of what makes the whole phenomenon so fascinating: pop culture that might have a reputation in the West for being vapid can become an incredibly meaningful mode of expression for these Fourth Culture Kids, while more ‘serious’ art hardly manages to get across the globe.

Which is not to say, however, that the Fourth Culture Kids are a particularly dour bunch. They simply express themselves with what they have lying around, in this case pop culture. It’s not reappropriating or recontextualizing as it is simply using. They take what they like and use it for their own means, with little regard for what it is technically supposed to mean. Skateboarding, for example, which in the West has an image as being an anarchistic, Punk Rock-style hobby is praised in Uganda for keeping children off the streets. And why shouldn’t it.

One could see this development as a mild form of cultural colonization, but I personally think that would be reading too much into it. These kids just use familiar forms to express perfectly universal ideas: overprotective parents, sport, a sense of community, or even just sarcastic mockery. Who cares what the original philosophy behind all those forms was. The result is videos that are both very local and incredibly global, and just all-round fascinating. Even the most outdated, boring, or silly stuff can become something entirely new in the hands of these Fourth Culture Kids. Rumors are even surfacing that punk might not, in fact, be ded.

Fourth Culture Kids, Saturday 27 October 2012 @ Theater Kikker