Feature, socient life
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Third Culture Paradox

Sierraville. Total county population: 2300. Like Namibia, more cattle than people.

After months of travel, I landed unsuspectingly into this lonesome valley of meadows, prairie, snowcapped mountain woods and baleful bovine during my search for snowboard-friendly housing. Single road with whole of three shops and one- pump gas station that rhythmically lows like a cow unloading aching udders when pumping at $4.30/gallon of gas.  Every evening, I walk the mile and half dirt road to find sustenance at Los Hermanos, Mexican local diner that feeds town and tourists alike.

Here the folks have a rugged, grizzly look. Weather beaten skin, sinewy arms, tattered Tevas and surprisingly well-read minds. Men wear hair in long ponytails and shake salt-peppered beards at clueless visitors who can’t understand how a warm valley day doesn’t mean accessible mountain passes still covered in snow.

Humans, we learn by contrast. I’m surprised by the slow, deep heartbeat of this land compared to the Outlook scheduled calendar of the other, Silicon Valley. I compare that to the properly coiffed, trenchcoat yet barely-there makeup look of New York commuters, where looking “put together” is a measure of one’s competency, intelligence, and ultimately potential. They would have much in common to smart-attired Kenyans, who with even crisper ironed shirts, perpetually shined shoes and manicured nails could put any Manhattanite to shame.

At Lavington Vineyard Church in Nairobi, our pastor spoke about 3rd Culture Christianity – where one has seen faith practiced in multiple contexts, answering where “home” is an ambiguous map-bouncing effort, leaving one perplexed. Aide workers who operate in war-torn South Sudan scenarios and extreme refugee poverty decompress into seemingly undeserved arenas of peace, wealth, suburbs. The dichotomy can be jarring, friends who work in providing care to such populations stress the importance of giving self time to transition from one reality to another.

For myself, in many ways I study subcultures for a living. Working in social impact business, requires many degrees of legitimacy within multiple contexts. One must be well-versed, conversant in industry, government and policies while drinking tea in various embassies across countries. To live in the shoes, voice, humor of local populations without patronizing their lifestyles and speak authentically of farming, pesticides, seed selection from an insider’s viewpoint. Travel in tuk-tuks and motorbike to remote villages across rice paddies and bamboo forests without contracting malaria, cold or fatigue. Read, analyze and evaluate balance sheets, shipping schedules and production controls. Push for ever tighter measurement, problem solving, ultimately profitability. And yet speak the fluid, ethereal powerpoint language of VC and financiers whose understanding of your world may be limited to TedTalk and Discovery Channel viewership. In all these one must be credible, and moreso, authentic.

One thing I’ve learned is that each subculture retains its own logic, and optimization. In Rwanda, one holds tongue and thoughts deep within, where contrast and difference from one neighbors once harbinger to atrocity. Dichotomously, color, cut and style of ones designer jeans, sneakers, hair as evidence of originality, creativity could mean the difference between landing that dream job as art director at latest cutting edge boutique in LA. In Myanmar, each farmer carves out his own plot, making independent decisions to this year’s weather forecast, thus seed type and timing of planting, never quite trusting neighbor nor official in post-socialist regime. Whereas in Uganda, SAACOs, savings and loan cooperatives, neighbors come together to collectively lend and mutually build up a township’s wealth. Not unlike California’s Marin County slow food movement where family-owned dairy farmers like Cowgirl Creamery, Strauss Dairy partnered together to bring stable income to neighbor businesses, bringing new life, policy and leadership to a dying industry. The process of accountability, investment, hope, a likewise driving factor behind the success of India’s micro-lending, rupee by rupee, woman after woman, village after village.

Meeting Kenya-made friends back in the States, we discuss how too easy it is to carry a chip on shoulder. The Brit compares Point Reyes’ hills to her Oxford English farms and rocky lush Irish landscapes; I describe the saving-sensibilities of never-carry-debt mindsets of Bay Area church-going Asian Americans contrasted to high-risk Taiwan entrepreneur technologists. Nairobi, known as fintech ground zero beginning with M-Pesa’s introduction, it is too easy to see the advantages of such easy American financing, and how much we could wish to see sub-30% interest rates for the communities back in Africa. We laugh, over the aspiring suburban National Geographic photographers encountered who ask many “smart” questions about kidnap insurance. *Cough*amateur*cough* as anyone in the office would counter in derision. Whether trundling over 8-hour savannah treks and hacking internet signals out of Jeep battery + wires + SIM card contraptions, there’s pride in self-sufficiency, independence, hardcoreness.

But even therein, is bias. Legitimacy, is incredibly important in my line of work. My effectiveness, depends on ability to authentically articulate the viewpoint of a local community, into the business language of corporations, investment and high finance. I cannot afford to have a chip on the shoulder, to puzzle as my Euro-friends do at how American politics could become so narrow as choosing between red and blue, angry liberals and angry conservatives, all together huddled at one extreme of spectrum. To advocate for emerging market business in our networks, it could make a difference, to understand how a Goldman analyst might once have died of embarrassment when GS entered retail banking or when B of A bought out Merrill Lynch. Or why dating jokes in NY deteriorating to complaints about lack of deal-flow could be funny to a Wall Street and Sandhill Road crowd alike. How frequent flyer status conveys social standing same as number of acres and oxen ownership in Tanzania, or gold teeth found on the trash pile known as Smokey Mountain in urban Manila. Someone gave me the backhanded compliment recently, saying, “But you’re a Berkeley girl, dressed in Wharton clothes.” So I must be credible, whether in Immortal Technique economic rap on 3rd World Democracies, or having opinions on which type of double french cuff for a Thomas Pink shirt is appropriate for a non-black tie, smart casual evening cocktail party.

And it’s simply because, it is my work, to walk all of these spheres, authentically, best I can. Each world, has its own language, structure, and inherently, a set of values optimized for success within that microcosm. I cannot afford to step back, play God and define a universal truth. I cannot describe, though many have analyzed, why the optimization of one set of people, necessarily de-optimizes the choices of another set, and this affects my personal views on terrorism, banana republics & GMO farming. I cannot tell the Republican Christian friend who is brought up to believe financial independence to be the highest value, why the X’hosa guy in Joberg will never be able to accumulate wealth because he must, with his single paycheck, raise up 22 nieces and nephews school fees. Or justify to the San Franciscan activist why the gay Beijing colleague married straight to produce offspring did it out of filial piety, nobility of his character, apart from rainbow ethos.

I can only say, sometimes, there is no intersection. My friend in meditation, told me my life is a Venn diagram of non-overlapping circles. But I would say this.

I am not advocating that the world is relative. In fact, through my travels I’ve come to believe that Truth, is not necessarily in the balance of these many forces, arenas. Rather Truth lies in the paradox. At the same time it is true in one world, may the opposite be simultaneously true in the other. It is the elegant universe, where God plays dice all day.

This, is the Third Culture Paradox. Where the unexpected is reality, and all that we know to be true of our small microcosm is the paradigm outrageous in every other microcosm.

the rich are poor
the meek inherit the earth
the last shall be first

the lame walk
the deaf can hear
the blind can see

Where general wisdom tells us that one should count the cost before building a house, and to build it on a strong foundation not sand, yet in the same breath are told specific wisdom: the little one will take down Goliath, to walk on water without sinking, that faith small as a mustard seed will move mountains and that when one finds treasure of great value, sell all you have to obtain it.

Third Culture Paradox boils to a simple point. We are in this world, but not of it. Therefore conform to whatever microcosm paradigm dictates, not that you may believe it, but that they may believe you, in their own language and paradigm, when you tell your story.

While in Tahoe, that’s between soaks in wilderness hot springs at hippie commune under shooting stars. They say, when in Rome…

“ For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win the Jews. To those under the law, I became as one under the law (though not myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” – Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

This entry was posted in: Feature, socient life


Social entrepreneur with international expertise building rapid scale-up businesses in startup, NGO & Fortune 500 settings. Believes that people, work, fun, winning and societal impact all go hand-in-hand without compromise. Passionately committed to proving that businesses can achieve exponential market success by driving authentic social impact.

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