People who travel a lot, for work or otherwise, are constantly brought up against the reality of their smallness, which can of course be good or bad. There is an opportunity for humility: ‘I am but a small person in a big world and should therefore not think too much of myself,’ and there is an opportunity for despair: ‘what good is one person in the big world? and why, therefore, should I try?’ TCKs (third culture kids) belong to this group of people vacillating between the opportunity for humility and despair.
But it was while I was re-watching Lilo & Stitch the other day that these thoughts started to foment. My thinking happened in this way: (1.) this movie is an absolute diamond in the rough, (2.) this movie is a rewriting of Frankenstein, and (3.) this is also a TCK movie.
I was immediately moved by the weirdness of our protagonist, Stitch. Interestingly enough he is not even named until much later in the movie than I thought, after he has become a household pet. His given name is Experiment 626.
Our protagonist is a weapon, something designed to create mass destruction, something to be unleashed on unsuspecting peoples: he is a war machine. So, upon his arrival on earth, when he meets the unassuming Lilo, a girl in the worst throes of middle school, the surprise of the movie is his relatively human response. This war machine was apparently given too much “heart” when he was created.
If you should ever be cursed with burden of becoming a book person, you will start to see books everywhere, becoming a kind of Sixth Sense kid, but the ghosts are usually centuries-old aristocrats instead of regular-old dead people. In my defense, however, the similarities between Lilo & Stitch and Frankenstein were many and deep. They are the story of a creature created by humans, not nature, and for human ends.
Perhaps Frankenstein’s most moving scene is when the monster looks in on the happiness of an idyllic, rural family. He learns the language through observing them, and also learns the meaning of his sadness theretofore: he has always been alone. There is an older, blind man in the family who is one day left by the rest of the family as they go in to town. The monster seizes the opportunity to try to be understood by someone who can’t see his monstrousness and presents himself to the blind man. They hit it off. When the family returns, however, the fragile moment of connection is severed, the monster is cast back in to the outer darkness, and a lot of violence ensues.
Lilo & Stitch is the story of the successful adoption of the monster into the domestic sphere. Lilo loves Stitch, wholly irrationally, from just about day one—and she’s not even blind. Against all evidence otherwise, she stubbornly persists in believing that Stitch is a dog. But, thanks to her awkwardness and ostracism from her peers, she’s primed for a friend, even if it has to be a monster. Like the blind, old man, it’s Lilo’s lack of ability to connect with others that makes her a prime candidate for the monster’s entrance into the social world.
SIDENOTE: This fragile relationship between Lilo and Stitch, upon which the whole movie is built, is a dramatization of the fragile vacillation between humility and despair as experienced by TCKs. The hugeness of the world presents the opportunity for social involvement (humility) or a pulling back into oneself (despair).
I then began to think that these monsters (i.e. Stitch and Frank.’s monster) are also TCKs (understand, I’m a TCK, so I’m not just being mean).
Not only are Stitch and Frank.’s monster notorious travelers, their transience is inherent to who they are and who they are made to be. Frank.’s monster is literally the amalgamation of other human’s body parts, assembled from the nearest graveyard, whereas Stitch is designed to destroy, and move on. Here is a weirdly deep and moving quote from Stitch’s maker, Jumba:
“626 [Stitch] was designed to be a monster, but now there is nothing to destroy. You see, I never gave him a higher purpose. What must it be like to have nothing, not even memories to visit in the middle of the night?”
Stitch’s transience is framed specifically in terms of his loneliness, his despair. His maker looks on in terrified wonder at the possibility of a loneliness that immersive.
Both stories’ domestic scenes are also poignantly TCK-ish. The whole central drama for these two monsters is whether or not they can make the leap from pariah to functioning-member-of-society. Whereas Frankenstein is tragic and despairing, Lilo & Stitch is optimistic, holding out for the possibility of assimilation that is beneficial to the social group (Lilo and Nani) and the monster himself.
What can be gleaned from these stories is, I think, a moral view of the TCK’s situation. Assimilation is not always a choice, as is the case with Frank.’s monster; even though all he wants is to assimilate, the family rejects him. But when it is a choice, it is the responsibility of the TCK to be open to the possibility of humility that manifests itself as a willingness to be a part of a group, a functioning contributor to the greater good. In Stitch’s case, he happens upon a family that is broken enough to recognize his need and loneliness as similar to the need and loneliness in themselves.
Both for the TCK and the people around them, at least an awareness of the possibility of despair or humility is important. But all parties have the responsibility to choose to make themselves assimilable to their respective others. In other words, what we can learn from Lilo & Stitch is the heroism of both the titular characters: Lilo is humble enough to recognize Stitch’s need, and Stitch is honest enough to admit his need and humble enough to accept Lilo’s love.
For those around TCKs, the right thing to do is to be a family to them, however dysfunctional; and for TCKs faced with the possibility of despair, the right thing to do is to choose humility instead.