TCK Stories

The Odyssey and the Third Culture Kid

The ‘Ship of Theseus’ thought experiment is one you are probably familiar with, at least in one of its many forms. This is the question of whether a ship that leaves home and has had all of its component parts replaced during the journey will return to its home port as the same ship. Can we call it the same ship? Or can we not? One of its corollary forms is the modern scientific ‘myth’ that the human body replaces every one of its cells every five or so years. I’m not sure if this has been refuted yet, but my guess is it probably will soon. It is my firm and unshakeable belief, however, that no one on earth is more attuned to the terror of this scientific possibility than the Third Culture Kid. 

A memory of poignant immediacy to me from my late childhood is watching the movie Cast Away. It is the story of Chuck Noland—a bit of an obvious play on ‘no land.’ He becomes adrift, cast away from the mad whir of modern life and happiness and into the slow, violent slog of life on an island in the Pacific after surviving a plane crash. His job before the crash was delivering packages; he was the means by which the world stayed connected and whole. All that he has now to get him through are the memories of his fiancé Kelly and a mysteriously winged package that comes in with the tide one morning and is addressed to somewhere very near where he lived back in the real world. He is determined to return the package some day. 

It was either my sister or someone else who first pointed out to me how the movie contains absolutely no orchestral music before the moment when Chuck has finally, after four long years, fashioned a raft and left the island. It’s only after he has cleared the worst of surf and climbed the worst of the waves, as he’s rowing out to sea, as the thrill of making it off the island begins to suddenly fade, and he looks back towards his home of the last four years, that the music comes in strong. The movie’s first moment of truly crippling pathos is not when his plane goes down, nor even when he returns home; it’s only when he has to say goodbye to his adoptive home, his second, alternate home, that the movie watcher is struck by the emotional complexity of his situation and the depth of the alienation the castaway feels and is about to feel. 

The moment of most impressive relevance to TCKs in the movie, however, is when he arrives back home. Chuck’s first encounter with human life after his four years on the island is the jarring blast of a massive cargo ship’s horn. This is our first sign of trouble. The rest of the movie—and it’s quite a hearty chunk of time—slowly, brutally details all of the important changes since the beginning of Chuck’s alienation. His beloved Kelly, after years of searching and mourning, has remarried their dentist and, even though she loves him still and seeing him again is traumatizing and wonderful, cannot just simply abandon her family for Chuck. So, all that’s left is the anonymous, winged package. 

The Odyssey tells the same story. 

‘Nostos’ is the term scholars use to identify the motif of heroic return to home by sea. The Odyssey is an epic poem participating in that genre as well. Odysseus’ heroism is defined entirely by his desire and ability to return to Ithaca and retake his place as King, husband of Penelope, and father of Telemachus.

It’s entirely about a man trying to return home and being crushed by the change when he does. Odysseus’s Penelope is true to him, but his son has become a man, the suitors have all but exhausted his material possessions and food supply, and Ithaca is in a state of political unrest. The saddest moment in the very long poem, however, is when Odysseus returns to his father’s house after killing the suitors and in lieu of a warm, tear-filled, heart-felt reunion, refers to himself for a second time as simply “Nobody.” What was before a simple trick to make his way out of the cyclops’ cave has now become his identity, which is exactly the lack of an identity. 

Is he the same man he was before?

There seems to be something that has changed within him as well. When he visits the Underworld, Tiresias prophesies over him that he will never find true rest in his life, that his return to Ithaca will not be permanent. Not only has Ithaca changed entirely, but so has he. He cannot come home because he is not himself and home is no longer itself either. Though there is hope, both at the end of Cast Away and The Odyssey, the hope is no longer for a return to what once was. The hope is for something else, something new, to become desirable, not for the desire of something old to be fulfilled. 

As an overwhelmingly emotional 13-year-old boy who had just himself moved across the Pacific Ocean (from the Philippines to the States), Cast Away hit far too close to home. What was supposed to have been my home, my place of nationality, the location of my blood-family, turned out to be something entirely foreign and terrifying to me. And leaving the island in the Pacific inspired in me feelings I had certainly never felt before, like hearing a song that made you sadder than you ever could have thought possible. 

Now, as an adult, studying English literature, in the security of a home, The Odyssey only really speaks to me in faint whispers. It only really evokes a shadow of the emotions I felt as a young teenager. But I’m haunted by the impermanence inherent in the message: that the only hope we can have is for something we have not had before. And moreover, in the Christian cosmology, there is a theological truth to that. We should not hope for the happiness of this life, and there will be no remembrance of things past in the world to come. 

But I do not think the emotion is less important, theologically or otherwise. Of what purpose are feelings for lost things? Why would God give us such stark nostalgia for the lost things of the world if heaven was not in part interested in the restoration of lost things, namely the innocence of the world that was the Garden? We are all spiritually adrift, and what is the resurrection but the restoration of a lost life?

And for the TCK, these ‘stark nostalgias’ are only stronger reminders of this. We are given, like Chuck and Odysseus, the gift of understanding the poignancy of lost things and, consequently, a more personal understanding of the need for restoration and return.