(Picture: the Aandahl family, Taiwan)
By Tim Brantingham
I need to do some quick housekeeping before I dive headfirst into this article.
First, it might seem cruel and condescending to talk about children, even in jest, as BRATS. But rest assured in the context of military and diplomatic families this term is totally OK: it is kosher, accepted, even deeply embraced. It is the term mobile government kids use to refer to themselves and to their community at large. Also, it may not mean what you think it means. The origin of the term comes from that previous era of Pax Britannica, where families of overseas-posted military personnel were called “British Regiment Attached Travelers,” or BRAT. It stuck. Military BRATS and DiploBRATS are terms used ubiquitously today, and not just by the US and British governments, but also by the “attached travelers” of Australian, Canadian, Indian, New Zealand and Pakistani government institutions as well.
Second, this article is going to be very USA-centric. I apologize for this, but here is the reason: there are about 8.7 million American living overseas today, and of those, 8,000 are diplomatic families sent abroad by the US Department of State, and roughly 200,000 are military personnel sent by the Department of Defense. These last two categories, especially the military category, is a uniquely American post-war phenomenon, where roughly 750 base sites around the world—from radar outposts in the Indian Ocean to the giant bases in Germany, Japan, South Korea and Italy—are there to service the existing (though fragile) Pax Americana. No other country has anywhere near the same number of military personnel abroad (France: 10,000; UK: 9,000), and so when we talk about Third Culture BRATS, we are almost always talking about American families.
Housekeeping done. Let’s jump into it. Common characteristics of BRATS, as paraphrased from BratsWithoutBorders.org. (See! They use the term all the time.)
Extreme mobility. Both military and diplomatic families move assignments an average of every 2-3 years. That means between ages 0 to 18, your average BRAT will have relocated 6-9 times. Yep, that’s a lot—way more than any other TCK group.
Life centered around a base or compound. Military bases are not part of any local culture, they are large islands of Americana (if the base is American), transplanted abroad complete with a movie theater, a school, a high school football team, a dive bar, a burger joint, a golf course, and—oh yeah—a fair bit of heavy artillery. Diplomatic families will live closer to the local culture, may attend International or even local schools, may play rugby instead of football, but there will still be a compound, a consulate, a commissary, a sponsoring family and/or caretakers who provide the safety of a concerned and stable government-sponsored cloister. The base, compound or cloister is permanent and culturally consistent across locations, and while the people moving through them are as fluid as water, there is comfort in knowing the next base or cloister will feel a lot like the last one.
Fluent in diversity. Ever since President Harry S Truman integrated the US Armed Forces in 1948, demanding “equality of treatment and opportunity”, US government installations around the world have become some of the most racially diverse institutions in the world—almost as diverse as the US population itself. On base or on compound, there are no segregated neighborhoods, no rich kid schools: all live where assigned, and next to some other family from who-knows-where also so assigned. While racism and classism certainly exist, it is largely leveled out in institutional practice. At the very least, it’s a lot more leveled out than in the population at large, and BRATS grow up noticing that. They tend to grow up valuing service, ability, and loyalty over family background.
Living with ever-present danger. That means living with parents sent into combat, or away on assignment for long stretches with little or no communication; parents being wounded, both physically and psychologically; living with protocols to prevent car bombings, kidnappings, and hijackings; the constant threat of real war, cyber war, or psychological war; the uncertainty of where you will end up next and how dangerous or uncomfortable it might be. BRAT literature talks a lot about living with the effects of direct and indirect PTSD. And that is dealing with “Big T” trauma like losing a parent or seeing the extreme violence of war; that is also managing “Little T” trauma like constantly packing up with little or no warning.
To help me better understand BRATS, both military and diplomatic, I turned to two friends for help. The first was Tokyo poker buddy and Air Force BRAT Zensaku Munn, born in Florida and starting life at various Air Force bases in the US southeast. He then took up residence with his family at Yokota Air Base near Tokyo, and after three years, moved to Misawa Air Base for four years. Then, after a stint in the US at Scott Air Force Base in Belleville, Illinois, he moved back to Misawa AB in northern Honshu for his remaining high school years.
The second resource was high school classmate and DiploBRAT Willie Hood. He was (get ready, this will take a while) born in Bangkok, spent his first years in Vietnam, moved to Laos at age 3 for two years, then had two years in Nigeria, two years in Senegal, two years in Indonesia, two years in Texas (while Dad was sent back to Laos), two years in Taiwan, and finally two years in Thailand, which is where Willie graduated from High School, and where his basketball team beat mine in the championship game of an International Association of Southeast Asian Schools tournament. (I’m still angry at him about this.)
Here’s what I learned from our fascinating conversations.
One: There are third culture BRATS, and there are cross-cultural third culture BRATS.
Zensaku Munn explains: “You can talk about military BRATS, who have their own culture and share the unique experience of moving constantly from posting to posting, and then you can talk about cross-cultural militaryBRATS, who, while moving from base to base, are also interacting with non-American, non-base foreign cultures in some way.” What this means for the first group is that two years at a base in the US, and two years at a base in Japan in the end mean four years living in the same culture: military Americana. The experience is still a third culture experience, because military Americana is very different from civilian Americana. But Japan does not much figure into it. For the second group, you are dealing with military vs civilian Americana, while also managing a complex cultural connection to Japan. The second group, according to Zensaku, is a bit rarer.
Willie tells me the dynamic is a little different with diplomatic families as they live not only closer to the local culture but may also attend international or local schools. And given the nature of their parent’s work, they tend to have more opportunities to engage the host country at multiple levels. However, due to the shortness of assignments—intentionally limited to two or three years so a diplomat doesn’t come to love the host more than home—means the depth of cultural connection can remain shallow. Willie says, “while it’s true diplomatic families engage a lot of cultures along the way, the cultural backdrop can seem a bit of a blur.” It’s like an out-of-focus travelogue slideshow shot on the wall over the dinner table. That family dinner table is where your real support comes from and requires a lot of energy and effort to maintain. The slideshow, therefore, provides a nice backdrop but is secondary.
Two: Most cross-cultural third culture BRATS—that is, BRATS entwined in a culture outside the base or compound—are from mixed marriages.
Aside from a very rarified group of military and diplomatic specialists with deep linguistic and/or culture skills who manage to keep their families in situ for long periods, most of the BRATS wedged between the base/compound and a local culture do so because of a mixed marriage: where parents of different cultures may have met while one spouse was on assignment. Both Zensaku and Willie fit that bill, where Zensaku’s connection was to Japan because his mother was Japanese, and Will’s connection was to Vietnam because his mother was Vietnamese.
Zensaku sometimes lived on base, sometimes just off base, yet every day after Dad went to work the language of the house reverted to Japanese. When friends on base, or even their parents, needed an interface with the Japanese community outside—maybe help paying a bill, maybe help buying a bicycle—Zensaku was a go-to liaison. It was a role he at times dreaded and at times relished. But that was his role.
Willie remembers his early years in Vietnam where Mom and Dad spoke to each other in French, and Dad would head out to the embassy while the rest of the family ate a rice porridge breakfast as aunts and uncles meandered in for a morning chat, all speaking Vietnamese. Will says he started life feeling Vietnamese and became aware of being American only after several postings where the support system shifted to the compound, which had little of Vietnam in it. Yet even as the postings started to pile up, the Vietnamese connection always remained strong.
Three: Cross-cultural BRATS are wedged between a rock and at least two very hard places.
The rock is the all-persuasive culture of military and diplomatic Americana: a culture which is very intense indeed, especially on the military side. BRATS of every kind, with or without a foreign culture attachment, can spend a long time trying to find their place between the military and civilian worlds: one world which has structure, subsidized support, and a strong sense of purpose, yet can feel stifling, autocratic and dangerous; and another where you can do what you want as long as you do it totally on your own—an experience which, for BRATS, can feel like freefall. Military BRATS, even if they never leave the continental USA, are still considered TCKs because of how different military culture is from civilian culture, and because BRATS have an interstitial society of their own which sits in between both.
But the cross–cultural BRATS have another layer on top of that: they manage a non-American home life as well and must figure out how to integrate it all together. And that’s where the two hard places start pressing in on you, and they press in from both sides of your family tree.
First, in the case of Zensaku and Willie, there is your Japanese and Vietnamese extended families. Those relatives love and accept you, and you are an integral part of all the yearly festivities, the weddings and funerals. But because you live on base or on compound, and are always on the move, the depth of your engagement has limits: there is always some distance between you and them. And certainly, once you move beyond your immediate relatives and into the culture at large, a small gulf widens into a chasm. You may speak the language perfectly, navigate the streets like a pro, be immersed in every way, but you will still never be considered Japanese or Vietnamese in the eyes of anyone not related by blood. Not only do you look different, c’mon, your Dad works for the US military or US diplomatic corp. From their cultural perspective, you definitely belong to the other side.
But that other side, your US side, is not at all that clear to you. First, you know base and compound Americana, not real Americana. While your multi-cultural dimensions might be accepted on base once you walk off the base and on to American streets the situation changes very quickly. That would be true of any cross–cultural third culture BRAT, but it is especially true if your father is African American, as is the case with both Zensaku and Willie.
Zensaku tells of returning to middle school in Belleville, Illinois, to a predominantly white public school, where classmates did not know what to do with his black side yet were even more perplexed by his Japanese side. He decided his best strategy was to never speak Japanese again and to try his best at being black. Unfortunately, most of the black kids in his community didn’t buy it, even those in his own extended family.
Willie tells of starting college at Drexel University and classmates not believing he had lived in seven countries before age 18. Or the neighborhood folks at Philadelphia watering holes not believing his Dad was a diplomat. C’mon, man, diplomats don’t look like you do.
The uncomfortable truth is that you will never meet two more international, worldly, well-read, well-spoken, charming, compassionate, diplomatic guys in the whole world. And yet when Zensaku and Willie walk the streets of civilian Americana, people tend to see only one thing: two black guys. And on seeing them, instantly imagine a whole scaffolding of stereotypes which cause them quickly to decide there is nothing more to see here. That’s a lifetime of BRAT experiences and insights, gleaned from the earth’s literal four corners, and a rich cross-cultural upbringing shot down with one dismissive glance. Take that experience and multiply it by 365 days a year, and you get a special kind of PTSD.
Both Zensaku and Willie say it was easier to find balance while posted overseas. Among other things, there were more families of similar composition there and the support system was strong. In addition, the ability to act as liaison (as in helping with a bicycle purchase) allowed base or compound peers to value, even encourage all sides of your cultural makeup. But in the US (that is, off-base US) it was just hard, and both Zensaku and Willie took a long time to find their place in it.
Zensaku managed the stress by withdrawing and hunkering down. He went to the Air Force Academy, got his credentials, and returned to base life overseas, most recently acting as a North Asia Regional Affairs Strategist: which, among other things, means acting as a liaison between the US and Japanese Air Forces. Sound familiar?
Willie Hood did not return overseas, and as each sibling started moving on, with parents still moving through overseas assignments, he entered American life without his dinner table and compound support network and, well, panicked. In deciding between fight or flight, Willie fought. “I just became a very angry person,” he says. “I was insecure, and whenever I felt disrespected, condescend to, looked over, I just wanted to fight. I went from a mild-mannered diplomat’s kid to Mr. Fisticuffs.” Willie is a successful financial planner, restaurant owner, and triathlete, but that came despite a long period of numbing his pain with alcohol and other “woeful behaviors,” as he puts it. Willie has only recently started to find some internal peace and balance living within mainstream USA, which for him has come from a pay it forward approach: helping underprivileged communities dig out of their situations with business plans and financial support. Let’s build some new scaffolding.
There is so much more to say about BRATS, and especially about the fascinating lives of Zensaku and Willie. I hope they both tell their own stories someday. But alas all articles must come to end—especially internet articles already over 2,500 words.
Suffice it to say, peaking behind the curtains of my friends’ lives, you get an idea of what they mean by the “little T” trauma of BRAT life: that steady rumble of awkward, often painful experiences that occur at the intersection of grinding tectonic plates: plates of culture, language, race and vocation, all sitting atop a lava of ever-present potential danger. It’s not surprising at all that, occasionally, geysers of PTSD spout out into the open.
Fortunately, there is a large, super-strong network of BRATS out there, both military and diplomatic, who are standing by to lend a hand. Below are some links.
Thank you for your service.
https://fsyf.org (Foreign Service Youth Foundation)