It might be art, music, theater, dance.
Perhaps it’s religious differences or religious similarities, the minaret or the church steeple.
For many it’s traveling far and wide, or immersing yourself in one place, one culture, for an extended period of time.
It can be the cacophony of different sounds: the tram rattling its way through a city, a high-speed train whistling through verdant fields in faraway countrysides, the buzz of conversation at a cafe table, the roar of a waterfall, the stillness of the desert.
It might be the confusion of a different language, or the pantomime we do when we try to make ourselves understood. It’s in the nuances of non-verbal communication, and the manner in which we and others choose to costume ourselves.
It’s in the swirling colorful robes of an Asian festival, the adornment of ears and fingers, necks and wrists. It is henna and kohl-rimmed eyes, bright sashes and skimpy swimsuits.
No doubt for most of us we find it in food, glorious food: sampling the dishes of foreign cuisines, trying new flavors that set our taste buds aglow. Finding new beverages to quench our thirst, whet our appetite, celebrate our victories.
It can also be politics, regional disagreements, international organizations, individual governments consulting with and sparring amongst themselves, coalitions and uprisings.
Experiencing a different culture can be all of the above and far more. We can also add sport to the list.
We see it in played out in stadiums and arenas, on television as the team or competitor from one country competes against another. On the global stage, we have the Olympics, World Cup, Super Bowl, Tour de France, Dhakar Road Rally.
We also encounter it in our daily lives when the new kid from ‘somewhere else’ joins the local voetbal club.
These past few days have been a reminder of the positive power of sport to bring together people from different countries, different cultures. Uniting, rather than dividing.
It was Daughter’s international school’s turn to host the end of season softball tournament, with coaches and high school players from seven other schools descending on The Hague and its nearby beach and forested suburb, Wassenaar.
The teams came from farflung places like Israel and England, France and Austria, Germany and Switzerland.
I’ve written before about hosting visiting students during The Hague’s annual Model United Nations in Congratulations, You Have Two New Boys. As with the weeklong Model UN conference, international schools around the world also take part in such activities as academic, musical, dramatic and sporting events.
At this tournament, the girls spent their days competing on the softball fields; later, in the clubhouse, there was laughing and chatting and swapping stories.
They might recognize a familiar face from a previous school they attended, or figure out they have mutual teachers or friends in common. One of the girls we housed had been friends with a teammate of Daughter’s back when they both went to school together in Russia several years ago.
In the evenings they broke bread around the tables of hosting families, and got together in small groups with their host athletes to explore the beaches and bike paths, congregating to watch a movie, meeting up at pizza joints or shopping in The Hague’s city center.
They may have never met before, yet they ‘know’ each other: Third Culture Kids who feel most at home with others who, like them, have grown up between and among different cultures.
Daughter’s team is representative of the makeup of the softball tournament writ large: girls with passports stating a half dozen countries but with cultural histories tripling that number. Among the players are a Dutch girl who’s lived outside her own country on two other continents for a decade, the daughter of an Ambassador from a former Soviet Republic, and a Swiss-Egyptian girl who now finds herself here in the Netherlands.
I’m sure if you added up the various nationalities of the 110 girls competing at the tournament and add in those of their parents, you’d easily have several dozen combinations. Toss in the various other cultures they’ve lived in along the way and you’re probably approaching a couple hundred permutations.
Even when the passport country seems straightforward, the situation is often more complex than it appears. We hosted two lovely girls who, on paper, are American. But neither’s lived in their birth country for ages, one not since a toddler.
In the meantime they’ve lived in six countries on three other continents between them. Neither learned to play softball in the US, home of the sport and its sibling, baseball.
Come to think of it, Daughter never played softball when we lived in the US, either. Ironic that she would learn to play the game in the Netherlands from a Dutch coach, with a team that resembles its own miniature Model UN.