A Diplomatic Upbringing: A bilingual ‘third culture kid’ who wouldn’t have it any other way - The Post

A Diplomatic Upbringing: A bilingual ‘third culture kid’ who wouldn’t have it any other way

Long stints in the UK and US followed by passing visits to Tallin, Sarajevo, Nicosia, Kathmandu and Budapest have instilled this Danish ambassador’s son with a strong sense of global identity

Torsten (right) with his mother and siblings
January 11th, 2020 5:00 am| by Ben Hamilton

A diplomatic upbringing has given Torsten Geelan, 34, the ability to adapt to new cultures and social dynamics and to embrace change as an inevitability.

I understand your mother is the current Danish ambassador to Hungary.

Yes, she’s been in the position since 2016.

Has she served in any other countries, and in which of these countries was she the ambassador?

Yes, she’s served in the UK and the USA, and as ambassador in Bosnia, Cyprus, Nepal and Estonia – her first ambassadorial posting.

Nepal! I understand she was the ambassador there at the time of the April 2015 earthquake that killed over 9,000 people. That must have been pretty traumatic and ultimately a busy period for her.

My mother was indeed incredibly busy in the aftermath of the tragic earthquake in Nepal. On the day itself, she was fortunate to be with my father and sister in an open grassy field when they saw dense flocks of birds in the sky and began to feel the earth shaking and rolling. The following weeks she spent day and night providing shelter for Danish nationals on the embassy compound and co-ordinating an emergency response with Danish aid organisations.

How old were you when she became an ambassador for the first time, and did you live with her during any of her postings?

When my mother was appointed the Danish Ambassador to Estonia in 2006, I was a 20-year-old undergrad student at the University of Manchester living on my own. The only times I still lived with my family while she was posted abroad were in New York and London where I was born.

That said, most of my holidays over the years were spent together with my family in Tallin, Sarajevo, Nicosia, Kathmandu and Budapest, so I’ve had the chance to learn a great deal about these countries and regions of the world.

What life lessons could be learned from being the child of an ambassador?

Too many invaluable lessons to list here! Perhaps the most valuable and enduring life skill, though, is the ability to adapt. Like most kids of diplomats, I learned this the hard way. For example, when I moved to New York from Copenhagen as a 10-year-old in 1996, I told my mother I would never be happy again. But after an incredibly difficult and lonely year pleading with my parents to send me ‘home’, I finally settled in and became part of a diverse and close-knit group of friends comprising all social classes and representing several nationalities and ethnicities. By the time we had to move back to Copenhagen again, I had begun to master the ability to adapt to new cultures and social dynamics and to embrace change as an inevitability.

How big an influence has your diplomatic upbringing had on your adult life?

I think it’s hard to overstate the influence my diplomatic upbringing has had on my adult life. As a bilingual ‘third culture kid’, I’ve become an amalgam of predominantly English, Danish and American influences – having lived, worked and studied in all three of these countries – and developed a strong sense of social justice and appreciation for the immense richness of our global cultural heritage.

Could you tell us a bit about what you’ve been up to since leaving the family fold: education, careers, country of residence?  

Since leaving the family fold I’ve spent the better part of a decade studying and researching the (ever changing) relationship between trade unions, the media and power at the Universities of Manchester and Cambridge, where I completed my MPhil and PhD in Sociology. At the moment of writing, I’m currently working as a lecturer at the University of Leicester in the UK, but next year I will be spending two years as a Carlsberg Foundation fellow at the University of Copenhagen researching the role of trade unions in the transition to a low carbon economy.

What is the best story you remember from your time abroad?

I was 11 years old with my family visiting the Great Wall of China during torrential rainfall. We missed the last train back to Beijing and decided to walk along the train tracks to the next station to see if there were more trains – my father with my little sister on his shoulders. Arriving at a tunnel, we decided, for some inexplicable reason, to walk through it. Midway through, in the pitch-black, shuffling along with our hands on the wall to guide us, we heard the shocking roar of a train arriving. Legend has it I panicked and jumped into the middle of the tracks. Luckily, the train never materialised, and we emerged unscathed.