I stumbled across Wikipedia’s entry on ‘third culture kids’ a week or so ago. Story of my life, I thought.
A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of [their] developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.
I don’t fit the dictionary definition of a third-culture kid as I didn’t follow my parents into a different country and then return to my ‘passport country’. In a way though, I have always faced a cultural identity crisis.
Although my parents are both ethnically Bengali, our family starting with my grandfather have been living in Delhi since the 50s-60s – significantly before a majority of Delhi’s population. Among my friends who are typically first-generation Delhiites and often not brought up in the city, I’m a second-generation Delhiite. My granddad worked in the Air Force and was posted all over India. My dad was born in Tamil Nadu, though like me he’s a Delhiite by every other measure because this is where he grew up. My mom, on the other hand, was born in Jharkhand. (Hell, I was technically born in Jharkhand – because that’s where my mom’s parents live – but when it comes to considering what my home town is, it cannot be anything other than Delhi since this is where I grew since I was an infant.) So my parents are both Bengalis who grew up in a culture different to theirs – unlike many of our Bengali relatives who live / grew up in Bengal – and I continue in their footsteps.
By virtue of growing up in Delhi, my dad’s more of a Punjabi than a Bengali. Fine, my mum’s fairly Bengali. Thanks to growing up in Delhi / my dad, I can identify a lot with Punjabi culture. Every summer vacation for the first twelve years of my life, I was shipped off to Jharkhand with my mum (her parents still live there) – so I can identify with a lot Bihari / Jharkhand culture too. I lived near a cemetery, attended summer school there, had actual milkmen visit my granddad’s house and squeeze milk out of a buffalo while he fought over the price, gone on weekend trips to Bodh Gaya, seen snakes crawl into the house when it rained too much, can follow conversations in Bihari dialects others would find arcane, and – early on – shit in an outhouse. I’ve been around the block. I’ve seen and experienced first-hand through my time there things about Bihari culture I’d take for granted in Delhi. The fanfare when they got traffic lights! Mobile networks! An ATM open in town was a festive occasion! A mall! (That mall would probably only count as a very large shop by Sarojini Nagar standards.)
I’ve been to Bengal a grand total of perhaps four times in my life: the first time ever was for my Cadbury Bournvita Quiz Contest shoot, the most recent one a couple of years ago for my cousin’s wedding, and the other two times while travelling around. I haven’t spent more than a month in total my whole life in my supposed ‘cultural birthplace’. I suspect my parents are almost as worse off for people of their age, for they haven’t spent as much time in Bengal.
It was weird growing up in Delhi. Even within the same city, I’ve attended three different schools and lived in different neighbourhoods. At a smaller scale each school or each neighbourhood had its own ‘culture’ of sorts too. So while I do know friends who’ve studied in different schools or shifted cities, it was always necessitated by shifts between cities. I don’t even know why I changed schools. Each school came with its own culture, its own set of values that the teachers and the students there valued. I have native fluency in both Hindi and Bengali – more so in the latter than most Bengali kids because I know the language beyond conversational fluency as I’ve read ‘proper’ Bengali literature AND learnt to write (I’ve forgotten the writing part by now).
My household was a weird one. I’d often speak to my dad in Hindi, I reckon because it was a language he was comfortable with while conversations with my mom were in Bengali. My mom hated Hindi conversations for some reason – and she’s a Sanskrit teacher! (Certainly came handy when I took up Sanskrit as my language in middle school.) Over time, a majority of my conversations with my parents defaulted to English because it was a ‘neutral ground’ they both agreed on. That, I think, explains my affinity towards the English language to the extent that it’s the language that feels like ‘home’ to me. Bengalis are massive anglophiles anyway. I am an only child, and to be honest, my parents and I weren’t really close during my childhood (I didn’t have birthday parties, we hardly ever went on family vacations even though my dad’s an avid traverller, et al), so a lot of things that shaped me came from my school peers – more so than other kids, I feel – and that too was never a constant in my life.
So overall, I’ve never felt a sense of belonging to a single culture, my parents, a single geographical area, or a single set of school friends. It has been so disjointed that I don’t know what I identify myself with.
Then came two big changes in my life: UK and Singapore.
I’ve discussed this feeling of disjointendness previously here and here, both written while I was in Singapore. I haven’t lived in the same place for more than a year, for the past five years, in a row. That, and especially my time in Singapore, have confused my feelings of belonginess to ‘one place’. In that second post I wrote around the time I left Singapore, I mentioned how things changed from one semester to another as the second half of my stay felt culturally more immersive than the first – it went from being a holiday away from the UK to a feeling of ‘getting’ Singaporean culture. I have to thank a lot of my Singaporean friends who made that happen: I know people who’ve lived there years and not explored the city properly, yet it was primarily because of my Singaporean friends that I got to explore the back alleys of Singapore. I think the time I took off after school, living in vastly different parts of the UK since the time I’ve been here, and that transition back and forth between Singapore have really made me stop and look at this.
In hindsight, I took my year out because I was confused. I wanted pause in my life while I sorted out what do in the future. I chose the UK and then Singapore again as a form of ‘running away’ because all my live, I’ve never felt attached to a single place. Now, it has become a life goal. I often tell people who ask me about my future plans that I don’t plan to live or work in a single country for more than five years. I don’t know how realistic a goal it is, I don’t know whether I’ll actually do it or finally settle for the comfort of sleeping in the same bed for more than a year.
Perhaps this ‘running away’ thing is also why I love travelling so much…because I like the feeling of being thrown into a place that I am not familiar with. I’m not saying I’m unique or special in any way because there are many other people who feel the same way. What I’m trying to justify is why I feel this wanderlust / “don’t feel like staying too long in once place” attitude when for a lot of my friends the best vacations are the ones spent home, in a resort town where they won’t be surprised, or even a reluctance to be surprised by new cuisine. I’ve met people who’ve never eaten ‘Chinese’ food their whole life or anything else other than British ‘food’ simply because THAT is too much outside their comfort zone. I had a guy from my university who went on exchange too and went back within a week. Friends like those and me – those are two extremes, and I’m trying to justify to myself why do I feel the way I do. That’s why when I read the third culture kids entry and its accompanying research, I felt cogs clicking into place which just felt right in explaining why I feel this way.
I also came across this excellent article by Chelsea Fagan on how living abroad fundamentally changes you. I cannot help but agree more with what the author feels; it’s what I feel on a constant basis having friends scattered in so many parts of the world. I highly recommend it as a read.
So many of us, when we leave our home countries, want to escape ourselves. We build up enormous webs of people, of bars and coffee shops, of arguments and exes and the same five places over and over again, from which we feel we can’t break free. There are just too many bridges that have been burned, or love that has turned sour and ugly, or restaurants at which you’ve eaten everything on the menu at least ten times — the only way to escape and to wipe your slate clean is to go somewhere where no one knows who you were, and no one is going to ask. And while it’s enormously refreshing and exhilarating to feel like you can be anyone you want to be and come without the baggage of your past, you realize just how much of “you” was based more on geographic location than anything else.
Every time I changed schools, every time I moved to a new social circle or a new country, every time I’ve travelled, I’ve felt this same exhilaration of being whoever I want to be now. Loads of my friends whom I know have ‘moved’ places have done that, I know. But this reinvention is something that I have done throughout my life that change has been the only constant. To the point that I feel paralyzed about changing anything about myself without the ‘moving’ element. I’ve also noticed that I act and behave fundamentally different with people from my past, i.e., I always behave around them or talking to them in a way I was when they were my current circle.
And the longer you stay in your new home, the more profound those changes will become. Holidays, birthdays, weddings — every event that you miss suddenly becomes a tick mark on an endless ream of paper. One day, you simply look back and realize that so much has happened in your absence, that so much has changed. You find it harder and harder to start conversations with people who used to be some of your best friends, and in-jokes become increasingly foreign — you have become an outsider.
I have felt this first hand and this is a thing that really saddens me. Sure, everyone picks up new friends moving from school to university, but having been in different ‘cultures’ – not being close to my parents and having no siblings – I’ve always been particularly close to friends, and I can count on so many sets of ‘best friends’ I’ve had at each place. I want to evolve and moved around but I always feel so disconnected and so much of an outsider simply because most of the people whom I consider to be closest to me are the people whom I find hardest to have conversations with these days, because we don’t have that daily banter rapport any more.
For the rest of your life, or at least it feels this way, you will spend your time in one naggingly longing for the other, and waiting until you can get back for at least a few weeks and dive back into the person you were back there. It takes so much to carve out a new life for yourself somewhere new, and it can’t die simply because you’ve moved over a few time zones. The people that took you into their country and became your new family, they aren’t going to mean any less to you when you’re far away.
At this point I’m pretty much copy-pasting Fagan’s article verbatim. But it’s so true! I constantly find myself longing, constantly torn between the past and the present. I keep revisiting ‘my past’ every now and then I never am completely out of touch (I’ve even gone back to Jharkhand in the past few years!) and because of the time I’ve spent immersed in each culture I’ve experienced, I feel comfortable diving straight back in. But it all feels like an epic adventure, and not home.
I can imagine how some of this pretentious. Perhaps some of the readers – if you’ve made it this far – are rolling your eyes thinking “You think you’re so special aren’t you. Grow up.” I don’t write as frequently on my blog as I used to, and when I do, I’m always droning on in this woe-is-me tone. Must get annoying, no?
No offense but this is such sentimental bullshit. What the hell are you commemorating here? I lived abroad in China for five years from 2006 to 2011. It is arguably the single most defining experience of my adulthood. So what?
We are first-world citizens with enough privilege and money to spend some of our time abroad. Congratulations. Guess what: we are nothing compared to our parents who immigrated here with pennies and had to work their way through grad school doing menial jobs and recycling cans (as my parents did). We certainly aren’t anything compared to any number of military people who served abroad and then came back with shellshock.
So what are we? Well we’re just living our lives elsewhere for a while. It’s a great experience. I can’t recommend it enough to anyone. But shut up and stop acting like we’re “changed souls.” Listen to yourself speak for a minute. The reason you have a hard time speaking to people back home is because your “epiphany” ultimately matters little. And instead of reaching out and listening to what your friends have to tell you about their lives, you’re too solipsistically engaged in your own “different experience.” An experience which, guess what, is not all that unique to you.
No matter what you do, no matter what your personality is, you are always “missing out on something.” And if you are lying awake at night bemoaning what you are “missing out on,” I highly recommend you stop blogging for a minute, call up an old friend, shut the hell up and listen. It might do you some good.
Fair points. Yes, there may be an element of narcissism in thinking this experience of different cultures make you a “changed soul”. Or that there’s a an element of selfishness in running away for a ‘different experience’ in the first place.
All I can think of is, sure, I’m not unique in any way feeling this way. And perhaps I should be listening more and talking less about how changed I am…just listening to what my former best friends have to say. But real life just doesn’t work that way. Merely being removed a few time zones makes talking a logistical nightmare, so over time you find yourself falling out of touch. Then you do catch up on Skype one day and it just isn’t the same – you and your former confidantes both fall back to a polite “Oh my god it’s been ages since we’ve caught up we should do this more muahmuah” mode of conversation.
You just have to be in these shoes to imagine what kind of fear and apprehensiveness that kind of break from your past causes. I’ll end this post with my favourite Douglas Adams quote for this topic…
…every being in the universe is tied to his birthplace by tiny invisible force tendrils composed of little quantum packets of guilt. If you travel far from your birthplace, these tendrils get stretched and distorted. This compares with an ancient Arcturan Proverb “However fast the body travels, the soul travels at the speed of an Arcturan Mega-Camel.”