Indeed, you’ve learned to anticipate this question when among a group of strangers at a party, or when you’ve just been introduced to a new colleague at work, or in the coffee room desperate for a caffeine fix when you’re quick to answer without seeming too vague for other coffee-loving co-workers to think: Weirdo!
If you’ve lived outside of your parents’ place of birth, which in my case is India, during the developmental years of your life (basically from birth to age 18), then your values, beliefs and culture are sometimes completely outside your parents’ frame of reference. Have I blown your mind?
Finally, I felt relieved and validated after reading Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. After thirty-something years of being on this planet, I found a label that actually seemed to fit me. Over the years, I’ve collected: Catholic, Goan, Indian, Woman as the labels I accepted as part of who I am and which feed my writing. But there’s always been an unexplained niggle that eluded me until I read this book.
To elucidate, I was born in Goa, and was raised in Kuwait from the age of two months to fourteen years. I was displaced back to Goa during the Gulf War of 1990 and spent ten months there. Then two years in Bombay before moving to the United States, where I lived for two and a half years and then on to England, where I lived for sixteen years. I’m back in Goa and have been here for the last few months to focus on writing my second novel. But I’m still living as if I’ve got one foot out the door. That’s been the one constant feeling that’s never changed.
When I was in my late teens, I recall visiting Goa during a summer break from the university I was studying at in the United States and my uncle saying: “Welcome home!” I still recall my visible recoil as I struggled within myself to accommodate the word “home” with the place “Goa.” I felt compelled to respond: “This isn’t my home.”
My father was present during the conversation and countered with, “Isn’t this your home? Well then, where is your home? We’re here. You have a room here. You’re from here.” His statement seemed ridiculous to me, but I didn’t say anything at the time. To my father, home was where his family was and where he and my mother were from. As the fruit of their loins I was, by default, from Goa too. I didn’t have a clear answer to give him, all I had was a deep source of conflict within me that I became aware of for the first time and tried to live with for close to fifteen years after that.
Yes, I am a Third Culture Kid (TCK). Third Culture Kids carry unresolved grief linked to their inability to connect with their parents’ cultural expectations of them. My parents’ heritage felt like something foreign to me. Their values, beliefs and expectations are still something that I feel extremely distant from and have to expend a lot of energy resisting as they continue to dump them on me.
My parents’ heritage will always feel like an adopted heritage, forcibly tacked onto me, someone who is at a loss to understand what “culture” I belong to and what community I fit into. This is because, unlike my parents, I grew up in a multi-cultural world where I learned to negotiate differences between languages, religions, values and beliefs at a very young age.
On the positive side, this may be one of the greatest gifts TCKs have to offer in our changing, diverse, growing multi-cultural worlds—the demonstration of how to live in a world moving past old stereotypes, boundaries and prejudices; meeting people as individuals and building relationships with them based on areas of commonality instead of differences.
Adaptation is the norm for a young TCK and so is the concept of mobility. Going back “home” to a parent’s place of birth for holidays, visiting extended family and grandparents rather than growing up with them adds to the sense of alienation from the parent’s cultural expectations.
I remember my mother once chastising me because my grandmother had told her off for not teaching me to be more docile and submissive. I must have been about ten years old then and I laughed out aloud until I realized my mother wasn’t joking. The thought of being submissive was abhorrent to me, even at that age. It was only later that I realized that I wasn’t being considered an individual. I was being shackled to some pre-determined set of rules for my gender that were foreign to my way of thinking, based on my own experiences of the world. I knew I was independent, had a voice of my own, and would lead a highly mobile life, limited only by immigration authorities in my movements globally. The expectation to be someone I wasn’t is laughable to me and I feel empowered at the realization that I could move away from the life of unrealistic expectations and towards a life lived on my own terms, based on my unique perception of the world.
Some TCKs spend a lifetime thinking, “What’s wrong with me?” only to discover that they’ve lived a normal life after all—only, it’s what constitutes normal for a TCK. Many TCKs develop a “migratory instinct” that controls their lives. Along with a sense of chronic rootlessness is a feeling of restlessness. They learn to live with an unrealistic attachment to their past or a persistent expectation that the next place will finally become “home” leading to the restlessness that keeps the TCK perpetually on the move.
I must confess that after over thirty years of moving around, there is no place that feels like home in the sense my father understood. Perhaps what TCKs bring to the world is a new definition of home, not as a place or where the heart is, but of being on earth and being human. Home is inside my own humanity, and that’s good enough for me.
Jessica Faleiro is a novelist, travel writer and blogger. She has a masters in creative writing from Kingston University, United Kingdom and blogs at:www.theviewfrommybalcony.wordpress.com andwww.jessicafaleiro.wordpress.com. Afterlife: Ghost stories from Goa is her first novel (Rupa publications, 2012)