September 25, 2015

HABR | Third Culture Thoughts

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40,000 feet in the sky, I am floating, balancing, hanging. I am in between borders, continents, countries, lands. I feel detached and untethered, not just physically, but culturally.

It doesn’t matter where I arrive because it will not feel like home. Home could be anywhere, but it is nowhere. No matter where I am, I will find something wanting: something wrong, just off. Sometimes I wonder if these feelings of alienation are just a product of my negative personality, but I think it’s more than that. After living in so many places, nowhere really feels right.

Having grown up in five different countries across three different continents, I wouldn’t say stability has been a marker in my life. The idea of settling down and leading a sedentary life is unfathomable – frightening, even. I feel no strong ties to any country or culture. The pieces of me that have been acquired from different countries and cultures come together and make a puzzle piece with too many nubs and edges to fit anywhere. When I am in the U.S., I wish people were just a bit different. More Arab: cleaner, neater, more aware of the world, more generous and hospitable. When I am in the Middle East, I am not happy either. There, I wish people were more Western: more down to earth, more open minded, more accepting. In an ideal world, I could create my own culture: a multifaceted one that incorporates all the good characteristics of cultures I have experienced. In my friends, I find this world.

Though I am grateful for what I have acquired over the years (my Arab customs, my New Zealand slang, my mix of international friends) I still feel alienated. Like many third culture kids, I feel no sense of permanence. I feel my sense of stability slipping away, nothing more painful a reminder than the broken Arabic I struggle to speak.

The frustration of being a third culture kid is epitomized by the question “Where are you from?” This question, though it might seem small and meaningless, is tiring. It is a question that should have a simple answer, but it doesn’t. I do not know where I am from, what nationality defines me, so I list all the places I have lived, hoping they can stand in for some sort of identity.

Many expatriates and third culture kids as well as diaspora communities have similar feelings of estrangement after migrating, whether it be to escape from political turmoil or in search of better economic opportunities. The feeling of not belonging is common, as are depression and alienation. Although I would not trade my experience for anything, I do find myself, and I know many of my friends do too, envying those who had the experience we did not. Those who have lived in the same house and neighborhood all their life with all their memories attached to it, with their increasing height marked on the doorframes as they grow. I envy those who know their hometown inside out – those who have a hometown at all.

Unlike diaspora kids, third culture kids have no community “back home.” For us, there is no back home. Home comprises our friends and family members across the world. We carry our world on our backs like a turtle with its shell. We wonder, Who am I? Where am I from? Should my identity even be defined by a country? Fight as we might, though, heritage and culture are unavoidable and integral parts of identity, and we are left with the feeling that there is something missing inside us.

So we keep travelling and wandering, trying in vain to find some place where we can really feel at home. When the pilot’s voice sounds over the intercom and startles me from my thoughts with, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are now preparing for our descent,” I know it does not matter where we land. Our landing destination will not be my final destination, just a temporary stop along the way.