Most expats consider going home for two reasons: aging parents and giving their children a cultural and communal identity. The first makes immediate sense. But regarding the second, parents of third culture kids (TCK) – a term given to children from one culture with parents from a different culture who are living in yet a third culture – often worry they’re robbing TCKs of something necessary to human identity and stability. But are they really? Maria Popova of Brainpickings.org writes: “It’s been said that who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love. But the opposite is also true — we blossom into who we are under the warming light of the love that surrounds us.”
As the parents of two TCK children who’ve just settled into their sixth school (they are seven and five), it’s exactly the rotation of ‘loving lights’ in their life that worries me. They’ve been lucky to have so many shining on them over the years, but I also wonder if they’re learning to connect with people long enough to love past hurts and flaws, to go beyond the point when the glow of newness wears off? Just as importantly, how are they learning to understand and love themselves?
To answer these questions, I’ve found myself searching my own history for clues as to how their lives may play out. Decades ago, I started out not so unlike them. My parents moved from India to the US without a clear intention to stay or leave. I was born in Brooklyn, and we bounced between urban centers before settling down in rural Pennsylvania where my dad practiced medicine.
During my nine years there, I had a split Indian – American identity that I stuffed into a small-town groove. I enjoyed beer-battered fish, became a Christian, and tacked a rainbow colored poster to my door that said “Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow.” I also ate curry at a dining table filled with Punjabi chatter, and got good grades with the aim of finding something I loved that also made money.
Then I went to boarding school. My academy was its own small nation with borders surrounded by hilly farmlands, a place that felt as foreign to me then as China did over a decade later. It functioned exactly like a third culture expat bubble. Everyone was from somewhere else. Most of our parents were accomplished professionals. No one belonged there long-term. Our origins were spread across the world, and we would all eventually go and scatter again.
Sometimes I would wander around campus feeling like I might just float off the ground; nothing connected me to the strange moneyed, academic, and liberal American world around me. Other times, the gravity of being stuck in a place where every corner, smell and face was so strange pulled me down. I’d call my parents crying to escape.
To adjust, I had to do what all third culture kids do – sift through the thousands of “new” and decide what to keep for myself. This went beyond changing my plaid flannel shirts for preppy JCrew, trading my country-ish twang for a more New Englandy kind of English, and making friends with people from places like Abu Dhabi and Vietnam. It went to the heart of how I wanted to spend my time, with whom, and doing what. There wasn’t one dominant social flow or set of values. We were all just told to “be ourselves,” and figure out who that was.
This was hard. It hurt. For many years after, I lived the life parents of TCK fear. I was atomized, changed friends a lot, and struggled with a sense of belonging. I made too many decisions to soothe these insecurities, and was often alone. I didn’t feel at home anywhere, least of all in myself.
But on the flip side, I was brave, very brave, and this made all the difference. Having traveled with and related to so many different people, I’d seen so many ways to live. I believed wholeheartedly that, despite the difficulties I was having finding it, there was a path for me. And it was okay if it was just my path, not like anyone else’s, and didn’t make sense to the rest of the people around me.
This led me to take some crazy risks. Some of these panned out, some didn’t, but each time I took a leap and didn’t die, I knew I could take a bigger one. Some twenty years later, I am who I set out to be.
But it wasn’t until I discovered Andrew Solomon, writer and Ted Speaker, that I really understood how my own third culture experience so deeply shaped me. He describes people as having two identities: The first is a vertical identity, which includes things like ethnicity, nationality, language, and often religion. Those are things you have in common with your parents, community and family. The second is your horizontal identity, which you learn from peer groups, across one’s line of experience.
He says the process of developing an identity isn’t a process of arriving at your own personal intersection; it’s a by-product of knowing and accepting where you’ll always be different.
“Difference unites us. While each of these experiences can isolate those who are affected, together they compose an aggregate of millions whose struggles connect them profoundly. The exceptional is ubiquitous; to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state,” he says.
With this axis in mind, I do think TCKs miss some height in their vertical identities and perhaps that does tip some internal balance for some time. But I think they’ll just make this up in extended, stronger, more personalized horizontal ones. I also take comfort that, unlike when I was growing up, there are so many more children like them out their in the world who will love and understand life as they do, and differently.
Photo Credit: Ravi K. Jolly