‘Home’ is probably one of the most emotionally charged words for a third culture kid.
Is ‘home’ found in a place or a group of people? Is it one place, or many? Is it bricks and mortar, or something intangible – perhaps a feeling or a state of being? Most third culture kids and other migratory people can identify with these questions.
So… what or where is home?
For me, I wonder if ‘home’ is the country in South Asia where I was born, where my ethnic identity is from. Or is ‘home’ the Australian city I have lived in for the past 23 years? Perhaps home, or a part of it, is where my surviving parent and sibling live – about 2500 km away from me – a place which I have never lived in but visit regularly.
I was interested to see that a relative has specified the town where our family originates from as her hometown on Facebook. I admire the clear-cut thinking that is behind this even though she has spent close to twenty years (and half her life) in Australia.
On the other hand, I have mixed feelings about the place I was born. I have felt both accepted and rejected in the country. Accepted because I belong by blood. Rejected because I am weird. How can a place like that be ‘home?’ Again this is something many of my fellow-TCKs will probably relate to.
Interestingly, in my adopted country Australia I feel at home because I am free to be different. Any social weirdness can be attributed to my very obviously different skin colour. In spite of this, I find my natural human desire to be liked and respected to be very, very strong. Therefore I am, as are many TCKs, a cultural chameleon. Working to fit in is simply how I operate every day. It seems vitally important to me that I work hard to limit the level of weirdness and ‘differentness’ that I present!
Being a cultural chameleon
David C. Pollock and Ruth Van Reken discuss this concept their book “Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds.” I won’t steal their thunder by redefining it here – suffice to say that their book is a must-read if you are a third culture kid.
On a personal level, being a cultural chameleon means forever reading people’s feelings, emotions and opinions by closely observing their words, actions and expressions. It means crunching those observations through a complicated program in my brain and putting out a corresponding feeling, action or expression to suit the occasion.
It is a difficult task. It is made easier by the familiarity of long practice. But every new cultural environment I encounter involves cranking up the program into full gear and starting again.
It was therefore a pleasant shock to find, when we visited Africa last year, that my cultural chameleon program didn’t need to be running full bore. We visited Zambia, where my husband grew up. From the moment I landed in the place to the moment I left I moved from social situation to situation with relative ease – a rarity for me.
Surprising – I actually felt ‘at home.’
I grew up in West Africa, but have never been back. My memories of that time are hazy – both because memories fade over time, but also because I have learnt since leaving Africa that it is a scary, uncomfortable place. Therefore I was fully expecting to experience culture shock like I have when visiting countries in Asia. I wasn’t expecting to feel comfortable there.
I learnt that ultimately ‘home’ means a state in which I feel comfortable.
But why here?
Perhaps I felt comfortable because of all the stories my husband and his family tell of Zambia. They are amazingly adept at keeping their memories alive. Therefore each place I visited felt like an old friend.
Perhaps I felt comfortable because of the friendliness of the people. Zambians are awesomely welcoming!
Perhaps I felt comfortable because I was travelling with a group of other third culture kids (the others were on a trip down memory lane).
It was probably all of these. And yet I think it was something more.
I grew up in Africa.
You see, my childhood consisted primarily of being an expatriate in an African country with many similarities to the one we visited. And so I was going right back to my roots. I didn’t have to pretend or struggle to learn how to ‘be’ in this place. Because I had, at a stage in life where we learn the fastest and the most, learnt how to function among the beautiful African people. And the lessons were just sitting there in me, waiting to be tapped.
I only wish I hadn’t waited 28 years to go back!