I’ve started this post several times but never knew exactly where to begin. Where, exactly, is the beginning? Where am I in the process of self discovery? Will I ever have a strong sense of cultural identity or will it always be a constant struggle?
It’s hard to believe it’s been 5 years since I wrote “Life as a TCK 20 Years Later” (you probably want to read that before reading this!) as life has unfolded at the speed of light. 5 years, 3 kids, and 2 international relocations later, I’m still unpacking my “third cultureness”.
I was raised in a place that was culturally quite different from the country where I hold my passport. The immediate community of expats my family was most connected with were people from all over the world, an international community. I knew I was not “from” where I grew up and wouldn’t be there permanently. People came and went, so while I felt a sense of belonging within the expat community there was also a sense that things were never permanent; change and transition were normal.
One thing I learned about myself during our move to China was that back in the international expat community overseas I had a sense of belonging I hadn’t felt in a long time. Looking back on it I don’t know if I actually did belong. But I felt I did. I was among people from all over the world, similar to how I grew up, people who were interested in travel and studying cultures and learning about the world. People with a sense of adventure and with a sense of humor about life.
To be clear, I’m not saying that people at home were not like this at all. What I mean is that here was a high concentration of people who were interested in many of the same things I was, who had similar backgrounds and stories as me, who were on the same cultural identity journey as me. Although I was completely out of place in my new setting, I was also in my natural habitat: the expat community. A piece of my soul that was long buried tentatively emerged.
Now that I have children I’m faced with the new challenge of raising children overseas. I still have so many questions about how to do this and many unresolved feelings are triggered within me. I want to give them this international experience but be able to do it differently in some ways than I experienced. I’m aware now of how important cultural identity formation is, and how it affects you if you spend a significant part of your developmental years outside your passport country. I hope that I have a lifelong conversation with them about their experiences and give voice to any accumulated stress or grief.
Relocating again has brought to my awareness the accumulation of grief that the state of constant transition contributed to my life. Growing up abroad was a wonderful and magical experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world (pun intended), but there was grief. My family lived in Saipan for about 12 years and we were considered long termers. Living that long in one place you see a lot of people come and go, as soon as you develop deeper relationships with someone they move on to a new place. Every two years our family would have a home leave, but we would never stay in one place for long as we’d be traveling around the country visiting friends, family, and financial supporters. And then we would say goodbye again. It was what I now call the expat life cycle.
I’ve also become profoundly aware of my global cultural identity. Just as when I went to South America for six months and came to terms with my identity as an American, coming to Japan has shown me that I’m also an internationally minded person, an expat. And that I can be both an American and an international. It doesn’t matter where I live because I’ll carry these two cultural identities with me everywhere I go. I realized that I do indeed have cultural identity roots; they look different from other peoples cultural identities and that’s ok. Just because I’m don’t feel like I fully belong in my passport culture, or anywhere else really, doesn’t mean I don’t belong. I just feel out of place at first.
It’s like a plant that you move to different pots as it grows. You plant it in one pot and it roots in the soil though it may take time to get completely settled. When you transplant it to a new pot, some of the soil from the previous pot remains. If you replant it again, it will carry the soil from the previous pots with it as it takes root.
To answer my questions at the beginning of this post, I know I’m in the middle of this journey of self discovery. I’ll probably always be unpacking it, struggling with it, perhaps putting it on the shelf to rest for a bit, then dusting it off and wrestling with it again. I’m ok with that. I’ve been replanted and my heart is learning not to be afraid to take root.