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Cover of "Unrooted Childhoods: Memoirs of...

Cover via Amazon

“You’re like a chameleon”, said my friend, accusation clear in her voice. “You change according to the situation; according to who you are around!” and then six horrible words that crushed what little identity I had “You don’t know who you are!” I was dumbfounded and then tearful. Was she right I wondered? 

I imagined myself to be easy-going and compatible but I had just been likened to a chameleon, changing in seconds depending on who was in my immediate vicinity overshadowing my real colors.

The flexibility that I had learned at a young age and that I thought I wore so well was now being compared to a reptile. A cold-blooded reptile that changed according to the world around it, but was never fully a part of that world.

I had also been accused of being an impostor; fabricating who I was to become what others wanted. The ability to change and adapt to my circumstances that had served me so well in my growing up years in Pakistan, and then again as an adult in Egypt, were compared to a six-inch long chameleon, used as an adjective in the English language to describe someone who changes based completely on their surroundings. Or being compared in an equally uncomplimentary way to an impostor – someone who takes on the role and/or personality of another in order to deceive.

But there was some truth in what my friend was saying. I honestly didn’t know who I was. How could I? I felt I didn’t have the capacity to live effectively and honestly in my present world and yet continue to care for and be true to the world I had left and loved so well and so long.

It was a good time of self-analysis. There had to be a way to make this work. Others had gone before me; how had they negotiated this “between worlds” dilemma?

How could I move beyond myself to use those “best of skills” that are present in third culture kids? The adaptability, the interest in the world at large, the telling of stories, the tolerance of ambiguity, the knowledge of pain and what it feels like to be “other”?

Any third culture kid who is living effectively in their passport country has a moment of truth where they realize it’s okay to live where they are; it’s okay to adjust and feel a level of comfort in who they are within their passport country, even if they never feel fully at home. It doesn’t mean they are settling for second best, it means they are using those gifts that they developed through their childhoods and can transcend cultures, finding their niche in both worlds.

The book Unrooted Childhoods has a passage that looks at developing a sense of self that is not related to geography or a place, rather to other less concrete but equally important things. This sentence articulates those things that can come to signify home and roots: “Family, religion, language, memories carried within, become the home these children are unable to return to, a home not defined by geography.”

As for my identity and roots journey? As I was writing this I read these words: “Turns out ‘safe’ isn’t a place you live at — but a Person you live in.”* Change two words in that sentence and I have my experience: Turns out identity isn’t about a place you live at — but a Person you live in.

“All children must figure out who they are and where they belong. Rooted children can take their clues from history, from their environment, from the traditions they are born into. But mobile children, raised in a world of changing backdrops, are expected to be cultural chameleons, turning themselves emerald in the Amazon forest, tawny on dry Arabian sands. To successfully adapt to the transitions in their lives, they must flow in and out of cultures, taking on the colors of one, slipping from the bonds of another. Some embrace the many influences they are exposed to, while others are more selective, adopting only those aspects of a culture they choose to retain. They are able to immerse themselves in new cultures, keeping pieces of themselves hidden and adapting well with frequent moves.But what of their interior selves. Some children deal with transition by managing superficial changes with ease, seemingly conforming to the new host culture but camouflaging their inner lives. They learn new languages, wear the proper clothing, play the part like the seasoned performers they have become. Yet others suffer great difficulty in dislocation and cannot make themselves entirely comfortable anywhere. Without the supportive structures of a place they can call home,they flounder in new environments, unable to conform or blend in with their surroundings. Theirs is not the exhilaration of freedom but the loneliness of isolation. Awkward outsiders, they always feel out of place. A gnawing restlessness shadows their lives and prevents them, even in adulthood,from establishing permanent roots. They search for home in the rhythms of breath and time and in attempts to absorb rootedness through ritual and personal connection. Family, religion, language, memories carried within, become the home these children are unable to return to, a home not defined by geography….

The journey to self discovery can be a protracted one for the unrooted child. The restlessness bred into these children because of their parents’ mobility leads them to seek identity in something other than place. Roots are not portable; these children cannot secure themselves to an impermanent home. In developing integrated identity, they must piece together self hood in other ways.” from
Unrooted Childhoods- Memoirs of Growing Up Global
by Faith Eidsea and Nina Sichel

What do you think? If you are a third culture kid or an adult who moved a lot during childhood does this passage relate to your experience? Join in through the comments!