“…but we also knew what it was like to feel temporary, to keep your eye on the clock, to normalise the inevitability of departure so completely that you didn’t think about it, even though you always thought about it.”
It was six years ago when my mom told me that from age 6 through age 18 I never slept in the same bed more than three months at a time. I don’t even remember what we were talking about, but I do remember the moment she told me. It was like all the fuzzy fog of self accusation that had enveloped me suddenly changed into clear and complete understanding.
It always felt like it was my fault that I didn’t feel like I belonged. If only I tried harder. If only I reached out more. If only I wasn’t so sensitive.
But with my mom’s revelation, the “if only” suddenly became a “no wonder!” complete with all the emphasis an exclamation mark can give.
No wonder I always felt temporary.
No wonder I got restless every few months, rearranging furniture, changing pictures on the wall, looking for a new job.
No wonder I thought I could feel my inner scream of rebellion when people around me were unwilling to face change.
Our life as third culture kids had rhythms of movement. You never questioned those rhythms, they were like the seasons of the year, and you don’t question seasons of the year. Instead, you meet them and embrace them. Then, just when you’ve grown tired and have had enough of winter, you see the burst of spring through forsythia and daffodils poking through old, grey snow.
Like the seasons, arrivals and departures were normalized. We came, we left, and in between we lived. Our resilience was amazing but along the way we didn’t always face the grief that had collected, didn’t always realize that there were some coping mechanisms that would need to be confronted, things that prevented us from fully engaging in life and people around us.
Deepak Unnikrishnan, an Abu Dhabi based writer, recently wrote an article called “Abu Dhabi: the city where citizenship is not an option.” Other than airport layovers on the way to Pakistan, I’ve never been to Abu Dhabi, yet it’s been a long time since I read an article that so completely described the third culture kid experience; the normalization of movement that others find so difficult to relate to.
Like me, Deepak grew up in a place that was not his ‘passport’ country. There are no long-term options for citizenship in the United Arab Emirates, and so children like Deepak, who then become adults, know that at some point they will leave. They had to have a reason to stay.
“…at 20, with the help of a loan from my parents, I found myself leaving for the US. I don’t recall having a conversation with anyone about how I felt. My parents, like others of their generation, normalised departure. But they didn’t tell us what to do with the memories, or how to archive them.”
Deepak questions the words that are available to those of us who are trained to leave our homes behind. “Expatriate isn’t right. Neither is migrant. And guest worker just feels cold, almost euphemistic” he says.
As I think about this I realize why I continue to hold on to the identity and importance of the term “third culture kid”. Because that is the identity I believe the author is looking for. It is we who are trained to leave our homes behind. It is we who know we won’t stay, we who know we can’t stay. It is we whose memories matter so deeply, whose memories need to be archived so that we can hold on to pieces of place. It is we who continue to embrace this identity, even as we move into more permanent seasons and places in our lives.
As kids we are involuntary transients; as adults sometimes the easiest path to take is to become voluntary transients, procreating involuntary transients along the way. We continue patterns of normalizing arrivals and departures; understanding the sweetness of arrivals and the bitterness of goodbyes. We are expert packers and planners, holding our arrival and departure manifestos in our hearts and heads.
But sometimes, we need to plant our feet solidly into the soil around us and stay a little longer. Sometimes we need to realize it’s okay to write our names in the land of our passport countries, even as we hold on to archived memories to give us strength.
“For most of us, being raised as foreigners meant our stay in [insert country] was free of permanence. For some, a temporary stay meant a year or two; for others, time dragged on indefinitely, but always, always, the time would come to say goodbye. Our parents may have chosen to remain, but we would leave. We were raised to be different, we were raised knowing we wouldn’t stay, knowing that as soon as we finished school we would leave and probably not come back.” Nina Sichel in Unrooted Childhoods