A third-culture kid (TCK / 3CK) or trans-culture kid is "someone who, as a child, has spent a significant period of time in one or more cultures other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture."


Sunday, May 20, 2012

I Know Who I Am… Don’t I?

We have all had to face this question at one point or another in our lives: Who am I? Why is this happening to me? We search for a point of reference in a glossary of childhood heroes - such as Dan Aykroyd, Charles Bronson or BarryManilow - some antagonist on the opposite spectrum or a family member we admire to give birth to our personal identity. We are all working toward the same goal: to become the best of the best and this (or these) idols conform to our image of success – even though when we are young, “success” tends to rhyme with “cool”. This form of self-perception is key to our world and without it, we are not much more than a hamster on a wheel. Each of these power figures possess their own set of behavioural patterns based on their ethno-cultural origin, nationality, religion and challenges. These factors help in deciding why we admire and feel a connection with them. Not many Japanese identify with mariachis. We are one of the few living species on this green earth desperately yearning for explanations. I don’t think we ever truly find answers we are willing to accept. The closest ones you can get to your comfort zone are good enough for most of us.

Dan Aykroyd: A Living Legend

The importance of the teen years is not to be taken lightly in forging this personal identity. It’s like a foundation to an iconic building. The CN Tower would not be the same should its foundations be on a swamp. Some youth become “rebels without a cause” and in fact, there is a driving discontent explaining their behaviour. Something is not sitting right and they can’t quite put a finger on it. I believe that nobody acts out when everything is kosher. If you crave attention, you will not rest until you get enough of it. In the words of Ace of Base: “Nobody is going to drag you up to get into the light where you belong.” The best examples of individuals feeding on attention are celebrities and socialites. They prefer to be an integral ingredient to a bad headline than not talked about at all. Whether this is all a big deal or not is all in the eye of the beholder. Some of us prefer a low-key existence. I did not become a thug, vandal or bully – although I was huge on heavy metal fashion and music - during my high school days. I chose to be selective, making a closely-knit group of buddies yet you can easily notice the opposite scenario among kids seeking to befriend every living, breathing being. The problem in the latter approach is that these popularity seekers tend to end up with more acquaintances than true friends. Real friends stay by your side through thick and thin. Maybe I am wrong – this is a frightening consideration - but time has proven that few friends make good friends. You have heard me use enough times the expression “friends are the family we can hand pick.” Luckily enough, the family I was born with worked out mighty nice as well.

In my time overseas, my parents encouraged every opportunity to beef up our Canadian-ness. Eventually, the clock was going to run out and we had to go back to home base. We needed to know more than just what our flag looked like. This is much easier nowadays with the facilitated access to Internet and cheap long distance telephone plans. Now, you can actually live in a foreign country without adapting to it as you can find live streaming of your favourite television channels back home and waste your entire day on programs like Skype. This is quite counter-productive and can lead to depression. The sooner you face reality, you can actually enjoy this new experience gifted to you. Today is your present tense. It is torturous to surrender to those triggers that remind you of back home when you cannot live there at this current moment in time. You will end up neither be from here nor there. I know what I’m talking about. The world is at our fingertips but only we hold the power to use technology to our advantage. I am convinced that my parents’ balanced approach to mold both my brother and I into Canadians was not in vain. My Dad provided us with daily news clippings containing headlines from Jean Chretien’s “Shawiningan handshake” – a former Prime Minister who briefly strangled a reporter to force him get out of his way (classic old school Canadian politics) – to the performance of the Toronto Stock Exchange and NHL hockey scores. We were hardly left in the dark – just in a more shadowy place - regarding hot topics back in the Frozen North. We were also regularly aware of groundbreaking news developments where we currently lived regardless of the fact it was a temporary living arrangement.

When I returned to Canada after having spent 12 of my 18 years of my young life in South America, there was no doubt in my mind that I was still William from the block: no matter where I go I still know where I came from. However, I did not manage to make a deep connection with my compatriots who had the privilege of growing up their entire lives under the maple leaf. That stability becomes a source of envy to TCKs. Canadians do tend to travel outside of their country but it is much different to reside abroad than go on week-long vacations to all-inclusive beach resorts. When you are on vacation, everything seems magical because you have no real obligations. Brian and I diagnosed those vacationers as carriers of the “Club Med Mentality.” Some go to Rome for a day and come back the following day, tilting their entire head back, sticking their nose out and tighten their lips as if suffering prolonged constipation and declare they know everything there is to know about Europe. Coming back to the student population I encountered, I would not say that my fellow students were snobby, ignorant or heartless because we could not connect. On the contrary, it was unavoidable that following such a lengthy sabbatical from my homeland, my personal identity was more Latino-French-Canadian: I enjoyed loud salsa parties but in a punctual and organized fashion. Any chaos could exist as long as it was contained. I was the type of Canadian that instead of breaking out in more vulgar variations of the word “darn!”, I shared my exclamations through “¡rayos!” or “zut alors!” When Canadians were wild about the Stanley Cup playoffs, I prayed for divine intervention switching the satellite feed to the Copa Libertadores or the Champions League. I found little in common with my people. As they embarked on their booze-filled Frosh Week festivities celebrating their emancipation - no more mommy or daddy limiting their rights and freedoms or alcohol intake -, I was more inclined to build meaningful relationships. In Latin America, clubbing starts as soon as you can look over the counter to order a drink in a bar - and maybe have a little bit of facial hair – so this debut into the North American college scene was more invigorating for them.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner in one aisle

To those very patriotic parents living abroad with small children, you can try everything possible to transfer your nationalist passion onto your children. It is inevitable, however, that there will be some cross-contamination – one of the perks of TCKs. You can decide whether to embrace this or reject it although I consider this a privilege. It is also unavoidable your kids will go through an identity crisis at some point - probably more once you think you are finally home and all is well. Their concept of home is now completely different from your own. Once I was back in Canada, if I would hear “suavemente, besame… yo quiero sentir tus labios besandome otra vez” (the musical version by Elvis Crespo sounds much better than the written one), I felt some comfort and an unexplainable homesickness. Not much salsa in Canada except for the red paste you consume on tortilla chips. Those once annoyingly repetitive melodies form part of a familiar repertoire, morphing the obnoxious into something heartwarming. Here, we notice again the power of the familiar against the evil tides of the unknown. It can take years to overcome an identity crisis although some never do. A simple question to most like, “Where are you from?” becomes a minefield for TCKs. The answers can be anything you can relate to like: where you were born, what predominant culture surrounded you or even a place you have never been but feel a strong affinity towards. No answer is really wrong. What we are comfortable with is usual adequate so if you were born in Zimbabwe to Australian parents, grew up in India and feel Russian in your heart of hearts… power to you my dear Russian friend. Either way, we are now citizen of the world!

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