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 27, 2012

To Visit, Or Not To Visit

Expats and TCKs all get caught up in this game at one point or another. Regardless of experiencing a positive or negative exile, when they gather around the coffee table in the living room, the question “When are you going back home?” inevitably turns up in the conversation. The end of a posting, mission or secondment for these people becomes synonymous to an inmate’s interminable wait for parole and trips back to the homeland to conjugal visits. We all need something to look forward in our lives, don’t we? Of course there are tremendous differences between both of these lifestyle, but the fact that you are taken away from your loved ones and everything your home court advantage is shared among the two sample populations.

The Bickfords in Lago Grey, Chile

Another common topic for those removed from their natural habitat, following the flow of the discussion, is the lead up question: “What do you miss the most? Simply put, the best answer is “everything”. The same reply applies to the interviewer. Sure you can be having the time of your life at the present moment, but your things aren't as fine and dandy as the good old days back home. Everything always tends to look much better in retrospect – even though in reality, it probably was not. Often times people miss their traditional food: you have tacos in the US, French cheeses in Chile, Wendy’s in Venezuela, but the food on your plate never tastes the same as back in its place of origin. That special dash of spice is forever stored in the memory of your taste buds. Back in [fill in the blank with your hometown], your favourite dish tastes better because there, they know how to make it properly. Step away amateurs. In your mind, everything is spectacular back where you are no longer living. It becomes a romantic idealization. Sometimes, there are even worse scenarios, such as a Canadian living in Peru, where there aren’t any beavertails or poutine! I wonder how I was able to survive without these important Canadian staples – I am sure the sarcasm was immediately detected.

On your trip down memory lane, the most important missing ingredient to the perfect pizza pie of life is definitely the family. These temporary refugees begin to put their family on a pedestal along with the relationship they fostered over the years and the good times they have shared. They pray for the months to breeze right by in order to be reunited once more and feel so good. Unfortunately, Father Time stays on top of the ball, ensuring each months go by according to plan and your family's life evolves without your presence. Suddenly, sufficient time has stepped in to separate you during special occasions, Sunday dinners and any other usual activity you used to partake. When you are able to return for a brief visit in a flash tour, you certainly find yourself wondering if it was worth the sacrifice to spend on expensive airfare and schedule leave for this lukewarm reception. You begin to feel as if you miss them more than you are missed. Your cousins are off at some friend’s beach house, your favourite uncle is occupied with his regular duties and your grandmother’s dog passed on so you can’t even take him out for a walk. It is generally your own parents who are pleased you could make it, but there is already some kind of funky void between you. It’s all normal and unavoidable. You have become like the friend that never calls or picks up the phone.

Remember your buddies? They fit in to the equation of what you miss the most. After all, as the notorious “they” say, “no man is an island”. We all need a friend or two in our times of trouble and/or for throwing a party to celebrate a momentous occasion. In those moments when everything is going your way, you just know your best buddies will be there through thick and thin. All of a sudden, 6 months come between you and right off the bat, there is a lot that happened while you were gone. Their lives went on without you as well. You feel cheated in a certain way. As more months are added onto the balance turning this short absence into a more prolonged one, there are more gaps that become harder to manage and it is now even more complicated to relate at a genuine level. The prized relationship is now based on the past, what once happened rather than your present together. Some friends resent the fact you abandoned them for living on “the lap of luxury”, others could not tell the difference without your presence and the last lot firmly believe that what once brought you together can keep you together. Granted, the last ones are usually very few.

Bill Cosby never underestimated the power of family

When it comes to visiting your home country, do it for yourself and your children and no one else. It is truly an investment for the entire family. There are so many unanswered questions floating out there in the unknown and understanding where we are from is the easiest question of them all to answer. Whether you fit in or not is a different matter altogether. I believe we can all make it work when we are called upon. We may or may not like the answer of where we are from, but it is part of who we are. We carry this around, even those who reject their ancestry. It’s there. Living away from family is a sacrifice not everyone can effectively cope with but making the effort to see your genealogical tree before you on a regular basis does pay off. Someone has to take the lead when dancing the tango of life and why not take the first step? Allow the others in home base to join in on the dance, and if they do not follow, at least you tried. Sooner or later, actions done with positive intentions are recognized.

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!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Finding A Balance In The Gender War

Today, I wish to congratulate all mothers – and those to be - on their special day here in Canada and across our border to the South. Where would we be without you? Many countries around the globe have reserved a date on their calendars to celebrate these brave pillars of entire families and honour their outstanding contribution to society. This is perhaps one of the toughest unpaid jobs out there and I personally thank you for your devotion and sacrifice. It seems that becoming a parent these days is a much more difficult choice than for previous generations and some women become mothers without really having a choice. I believe we owe you more than just one day off a year as a sign of appreciation, especially the way our civilization has devolved.

Many leagues ago in Disneyland. Looks like British Columbia.

The role women play in every continent and culture varies from one country to another. Waves of feminism in regions such as North America and Northern Europe had been exceptionally effective in promoting the rights of women in society, taking them out of a subservient role. However, many critics, including pioneers in the feminist movement themselves, argue that the wave has exceeded the original goal of gender equality. One just has to tune in to any television channel and watch commercials: men are portrayed as bumbling fools unable to get anything done properly without the help of women. Popular media is rapidly undermining the role of men, leaving the traditional figure of the breadwinner as a dispensable quasi-object. Women can choose to have a man in their lives, but they do not need them to survive. Men have been reduced to a product in the market. This is where we are at now and perhaps this is why we are seeing more long-term intercultural dating as a source of matrimonial bliss. Something has got to give.

In other parts of our planet, women are on the end our men are only beginning to discover in the so-called ‘developed world’. I remember observing as a child in Latin America, the way local culture held mothers to the highest possible regard in society. However, this unconditional respect is in fact symbolic or strictly tied to motherhood. The main flaw is that a mother is in fact a female at the same time. This cultural trait is tied to the traditional role a man plays there, still going out on the hunt for money to sustain the family household. The mother’s responsibility is to stay at home, shell out kids, cook for the family and keep everything tidy. This task allocation is sacred and unbreakable in those parts of the world. A man must not be caught vacuuming or making a meal for the family – why should you if you can drive across the street and buy a fried rotisserie chicken – and the woman must not break the silence of submission. This order was established probably since the Spanish arrived to the New World, or maybe it is a mix with the native cultures. The unspoken rule agreed upon by the ruling elite is that no one better bust that perfect bubble which perpetuates a dominant role for the male.

This battle of the sexes has raged on since the beginning of time, with man and woman competing to be the king or queen of the hill. Could it be that Adam and Eve now need some couples counselling? Just like in conventional war, there really never is a winner at the end. There are always losses, collateral damage, civilian casualties and few who actually benefit and make a profit at the cost of the suffering and sacrifice of the many. Arguably, man has predominated more often in most cultures and religions. Very few societies throughout the planet have embraced a matriarchal structure. Even though they must carry unborn children around, give birth and provide the offspring with proper tools – even dedicate her life’s work to change her sweet little boy into a man’s man - to succeed when attaining adulthood, it somehow is a secondary role to the inner workings of life. I find that hard to understand. Mothers should not be considered to be playing a secondary role and what is sacred for some can easily be overturned.

Mr. Miyagi taught us balance: "Wax on. Wax off."

Many experiences in life teach us balance. Asian philosophy preaches the famous concept of the yin and yang, used to describe polar opposites that exist in every aspect of life. As we enter the professional world, we are encouraged to properly manage time between work and play to avoid a meltdown. Doctors suggest to their patients moderation when it comes to their consumption of alcohol. It almost seems that our living environment is continuously coaching us to compromise, a word I like to associate with cooperation. Cooperation instead of competition. The message in this ongoing turf war between man and woman is to find that balance: the point where one does not have to have the upper hand over the other. We can benefit a lot by working together rather and dumping obligations on one another because of a history we do not have to relive or a culture of oppression. The idea is to learn from mistakes, not to continuously repeat them. The place for a mother and a father is side by side, not one behind the other like a military formation. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Reverse Cultural Shock

I am pretty much nearing the end of my teen years in my blog entries so I decided to change the structure of my future publications. Anyone can continue to send requests which I strongly encourage (and appreciate) as it assists me to identify topics you wish to read more of. I am most pleased to oblige. This is much more interactive than television, isn’t it? Quality programming at your finger tips. From time to time, I will write about trips worth mentioning, but my primary focus will be more on issues (pros and cons) typical to third culture/transcultural kids - some of us are no longer kids but the term still applies as we become adults. The record of experiences and challenges shape our person: who we are, what we are and what some of it means. I cannot claim to be an expert, but hopefully by sharing my stories, some light can be shed on similar situations others encounter. Who knows, maybe I have an answer for you or you may have one for me.

The beautiful city of Ottawa

Returning to Canada after four years in Peru was quite the challenge as an 18 year old. From the moment I first landed in Lima, I counted the days until the glorious occasion where I would get back on the plane, Canada-bound. The Littlest Hobo would not have been proud of me. I was extremely enthused to be in Canada now, as my family and I cleared customs, but so much of my person felt incomplete without my best pals. It was like the Mario Brothers playing only with Luigi: something doesn't feel quite the same without Mario. I did manage to get quite attached to each of my friends during the posting, as I had in previous instances. None of them were accompanying me on this new stage, as in previous instances as well. I am sure many of us returning home from the psychological and emotional battlefield of the expat life have similar expectations: we secretly wish for a victory parade like those in Hollywood blockbusters where brave triumphant soldiers parade down streets filled with people celebrating, confetti falling from the heavens and bands belting out joyful, celebratory tunes. Unfortunately, there is no real fanfare. On the contrary, many times there isn't even someone standing outside the terminal with balloons or a home-made sign displaying “you did it!” or “welcome home!” You certainly won’t get that welcome from the passport control officer. They are trained to not have much of a sense of humour the poor chaps.

Instead of the hero’s welcome, there is a much finer parallel with a returning Vietnam veteran. Not many understand why you were away from your country or really care to connect the dots. It is a pointless war with no real winner. "It doesn't apply to me," people say. Most grown-ups who contribute to the tax base from their own income consider families like mine as leaches sucking the blood out of the federal piggy bank. Well-dressed thieves. The perception, as I previously mentioned in earlier entries, is that Foreign Service officers and their families are vegging on beaches, sipping piña coladas with the locals and perfecting the ultimate tan. It is a shame I was not posted to one of those places. Sounds like fun, wouldn't you agree? It is impossible for others to imagine the level of hardship these people undergo - it is usually difficult to understand others not having been in their shoes - and do so with their heads held high, proud of representing their country. Most people my own age seemed to consider all my accounts of having visited Aztec pyramids, Incan ruins, getting lost in Curaçao - the smallest island in the Caribbean - the rainforest in Venezuela, as cries for attention. Either that, or just that I was some kind of snob gallivanting around the globe with my bottomless pockets full of cash. The pedantic world traveler. This does contribute to a feeling of alienation and leads you to consider that everything you have done in your young life was wrong. Don't worry, you didn't do anything wrong. We all have our own lives and do what we can.

Before heading off on posting, the diplomat is generally coached about what to expect overseas in an attempt to mitigate ‘culture shock.’ There is no perfect transition except trying to keep an open mind. It is hard to prepare for military coups, terrorism, dictatorship, and all these unplanned events just to name a few I have enjoy. Certainly not a picnic but a great learning experience. The least you expect, the better things can be, that is my motto. Anyway, the Foreign Service Officer is then recommended to pass on the new intel to his or her dependants since now he or she is 'fully prepared' for culture shock. However, upon the conclusion of the foreign assignment, there is no coaching whatsoever for anyone in the family to transition back home. No support. The mentality from headquarters is that you are heading home now and you know what it’s like. This is rarely the case of course, especially after long postings. As I said earlier, a lot can happen over a period of four years, including the younger members in your tribe of nomads. Perhaps the closest parallel to the weird feeling of being somewhere somewhat familiar again – the so-called return to home - but not being able to fill in the gaps made during your prolonged absence is waking up from a coma. Even your closest people think it is bizarre that you cannot remember things that happened while you were gone. This was much tougher since we had no internet back then - man, I feel like an old man saying that. You walk around YOUR city until someone stops you to ask for directions and you draw a blank. You realize you have no idea where this person is trying to go. But you are from here, right? Happens to us all.

Amen to that

The common reaction when returning home is to seek the familiar. This was a primary reason why I chose to attend the University of Ottawa to pursue my undergraduate studies. I had lived in Ottawa before. Surely it had changed much or at least some things could have remained the same. I also tracked down some of my friends from back in the Claudel days and once again, I realized my four years away from this city were just a whisper in the history books. Some long lost, dead and buried chapter. Nobody cared I was gone or that I came back. One of my friends from back then had battled cancer and barely scraped by. I was glad to see him again. Another friend had suggested that it was better not to be friends. The good old days were just that.  According to him, too much time had passed since we played in the schoolyard and we now had absolutely nothing in common. It was not even worth the effort to try to find out if in fact that was actually true. I realized I would have to switch my chip to convince myself that Ottawa was going to be just another posting. I was going to have to rebuild a life from scratch on my own with my parents posted to Mexico, my brother in London and no one else to help ease the pain or understand my troubles. ¡Aurrerá!