|International Day at my International School in Damascus.|
My class represented India.
You’d think someone like me would handle transitions the way a duck handles water. You might even say it was in my blood. And you’d be forgiven for thinking so.
One of the first things I’m usually asked is where I’m from. I’ve never admitted it but I hate being asked that question. I have an oriental face but a peculiar accent. Even after 20 years in the UK, the American twang of my childhood is still detectable. I’m from Thailand but I grew up all over the place. My father worked for the United Nations and by the time I was 18, I’d moved 8 times and lived in 6 different countries, attending mainly American International Schools.
So in some ways, I handle change very well. I’ve learned to adapt to new situations quickly and suss out the local culture so I can try to blend in (or be as inoffensive) as possible. I can pack like a pro and travelling is second nature to me. I’m good in a crisis, practical. I usually know what needs doing and I get it done quickly. I’m good at coping. New places don’t faze me (though people do). But I’m good at appearing unfazed by the things that shake me. Like hiding the humiliation I feel every time I return to Thailand and am reminded of the many ways in which I don’t belong. I’m great at hiding my feelings. So good, I often don’t even know they’re there.
My parents spoke Thai at home, but my first language is and always has been English. I’ve never lived in the country that my parents refer to as home. When we were living overseas, we went on “home leave” to Thailand every two years so I grew up believing that I should view Thailand as home, even if I was in no way equipped to do so. I’ve never been to a Thai school, so I can’t read or write Thai. I may have a Masters degree from an English University, but back on “home” soil, I am an illiterate – something I discovered to my horror when viewed with disdain by Thai officials because I was unable to write my own name on a passport application.
When I meet Thai people outside of Thailand, I am reluctant to tell them that I’m Thai. Because after the initially joyful reception and the outpouring of Thai that I have difficulty responding to, they are inevitably disappointed and suspicious. Once they realise I’m not really Thai, at least, not in the way that they are, they are no longer interested. So I have no Thai friends and when I’m in a Thai restaurant outside of Thailand, I speak English and avoid eye-contact with the Thai staff working there.
In Thailand itself, something about me screams falang (a derogatory Thai term for foreigner) before I even open my mouth. And when I do speak my unique version of bad Thai, rather than finding it endearing, the locals snigger and speak back to me in broken English. When visiting the Emerald Buddha Temple in Bangkok, which is free for Thais to enter, my poor Mum is always accosted because the guards think she is trying to smuggle in a foreigner when I accompany her. But maybe the guards are right. I know English people who would belong more easily in Thailand than I ever will.
After University, I spent a year on a counselling course. During the session on grief and loss, I felt oddly numb. This wasn’t new to me, but it also made me feel more nervous than usual. When we got into pairs to do our counsellor-client role play, I sat there with my partner, my mind completely blank. I told her I couldn’t think of anything to talk about, as I’d never really experienced loss. I honestly believed this was the case because I hadn’t known anyone who’d died. She gently pointed out that it didn’t have to be a loss due to death. That was when I first became aware of the can of worms I’d been hiding away.
I recently came across the term Third Culture Kid. It was coined for people who have spent a major part of their developmental years (between birth and 18 years) in a culture other than their parents’. Third culture because we didn’t fully belong either in our parents’ culture, or in the culture in which we found ourselves, but somewhere in between. Third Culture Kids usually feel they have more in common with each other, even if they haven’t lived in the same countries, than they do with people from the countries where they have lived. Third Culture Kids are also known to experience delayed or repressed grief, multiple layers of loss and depression. I hadn’t even known that there was a name for “someone like me”. It was more than a revelation. It was so validating, I felt like a part of me had finally come home.
On learning about the Third Culture Kid experience, I realised that those years of constantly not belonging while adjusting and trying to integrate into whatever culture I found myself in, had left me feeling almost invisible. Having a name to put to my experience, recognising myself in the stories of others who have experienced the same thing, is like coming out of hiding. Realising I don’t have to feel apologetic for my existence. I hadn’t even been conscious that I’d been hiding. Not just in the sense that I’ve never spoken about my life overseas beyond answering the question “where are you from?”, but hiding in a much deeper sense. Hiding that has been part of the adjusting, part of my armour, part of the mask I needed to wear so as not to be too different. And hiding so people don’t get too close, because so many of my friendships and relationships ended before they even began.
The odd thing is, now that I’ve found out "who I am", I don’t know who I am, who the person is that’s been hiding. What if after peeling off the masks, I’m just left with layers, like an onion? Or what if that person is a stunted child, stuck somewhere in the past? I don’t know, but there’s no turning back now. I’m in the process of finding out, whether I like it or not.
It was a struggle to even write this. Who’d be interested, I thought? Even after all these years of people telling me that I must have had a fantastic childhood, that I should write my life story and yet, whenever I’ve sat down to write that story, I couldn’t. There’s nothing to tell, I’d think. It’s not that exciting, or certainly not exciting enough. Or what right do I have to write about any of these places that I dipped my toe into for a few years, always remaining an outsider? I didn’t know how to form the words. It’s akin to writing my life into existence, creating it from a ball of clay. Finding just the right words, the right strokes to make myself and my life visible, acceptable, maybe even beautiful. I’m still trying. Maybe I always will be.