Navigating the space between cultures

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By Ndéla Faye

You only are free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all.”Maya Angelou

In a world where moving abroad is becoming commonplace, the phenomenon of ‘Third Culture Kids’ (TCKs) – children who spend a significant portion of their developmental years in a culture outside their parents’ cultures – is increasing rapidly. The term, coined by American sociologist Ruth Hill Useem in the 1950s, refers to the tendency of TCKs to mix their ‘birth culture’ with their ‘adopted culture’, creating a culture of their own: a third culture. TCKs can be seen as an elitist form of transnational migrants, although the reasons for children becoming TCKs in the first place vary. Nevertheless, as the number of TCKs is growing, so are the cultural complexities of their identities and experiences.

Like many Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs), I struggle to answer the question “Where are you from?” Fearing coming across as standoffish or facetious, I often catch myself diluting parts of my story in order to make myself more palatable to others who find it difficult to place me. Depending on the situation, I have a short and a long answer to the question. To save time (and any further questions), I’ll sometimes respond “Finland and Senegal.” But the whole story, the story that makes me me, is that I was born in Helsinki, moved to Luxembourg, then to Brussels and finally to London.

Culture is often described as being a combination of the way we speak, how we act, what we eat and how we dress; it’s an amalgamation of patterns of behaviours, beliefs and values. It’s something that is learned, rather than instinctive; passed on through generations and shaped by the surrounding environment. But if those lines are blurred, and you feel as though you can’t claim a single country or culture as your own? What happens when you feel like you are from nowhere, yet everywhere at the same time?

Although I was born in Finland. I’m aware that I don’t look typically Finnish – but seeing as I’ve never lived in Senegal, I don’t feel very Senegalese either. Or Luxembourgish, nor Belgian for that matter, and even though I still hold a Finnish passport, I’ve lived ‘abroad’ for too long to call it my home country. I see the countries as places I’ve spent time in and made friends in, places I have family in, places I visit every few years – places I think of with nostalgia. But when I’m actually there, I feel very much like an outsider.

Sometimes I catch myself wondering how different my life would be if I would have lived in just one place: would I be different if I’d have lived in the same house my whole life, or gone to the same school and kept the same friends I made in nursery all the way to adulthood…? I feel I would not be me had I not been a TCK.

Aside from having had the opportunity to be surrounded by multiple languages from a very early age, I love being able to choose whomever I want to be wherever I go, like a chameleon. Because I don’t feel as though I belong to any specific place, my identity and sense of self is fluid, and I’m constantly reinventing myself. There’s a strange sense of freedom, and a comforting knowledge of being able to pack my bags and move anywhere, without having to think about it too much.

At times, I joke with my TCK peers about having ‘itchy feet’ – the feeling that we’re unable to settle down in one country for long periods of time. In an almost-too-idealistic way, the possibilities for the future seem endless. We are global nomads, revelling in our rootlessness, able to go anywhere, and make it a (however temporary) home.

In light of the recent EU referendum result, the thought of ‘home’ has been on my mind even more than usual. “Do you think you’ll ever go back?” I’ve been asked a few times. “Back where?” I ask, puzzled, anxious, concerned. Should I have a place to go back to? Should I feel like I can always return somewhere and feel at home? Of course, I have played with the thought of settling down in Finland or Senegal, but always in the safe confines of my imagination – in a similar spirit of toying with the idea of doing something drastic with my looks – but knowing very well that I will probably never actually do it.

With trepidation, like thousands of others in the same predicament, I can only hope that I will still be allowed to keep finding my place and building a little corner to call home on this island – freely, as I have been able to do until now. I also hope that future generations will be able to explore the world and be presented with a breadth of opportunities just like I was.

So where is home? For now, I’ll swirl all the different answers in my mouth – and after ten years in the UK I’m finally starting to feel like home could be here – but I’m not quite ready to utter the words out loud just yet.


image1-4Ndéla Faye is a freelance writer and journalist based in London. Her work has appeared in the Guardian and Image magazine in Finland, among others. Follow her on Twitter @NdelaFaye

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