‘WHERE ARE YOU from?’ is an anxiety-inducing question for me. It’s not that I can’t answer it. It’s more that I often lack a concise way of explaining, or pin-pointing, the ‘where’ without causing a string of follow-up questions to boil over. The answer – the long one, anyway – is a secret I keep tucked away behind my ear, one that I can reveal like a coin trick, glinting in the sun like a sequin, when the moment’s just right.
A lot of the time I misplace logic and language when trying to structure my identity into something coherent, and instead try to build it from memory: hot pinpricks of light from sparklers that we chased each other around with as kids, holding them too close to our skin so that they singe the hairs standing up on our arms in the twilight dark; the sting of silvery fishbones in the back of my throat at dinner; turmeric staining the insides of my fingernails; the perfect symmetry of a yet-to-be-eaten meal on a long-haul flight; the musty perfume of foreign currency coming into contact with my pulse points; the soft fur of a greyhound brushing against my bare legs on a bobbing train carriage in the summer; glaring sunspots in my eyes and rainbow blemishes on the insides of my eyelids; red ants scrambling into all kinds of shapes on the hot concrete as I walk with my uncle to the milk bar down the road from my grandmother’s house; constellations of mosquito bites up my arms; craning my neck upwards towards the silhouettes of palm trees; neem trees; beech trees.
‘Where’s home?’ is another question that puts me at a loss, purely because I’ve grown up with more postcodes and PO boxes than I could keep track of. To me, home isn’t necessarily the feeling of walking through a front door and flopping onto a sofa with my coat and shoes still on, or a place that insists on pilgrimages to IKEA. I’ve often felt like home can be other things too: a song played on repeat until it becomes elastic in your ears; claiming a certain kind of perfume or shade of lipstick as ‘yours’; that moment when you’ve broken in a new pair of boots and all the cuts and soreness that came before seem worth it; a quiet spot in the back of a café where you can be left alone to decompress from the day you just had.
The short answer to where I’m from and where I think of as home, I sometimes reluctantly admit, is that where I was born, where I grew up and where I live now (and what it says on my passport) don’t match up. For most of my childhood and teenage years, I thought this was normal. But I soon learnt that this was more likely to make me not quite the norm – more like the exception.
Sociologists have coined phrases to try to describe people who grew up like I did. In the ’70s, Ruth Hill Useem discovered third culture kids on a research trip to India: those who had gone from their home or first culture into a host or second culture and lived not as the locals did nor as they once did at home, but had adapted a new lifestyle for themselves, creating a third or in-between culture. She defined us as ‘children who accompany their parents into another culture’, meaning that we often become third culture kids as a result of the choices our parents made for our collective futures. Another sociologist of the same era, David C Pollock, expanded upon Useem’s initial idea, describing us as people who spent ‘a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture(s)’, eventually building ‘relationships to all of the cultures [they came into contact with], while not having full ownership in any’.
I’m resistant to labels and ways of neatly packaging my identity for the benefit of others, and don’t feel like I fit within either of those definitions. But at the same time, they offer a way of explaining the parts of myself that don’t seem to make sense to everyone else. When people press for explanations, most of the time, I shrug and say, ‘I’m just me.’ But by moving across continents, time zones, cultural norms, languages, educational systems and governments, escaping political unrest and gaining opportunities I never thought possible, it’s inevitable that I end up becoming shaped by both what arrives when I do, and gets left behind when I finally leave.
I’VE BECOME USED to emphasising or omitting parts of myself to become more palatable to others, depending on the situation. In volunteer and community work, I emphasise having lived overseas and having studied different languages; in the corporate world, I focus on mentioning that I graduated from high school in Australia, and the different universities I studied at, and weave in stories that demonstrate I’m ‘from’ here: scholarships or grants won for career development; the weight of HECS debt that follows us across borders and oceans; a level of emotional investment in women’s AFL as much as what happened on last night’s episode of Q&A.
As a kid I returned to my – and my parents’ – birthplace of India almost every summer. One of my elder cousins used to call me pardesi (परदेसी). It’s a phrase from Hindi that means a couple of things, depending on the context: foreigner, stranger, newbie. With the latter phrase, it often meant a person who lacks local smarts because they have no previous frame of reference. Someone who couldn’t hail a rickshaw or haggle prices at the local market or tell a doctor what was wrong without a family member to translate. To the amusement and horror of many of my extended family members, having grown up overseas with little access to my parents’ cultures apart from the occasional weekend out at the cinema or a once-a-week, long-distance phone call meant I struggled to speak my parents’ native language, Malayalam, which has an estimated thirty-eight million native speakers around the world and was declared a classical language of India in 2013. Instead, I learnt to smile until my cheeks ached, and express the non-verbal cues for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to make up for not being able to string a sentence together.
I remember learning to recognise Malayalam by ear as a child, listening and watching for how my mum and dad would form sentences, create meaning, make themselves understood to others: This is how you express joy. This is how you phrase regret. This is how you give voice to grief. This is how you put your thoughts into words. But as I started school overseas, and left behind my extended family, other languages (English, Arabic, French, German) – some of which I was obligated to learn by government law; some of which were supposed to spark a love of language, just because – flooded my consciousness.
Arabic is not a language for shy people. I remember one of my teachers telling me this when I tripped over my pronunciation in primary school. It’s guttural. You have to feel the words in the back of your throat. It’s okay if you spit a little.
I didn’t really have many plans for the future beyond doing well in my final exams and hoping that that would get me into a good enough local university. I remember my friends in high school picking out what A-levels they wanted to do next year, or what universities they wanted to apply to overseas. Soon, my parents told me that it was official: we’d been granted permanent residency status and would be moving to Australia soon.
When I moved to Melbourne with my parents the same year the Cronulla riots happened, I felt optimistic, despite everything that told me I shouldn’t have. I’m selective with my memories from this period; a lot of it I’ve managed to block out. For instance, an older woman interrupts my high school friend and I on the tram one afternoon, blonde sunlight spilling onto our hair; our voices unselfconsciously loud as we chatter and forget where we are for a minute. ‘Excuse me. Excuse me,’ she says. When I turn around, she asks, ‘Are you…from here?’ It feels like the entire tram is waiting expectantly from the answer. I nod, hesitantly. ‘That’s surprising,’ she responds. ‘You don’t look it.’ She peers at me through her glasses – perhaps out of genuine curiosity, but to me it feels like scientific appraisal. I shrink in my seat. My friend pretends not to notice. Suddenly self-conscious, we continue the rest of the tram ride home in silence.
Another time, an unknowing classmate congratulated me on doing well in ‘assimilating’ into Australian culture after less than six months of living in Melbourne. I responded, ‘Oh.’ Looking back, I figured it meant she had learnt, in time, that I was more like her than she was willing to give me credit for initially. But in the moment, I could only think of all the things I’d lost – the confidence to voice my opinion without fear of some form of punishment; a support network of other third culture teenagers that had accepted me without a questionnaire to fill out first; the normalisation of multilingualism; being given the benefit of the doubt while we were finding our feet instead of suspicion – rather than what I had yet to gain.
I NEVER REALISED what my voice sounded like to another person before I moved to Australia. How much value is placed on the lilt of an accent, the pace of a sentence, the subconscious word choices we make. Sometimes my accent is interpreted as American, sometimes Canadian – at a particular time in the afternoon, on the phone, at least, it’s heard as Australian. ‘Are you sure you’re in the right queue, there?’ a staff member asked me as I lined up to put forward a general enquiry at my first-choice university, nearly ten years ago. ‘Your accent tells me you should be in the international student line?’
‘No,’ I said, aware of how my accent betrayed me. ‘I’m in the right queue.’
Researchers Ruth E Van Reken and Paulette Bethel refer to this pang of betrayal that I often experienced as a side effect of ‘hidden diversity’: a ‘diversity of experience that shapes a person’s life and worldview but is not readily apparent on the outside, unlike the usual diversity markers, such as race, ethnicity, nationality’ and so on. Because I was neither a typical ‘screamer’ (someone who adopted extremes in behaviour, dress and attitude to let their peers know they weren’t alike) nor a ‘wallflower’ (someone who withdrew until they figured out how things operated in their new environment), I was instead someone who – while moving every few years – kept waiting for my new home to lose its newness and become just that: home.
Building up and carrying around a personal library was important for me. Not just to hold onto books that I enjoyed reading and wanted constant access to, but stories (and authors) that helped me remember who I was and who I was becoming. There’s a bootleg copy of Arundhati Roy’s debut novel, The God of Small Things (HarperCollins, 1998), which I found at a local Varkeys – a now-defunct supermarket chain in Kerala – when I was visiting one summer. I first read the dream-like, prismatic tale of a cursed South Indian family when I was eleven, and again in my twenties. (To date, it is the only book that my parents and I have in common: we have all read through to the end, in awe of seeing a version of where we once lived committed to literature, with anglicised phrases from our shared native language clearly visible on the page, flowing from the mouths and brains of these weirdly familiar fictional people.) Then, there’s Jhumpa Lahiri’s first short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies (Houghton Mifflin, 1999), and her novel The Namesake (Houghton Mifflin, 2003). In a 2008 interview with The Atlantic, when asked why she keeps returning to the idea of putting people in new physical circumstances, Lahiri replied:
It interests me to imagine characters shifting from one situation and one location to another for whatever the circumstances may be. In the first collection [Interpreter of Maladies], characters were all moving for more or less the same reason (which was also the reason my parents came to the United States): for opportunities or a job. In this collection [Unaccustomed Earth] there’s a similar pattern of movement, but the reasons are more personal somehow – they’re reasons of family dynamics or death in the family or things like that. In this book I spend more time with characters who are not immigrants themselves but rather the offspring of immigrants. I find that interesting because when you grow up the child of an immigrant you are always – or at least I was – very conscious of what it means or might mean to be uprooted or to uproot yourself. One is conscious of that without even having ever done it.
Plenty of other books continue to be added to my library. To me, each represents ties to the different cultures and countries in which they are set or were written; or in a more abstract sense, they evoke certain feelings that I find difficult to articulate outside of – or separate from – the language and lives of the characters in these books.
This idea of a ‘sense of belonging’ keeps nagging at me because it doesn’t feel entirely true to where I want to end up in life. While there are plenty of formal terms for things I’ve experienced that have created cavities or deficiencies in my consciousness – ‘reverse culture shock’, ‘identity crisis’, ‘rootlessness’, ‘invisible losses’ – there are fewer artful phrases to describe what I’ve gained. Freedom? Courage? Luck? Possibilities? Found – or perhaps, chosen – families? I make lists but hesitate to settle on a single word.
THE SOCIOLOGIST TED Ward predicted back in the ’80s that third culture kids were prototypes for citizens of the future: that growing up in close contact with so many different cultural worlds would someday be established as the norm, not the exception.
In Australia, three decades later, we’re not quite there. Instead, Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs Alan Tudge has warned that the so-called secret to Australia’s multiculturalism is failing, with migrants choosing to live in ‘cultural bubbles’ instead of interacting with broader society, and that he thinks tougher expectations should be placed on acquiring Australian citizenship.
According to ABC Fact Check, strengthening the Australian Citizenship Test may result in many new migrants, ‘especially women who were refugees escaping persecution’, struggling to reach a ‘competent’ level of English without having to undertake further paid tuition.
This is a far cry from achieving some kind of definitive ‘multiculti’ utopia. American academic Herman Beavers defines multiculturalism as a state of being that ‘happens…[and] that has effects and consequences in the world’, rather than as a static term that describes how societies refer to and categorise multiracial and multiethnic dimensions. While any country can fear what will happen to its pre-established ideas of national identity, multi-generational immigrants and third culture kids instead fear the loss of cultures we were never allowed to grieve or farewell formally, and the forced-upon expectation of becoming a sponge for – and integrating into – national values that we’re discouraged from questioning or re-evaluating.
In his essay ‘“Simple Survival” in “Happy Multicultural Land”?’, the academic Roy Sommer says that the basic rules of a multicultural society include not just giving status to ‘something that is not universally shared’ but also acknowledging the ‘equal value of different cultures’. What happens here is a conflict between equality and difference, which can’t be solved with theoretical frameworks but has to be actively taken care of. As philosopher Charles Taylor writes:
There must be something midway between the inauthentic and homogenising demand for recognition of equal worth, on the one hand, and the self-immurement within ethnocentric standards, on the other. There are other cultures, and we have to live together more and more, both on a world scale and commingled in each individual society.
I’m still not convinced about what it means to be a citizen: to exist one way, in a tangle of ancestors and stopovers and big decisions and last-minute flukes and multiple-choice tests, and to identify on paper as another – neat, precise, not up for debate. My Australian passport often camouflages the weight of privilege that it carries with it, but I am more than its pages can contain.
THE POLVAN CULTURAL identity model – a way for third culture kids to be defined using more traditional box categories – co-created by David C Pollock and Ruth E Van Reken, offers a way of looking at the conflict between internal and external challenges third culture kids face, whether in educational environments or in broader society. First there’s ‘the foreigner’: someone who looks and also thinks differently. Then there’s ‘the hidden immigrant’: someone who looks alike but thinks differently. There’s also ‘the adopted’: when someone looks different but thinks alike. And finally, ‘the mirror’: someone who both looks and thinks alike. While this model can be a useful starting point, it is rendered useless alongside an event of code-switching: when a person is able to express themselves in two or more languages, or ways of articulating themselves, when communicating with their peers.
Possibly the best thing I’ve gotten out of relating to the definition of third culture kids is the idea of ‘enough-ness’: having the audacity to feel sufficient or adequate in a world that is always pushing and shoving for us to achieve more and try harder to fit in, to become ‘one of them’ or ‘just like us’.
When new migrants arrive in countries of transit or arrival, we don’t just bring with us our ethnic status, gender, age, labour market capacities and capital, legal status, rights and entitlements, and personalised trajectories. We cannot help but add our narratives and experiences to pre-existing layers of society, rewriting over past histories with our own. This includes bungled family recipes in cramped kitchens that are too small to hold decades-worth of communal memory, and the feeling of coming up short – mixed with stubborn purposefulness – when downloading freemium language-learning apps on your smartphone that unfortunately don’t give you the option of casually picking up the dying ancient lingua franca your mother had to learn when she was primary-school age.
While my South Asian-ness sometimes tussles against my Middle Eastern-ness, and my Middle Eastern-ness is baffled by my Australian-ness, I try to preserve all these different sides to me, hoping that they will all equally outlive – or at least make room for – each other. It’s why I feel oddly homesick whenever I walk through Coburg and spot bilingual shop signs, or accidentally eavesdrop on fragmented conversations carried out in public that aren’t in English, or hear Michael Mohammed Ahmad say ‘As-Salaam-Alaikum’ (السلام عليكم) on national breakfast television. Or when I am comforted, suddenly, by a bowl of warm khichdi (खिचड़ी), a blanket of congealed ghee on its surface, straight from the pot on the stove, past midnight.
About the author
Nathania Gilson is a writer, editor and multimedia producer in Melbourne.