It’s in the Genes!

July 1, 2015 — Leave a comment

In a recent interview for Thriving Abroad, co-director Evelyn Simpson remarked I was their first interviewee who was a TCK, with TCK children and now TCK grandchildren, and that got me thinking. TCK-dom goes way back in my family, certainly well before the term Third Culture Kid was coined by social scientists, Ruth Hill Useem and her husband, John Useem, after studying American children living in India, and noting their home and host culture merged to form a third culture. David C Pollock defined the term further, “…The TCK frequently build relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.”

Then a couple of days after the interview, a chance meeting with a woman got me thinking about expatriation, and the kind of people who thrive abroad. She, a tried and true Texan whose global experience runs to a four-day Caribbean cruise, was bemoaning the fact her son was about to embark on a life overseas. Two years anyway. She could not understand why he would want to leave America. I tried to put her mind at ease with the usual platitudes, you know the kind – it’s his job, he’ll be back, what a wonderful opportunity for you to visit him, and so on. She was not appeased. And that got me back to TCK-dom.

My paternal great-grandmother was brought up in India. After years apart from her parents, when as a little girl she had been shipped off to the chill dank of England for the sake of her health and education, she returned to India as a young woman, married, and repeated the process with her own children. Neither of my parents were brought up abroad, but met in the jungles of Pahang during the euphemistically called Malay Emergency of the 1950s. With that familial history, it would seem I was predetermined to be an expatriate. It’s in my DNA. It’s certainly in my children’s.

My daughter, Kate, is almost back where she started. Born in The Netherlands, she transferred to Trinidad and Tobago at the tender age of eight months. She has recently returned there with her husband and children and has eased into her new life with remarkable aplomb.

However, whether having an expatriate upbringing or not, there are times when any new country’s idiosyncrasies can reduce even the most seasoned expat to a gibbering wreck. Clearing shipments, finding a home, schools and getting lost on a regular basis.

I have always considered myself a good map reader and find them a far more pleasurable alternative to the tinny, hectoring tones of a remote voice telling me to ‘turn right now’. There is something vaguely romantic about following the routes of those who have travelled before us. Siri was of course not available in many of our earlier postings, and getting lost, when not driving to a timeline, is part of the fun of a new location. It’s an adventure that often turns up wonderfully unexpected treats – a market teeming with colour and vibrancy; or a temple, the chanting of novitiate monks offering an oasis of serenity in a city bursting with energy; a street stall selling the best satay in the world. Or sometimes a dead end.

I still remember the sense of complete satisfaction, when I finally managed to drive Kate to school without getting hideously lost amongst the narrow sois of Bangkok, each lane a meandering thoroughfare filled with people and tuk-tuks. The fact I got lost getting home again was beside the point, I had no timetable to keep.

Though I do admit there have been times when getting lost has sent my stress levels off the charts, those maps I profess to love. I am probably the only woman to have driven, with a dog, from La Paz in Baja California, Mexico to Houston, Texas, and to have been unable to find America. The road to the border crossing at Tijuana should have been a straight line, but a signed detour sent me to the barrios of a city I wish never to see again. I resorted to clambering into the back of my SUV, not wishing to unlock the doors in the neighbourhood in which I found myself, to get out my dive compass to find north. Two hours later I drove back into the land of opportunity. Elated and grateful.

Kate, too, will have such moments of elation in her new home, and probably a few more moments of despair, of “what the hell have we done?” But each such moment is further and further apart. Our son, confined to British shores at the moment, is eager to return to Africa, Asia, wherever the oilfield might take him. What he is not interested in, is a life devoid of adventure, an immovable life he considers circumspect and pedestrian.

So, as I watch my children continue their global wanderings, I am filled with a sense of  déjà vu. They will get lost sometimes, but they will find their way home again, wherever home happens to be. Just as the young man, whose mother was so distressed about his leaving, will do too. Who knows, his experiences may be the start of an expatriate life, one he passes to his children. After all expatriation is truly in the genes.

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