By Sharlene Gandhi
I hate being asked where I am from. You’d think that’s an easy question to answer, usually requiring no more than a few syllables of a response. It is a question that frequently weaves its way into conversations with people at university. I was born to Indian Gujarati parents, who grew up between Aden and Mumbai. Although Yemeni culture is unknown to me, Indian culture and values played a definitive part in my upbringing. That said, having been born and brought up in London for the better part of almost 20 years, Britishness also obviously constitutes a huge part of who I am. And so it makes perfect sense when I say that I’m from London, right? Apparently not; apparently, people are dying to know where I’m really from, and seem to only be satisfied once I’ve revealed that my parents are Indian.
This is an anecdote about which I have mixed feelings; I’m neither resentful of those who are most likely making an honest mistake, nor entirely accepting of the fact that I cannot be two things at once. All I do know is that at times, particularly when I was growing up, I struggled to find my place. I also now know that I am not the only one to have faced this challenge; increased globalization and emigration has lead to many young people recounting the same, or a similar, anecdote to mine. These young people are categorized, in the field of psychology, as Third Culture Kids (TCKs). Third Culture Kids are those children who were born and/or brought up in a culture that was different to the culture that their parents were brought up in. These individuals consequently bridge the metaphorical gaps between the culture of their upbringing and their parents’ culture(s), arguably giving life to a whole new culture in itself. As Aron Penczu highlights in his article on “The Inkling,” Third Culture Kids are “too various to be easily assimilated into a single category.” They lack models and reference points “to help make sense of [their] lives.” TCKs are demonstrative of the fact that identity is much more complex than a mere label, a nationality or an ethnicity. As is put succinctly by tckid.com, “you know you’re a TCK when ‘Where are you from?’ has more than one reasonable answer.”
The notion of new cultures forming from a mixture of existing cultures is one that continues to interest me, because the possibilities are rendered endless. Last month, I had the pleasure of interviewing Arash Aazami about his entrepreneurial efforts in the energy sector, and how he sees the future panning out in terms of our over-reliance on depleting resources. What also really interested me about Aazami was his tri-cultural, quadrilingual upbringing, and I could not help but go on to the subject of TCKs; born to a Dutch mother and a Persian father who spoke Farsi to him, Aazami was brought up in a household in which the common language was English, and was educated in Niger, where the administrative language is French. Such an eclectic mix of languages and contrasting cultures led me to the inevitable question of how he managed to navigate growing up in such a culturally diverse environment. “I didn’t know any better – I just did!” said Aazami in response. “You either do that or become a schizophrenic.”
Humor and pleasantries aside, Aazami said that the difficulties came in adulthood rather than in childhood; according to Aazami, the world seems to work on the basis of categorising individuals, so that they tick certain tangible boxes, and this follows Third Culture Kids throughout their lives. “When you grow up, in student culture and the corporate world, people expect you to be one of the options rather than your whole self. They can’t put you in a container, and therefore cannot understand you and cannot relate to you.”
According to Ted Ward, however, TCKs “are the prototype citizens of the future.” In a social context that is ever-changing due to globalisation, the internationalisation of trade, and the dissolving of national boundaries, surely it must be of some value to have global citizens who are able to understand and appreciate the nuances between cultures. Third Culture Kids can be these global citizens, as, according to studies by Pollock and Van Reken , TCKs are generally more culturally sensitive and aware of cultural differences. This “cross-cultural competence” allows TCKs to “feel at home anywhere in the world,” as Aazami says. “Everybody has something you can relate to, and vice versa.”
This is not an easy subject to address, nor, for some, an easy subject to understand; hotly debated issues such as racism, immigration and national boundaries are all inevitably going to be a part of the discussion. But, rather than politicizing the issue, I would suggest we focus on the humanized element, and try to understand each other this way. And if this article has left you even more confused about why I don’t like being asked where I’m from, then perhaps this poem by Whitni Thomas will do the trick.
I grew up in a Yellow country
But my parents are Blue.
Or at least, that is what they told me.
But I play with the Yellows.
I went to school with the Yellows.
I spoke the Yellow language.
I even dressed and appeared to be Yellow.
Then I moved to the Blue land.
Now I go to school with the Blues.
I speak the Blue language.
I even dress and look Blue.
But deep down, inside me, something’s Yellow.
I love the Blue country.
But my ways are tinted with Yellow.
When I am in the Blue land,
I want to be Yellow.
When I am in the Yellow land,
I want to be Blue.
Why can’t I be both?
A place where I can be me.
A place where I can be Green.
I just want to be Green.