Who Am I? That’s a difficult question for anyone to answer, let alone expats nevermind the children of those expats.
I remember my first time living abroad. As an American, we delight in our ethnic heritage, saying something like “I’m 50% Irish, 30% Polish, 10% German and 10% Cherokee”. I had said something to that effect to an Irish guy at a pub one night. He lashed out at me, ” You are NOT Irish. You are American. Nothing about you is Irish and you know nothing about Ireland, I bet.” It stung, and he shattered my cultural paradigm. I was deeply humbled. Although I might be a 3rd generation Irish, he was right, there was nothing about me that declared I was Irish other than this family history. Culturally I walked, talked and dressed like an American. I thought like an American. I liked American music and movies. I cared about American politics and issues. It was really the country and culture that I identified with. From that point on, I embraced being American, rather than caring about my genetic lineage.
But technically I have lived over 12 years overseas, a significant portion of my adult life. When I come back to America, I often go through reverse culture shock. I have a hard time relating to other’s view of the world, and what they feel is culturally significant like the Bachelorette or Unicorn drinks. This past summer was so challenging for me, with all the politics, I really struggled with all the intensity and polarization. Moreover, I really couldn’t understand how we had come to such a juncture in our history that hatred and misogyny were becoming a “thing” again. It really devastated so much of the tenderness and appreciation I have for my country and the people who I love there. So now I find myself in a strange sort of void, in which I do not really resonate with the culture I live in geographically but don’t really feel American all that much either. Although my accent remains, so much of national pride has withered away with my lack of attention and focus on America. It’s a strange and terrible feeling. It now seems like my cultural identity has become untethered, and will remain adrift.
For my daughter, she too is somewhere in between 2 worlds–the worlds of her parent’s heritage and the country in which she lives. They have a name for her kind: Third Culture Kids. She has lived most of her life outside of her parent’s culture and is used to traveling and living in different places in which things are foreign. She connects with others not through language as much as feelings. However, I didn’t expect last year’s summer trip to impact my daughter so greatly. As much as she loved being with my family and friends, enjoying new foods and experiences, it really stressed her out. She stared at these “real American” children with confusion and amusement, literally, and at one time, when we were camping, some boys called her a freak and pretended to shoot her. It genuinely stunned her. Luckily since she is so well traveled and resilient, she managed it well, but as one month turned into two months, her nerves did fray. My husband told me about one day when she fled downstairs to the basement in tears, wondering if the “black men” were coming and how he could protect her. It was all the conversation and media messages that she was exposed to with the “Black Lives” vs. “Blue Lives” Matter debate that got her feeling paranoid, which was sad since ironically she is a child of color, as my husband is dark skinned.
In 2 months from now, we will touch down in Chicago, spending 3 weeks in America– a much shorter visit this time. As much as I look forward to seeing my family and friends, I absolutely dread this feeling of disconnection, especially with Trump’s presidency bringing tension and conflict to an all-time high. After this brief visit, I will step out of my homeland and my foot will land upon a new country, Laos, with its own complexities and challenges which my family will have to navigate. I remain hopeful that we will set down roots there, an antidote to this unease, making friends and building a life of joy and peace there. However, Who Am I? clearly is not a question that can be answered with nationhood or birth origins. Its answer, I imagine, that is somewhere in a vast space, the field that Rumi writes about in his poem.
Perhaps I will see you there.