The Pink Lion from Tanzania
“Where are you from?”
“No, where are you really from?”
Raise your hand if you’ve had a conversation like this. Come on. If you’re a TCK, this always happens! I’ve been asked that question about every three months for the past ten years.
“Why are you in South Africa?”
“I live here.”
“No, but why are you living here?”
Have you ever been asked that question? When people respond with a “but why?”, it makes me feel as if I don’t belong. I admit, when people ask me this, it makes me want to shake my head and walk away. In my experience as a Third Culture Kid, people never believe me when I say I am from a certain country.
I feel that as a TCK, I stand out in everything I do. I have white skin, I speak with a different accent, I actually think hamburgers taste good, I show up to the party on time, I don’t always bow when I greet people (not doing so when greeting someone older in Tanzania is the ultimate sign of disrespect. Now, would you like to guess how many times I’ve forgotten to bow?)—everything that I do sets me apart from where I am. In Tanzania, my blond hair and blue eyes stand out like a pink lion. In South Africa, my American accent stands out like a parrot barking. In America, showing up to the party late is like, well, I don’t even have an example for it.
Every year my school devotes an entire day to celebrating the diversity of our student body. A parade of nations takes place where you are given the opportunity to walk around with other students and teachers who also claim your country as home. Now, as you can well imagine, many Third Culture Kids struggle over which country to walk with. Often times, we walk with multiple nations. Last year, with the Parade of Nations fast approaching, I was discussing with some friends about which countries we were going to walk with. A few minutes into the conversation, I piped up and said that I might walk with Tanzania. I will never forget the chuckles that erupted over that statement, nor the look of humor on many of the faces that surrounded me. My Tanzanian friends thought I was joking. Looking down at my plate, I chuckled along with them and pushed the thought aside. Needless to say, I did not walk with Tanzania, and deep down, I was hurt. I wanted to claim Tanzania as my home, but how could I? I was not accepted by others as a part of their country.
I’ve also found that, as a TCK, I live in a world where, no matter how often I say a place is home, people will always point to mannerisms, characteristics, looks and behaviors that contradict the culture I’m living in. Many people only see the differences; the discrepancies between their way of life and mine.
Sometimes the discrepancies are small; they are simply tiny habits that differ from their culture. Recently, I was spending the week at a summer camp in the States. With fair skin, I assumed I could blend in quite smoothly. However, that was not the case. Every single day, there was one small difference that my friends never failed to point out. Whenever I didn’t hear something, I would respond automatically with a “pardon?” My friends thought it was adorable, and pointed it out repeatedly. While they were not trying to be unkind, it continually jabbed at me. To the ears of a Third Culture Kid, it was a reminder that, no matter how hard I try, I will never fully fit back into American culture either.
The plus side is: growing up in multiple countries and cultures and being surrounded by numerous ethnicities allows us to slowly develop a “third” culture that is unique to us. In doing so, we are given the wonderful opportunity to view life from different perspectives; we are able to step back and look at the world from another’s glasses, thus enriching our own worldview.
I am the end result of this way of living. I have become a beautiful blend of cultures, created through experience, with humble portions from several customs and ways of life that are weaved together to form a rare individual that was born of the world and for the world. No matter the jabs, misunderstandings, and misconceptions, I can’t complain about that!