‘Where are you from?”
Only a few people might find this question confusing or scary. It’s simple enough really, ‘Who are you and where do you come from’. But to me and my brother, this question first evokes a sigh and then a three-minute long explanation. We were born in Yemen to Indian parents, and have Indian passports. We were schooled in Yemen and in some parts of India. So we’re technically from India, though Yemen is our home. But then there are other options for us to answer with — native state, where my parents and I live now or where we have a house that we haven’t lived in for more than two months at a time?
This is usually met with, “So you’re from India. Great, do you miss it?”
I am a third-culture kid and am very proud, angry, jittery and happy about being one. For the uninitiated and unintroduced, third-culture kids (referred to hereon as TCK) are children who spent a significant portion of their formative years in a culture different from what is native to them, being forced to create a third culture modified according to their native and formative cultures. They are, in my humble opinion, quite confused about where they’re from and defensive about that confusion.
Three decades ago, this term coined by Ruth Hill Useem as early as in the 1950s, might have been a rare one to use. But in 2017, being a third-culture kid is commonplace. This doesn’t make it any easier to find their ‘roots’.
And no, I don’t miss India, and to be honest, the only time I feel patriotic is when I see Indian food.
It gets harder when people assume you’re glad to be out of the ‘foreign’ country. “Who would want to live there?” being the constant refrain — though my country being Yemen might have something or everything to do with that.
“But you don’t speak Arabic.” Yes, 16 years and I don’t speak Arabic, but it doesn’t matter that I didn’t need to learn it as my friends, family and the shopkeepers knew English well enough. It doesn’t matter that I know enough Arabic to survive, while my parents can still randomly burst into Arabic conversations.
All that matters is that this somehow disqualifies me from calling Yemen home. The only thing connecting me to Yemen is the entry for ‘Birth Place’ in my passport. Just one place where I have the right to call Yemen my own.
What people don’t realise is that TCK have identity crises in almost every place they go. For my brother, he was made fun of in his ‘native land’ when English words punctuated his broken Malayalam sentences. Going further north in India, we were made fun of for not knowing Hindi, though between the four of us in the family, we know more than six languages.
Now working and living in Dubai with my parents, I vacation in India, and have to forget Yemen. So, is Dubai ‘home’ now? Or is it home for 20 years before I retire to my native country (or am forced to when I can’t work anymore), to have a house but no ‘home’, and no friends or neighbours to call truly my own?
It’s not all bad though. Being a third-culture kid also means a certain sense of freedom and confidence when it comes to taking on the world. It deeply embeds the fact that home is really where the heart is and not bound by passports or languages. Life for most TCK is not easy with the constant moving, packing and un-packing, losing and finding friends — but this life, I think, teaches us resilience, aptitude and a sense of gratitude to be in such a diverse world. We are the truest form of global citizens.
For an old soul like me, I want a place to call home and people to call mine. For now, I have neither.