Third-Culture Roots

“Not the ones speaking the same language, but the ones sharing the same feeling can understand each other.” ~ Rumi

   Its interesting to some how I categorise myself to fall under the term of a “Third Culture Kid” (TCK) – when this suggests that this individual is brought up outside of their parents’ culture for their childhood years. There is also the suggestion that these children do not have roots in the places they live in given that they could be constantly moving. All of this is true, however that’s not the point I’m bringing up – its the research suggesting that TCK’s can’t trace themselves back to their roots, because they’ve been constantly on the move, from place to place, with no real home.

But I do have a home.

Malawi.

   Area 9/44, several houses down the road on the left, with the big black gate with the board “Mohan” fading on the side, as the individuals of the family have left behind the once busy and vibrant home, to a cold, quiet and empty house. Since turning 4 months old, I’ve been living in the same house and growing up in the same neighbourhood, thus following on to starting and completing my 14 years of school at Bishop Mackenzie International School. I think of home and I automatically think of Malawi. I can live – in what people believe to be the most beautiful country in the world – and I will still feel homesick for Malawi. I will still envy those who are blessed to take a visit to my Home. You know that feeling when you go home…? Utter. Peace. And that emotional overwhelming sensation – because is it real? Can I actually be home?! I go through a whirlwind of both the emotions of peace and overwhelmed excitement every time I am about to go home and step foot onto the place on earth where I grew up. I can sense this ethereally feeling of having never left, and dreading having to again.

   Now I know I’m not the only one feeling like this about a certain ‘Home’, yet I imagine there will be several TCK’s reading this and thinking “Whaaaaat?”, because most blogs and other information that I’ve looked into on this topic emphasises on the idea that these individuals don’t know what it feels like to have a home. But lets keep all that aside. This isn’t about me, this isn’t about Malawi (as much as I would love it to be), this is about how for me personally I find it difficult to explain and answer the question asked to me; “Where are you from?” Considering I’m a TCK, I can say that I’m from Malawi, but my parents are from India, however I know that isn’t even entirely true. In fact in order to assist me on this, a recent TED talk has provided me with an enlightening elucidation on the very question of “Where are you from?” Taiye Selasi is the speaker of this, and she has opened up a whole new world of discussions in her illuminating talk.

  Before proceeding to her talk, let me reveal to you my revelations as a TCK. I believe that if I am to call myself that, I should also note that this suggests I have ‘third-culture roots’, if you can be open to that terminology. If someone asks me where I’m from, I’ve been told that my answer is misleading, as my first response will be India or Kerala. Given my skin colour, I know people expect that answer, although, that’s not really true is it? I don’t have a complete Indian accent, or a complete Malawian accent – not that that suggests anything – yet I can’t quite explain what accent I do have and its amusing to watch (apparently). I’m a local to Kerala, Calicut specifically, and yet I don’t consider it home. Its only by birth and a courtesy of my parents; other than that I unfortunately have very little link with Kerala. I’m not a Malayali, aside from the fact that I love the celebration of Onam and that I have a fondness for Malayalam movies. However, that, and the fact that I speak my native tongue (can barely write, and read very slowly) are the only things that attribute me to being a ‘Malayali’, or at least, I believe so.

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My best fit illustration of ‘third-culture roots’ © Mahima Nambiar

   In every part of the world exists a society that judges. Perhaps since I haven’t grown up in India, I find that the one in India is fairly strong in their judgement, however I am not one to make a final call on that. But I do know this: I am no rebel in my actions, nor am I one of those girls that is subdued. Is this a TCK attribute? I don’t know. Its frustrating to not be able to mould to what society expects out of you. Frustrating and refreshing. When you’ve got your roots across various places its challenging to mould to the rules that society implements (and expects), particularly once you’ve experienced the true taste of individuality. But even this is new for me, and these experiences build your identity. This identity that is still a blur in this maze I’m trying to reach the core of.

   This is something I’m just starting to realise, however not specifically to India or Kerala. My personality traits don’t fit in with a Keralite, a Malawian, or a ‘Western’ person (for lack of better description and disregarding my vagely Anglo-American accent). Each area of the world wherein I have lived have given me experiences from each culture that has pieced me together, to the point that I won’t ‘fit in’. Travel does this too! Exposure to various cultures and the difference of being a TCK. There’s always something in every part of the world that I find distinct, perhaps to my own beliefs and values that I have built as a 22 year old soul seeking individual. Hence what I have discovered is given my third culture roots and travel experiences I tend to have a difference of opinion, meaning that not only do I find it challenging to ‘fit in’, but this is a long-term thing. Hence I suppose it is about being comfortable in a place in order to consider it as home, and coming to Taiye Selasi’s discussion, she believes that its goes down to the 3 R’s: Rituals, relationships, and restrictions. The rituals that you have grown up with; the relationships that you find are close and comforting, and the restrictions which don’t allow you to be yourself – those are your indicators of being home. I urge you, my dear readers, if you can relate to anything I have written, watch the video in the link above. Its a real eye-opener. 🙂

    So going back to her discussion, if I was to answer as to where I’m a local and where my third-culture roots lie, my answer would that I have been born in Calicut, grown up in Malawi, studied in Dubai, and local to all three, particularly to Malawi.  As for my current state in New Zealand? Its still early days. If I consider further conversing about rituals, relationships and restrictions this will go on for too long, hence for the time being I will call this Part 1 of this discussion, because this is always an ongoing debate and I love to talk about it! Also, perhaps this particular blog post was less of a general discussion and more personal, but I do know I’m not the only one who encounters these experiences. So please feel free to let me know your thoughts. 🙂

2 thoughts on “Third-Culture Roots

  1. I am not sure I agree fully with this TCK thing… I spent the first 30 years of my life in India( Chennai mostly), then went on to Muscat, Oman for 2/3 years, Zambia for 9/10 years ; and Malawi for another 13 years; now back in South India (Chennai 4 and Coimbatore 4 years) . Even in my first 30 years, I was strongly influenced by western movies, music, books. Also, despite a very strongly religious father and a very religious and ritualistic family background and environment, none of this really influenced me beyond the age of 14/15. I remained culturally and socially neutral, I think. Right up till now ! And not to forget I have also got exposed to the USA for the past 15 years and the frequent visits, the American daughter-in-law connection, the American way of life – all that has not affected me much. I would like to think I maintain my core neutral culture and manage to speak Hindi, Tamil, Americanized English and “propah” English equally well (or poorly). The core culture and the core character, the values – are individualistic and yes, these are influenced a lot by the environment in which we have lived in. But it does not create our identity. Our identity is unique to each. I know a few people ho have not traveled much, who are well in touch with the world, have lived only in one or two places within one country in their lives – but who are able to mix well and be comfortable with any person of different culture or social background . I think the secret is to be grounded and be at that basic human level where we find common culture, values and ethics with every individual on the planet and do not feel alienated at any situation. Tough ask but I am still working on it 🙂

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  2. “Each area of the world wherein I have lived have given me experiences from each culture that has pieced me together, to the point that I won’t ‘fit in’.” Absolutely! I find this works for me too, we’ve been both really lucky to explore and be touched by different parts of the world. I think there’s only positive sentiments that can accompany a TCK, as we need more of them to break down the increasingly divisive hatred and barriers that individuals and groups are building up, and also as they can lend a unique perspectives to the multi-cultural and complex problems that we face on a global scale today.

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