I don’t think living between two cultures is a big deal anymore.
I’m at half my lifespan now and I care less about how I’m perceived. I’ve also been thinking more about the second part of my life and about the possibilities of new experiences. I’ve exhausted the possibilities of where I am, hit the glass ceiling as they say. I feel I’ve done enough proving myself for the last 20 years or and/or explaining my background or where I’m from and how that might be an important to how I consume and produce culture. In fact I almost didn’t even want to write this article because I wondered if I was just stating the obvious.
However, I thought about the younger generation and how this might still effect them. It was only just seven years ago that themes of mixed culture identity consumed me. It is after all the foundation for this whole Third Atlantic project. The term “Third Culture Kid” coined by American sociologist Ruth Hill Useem, caught my attention in an attempt to define my mixed heritage. The term refers to a child who has spent a significant part of their formative years outside their parent’s culture. In the process they end up creating one of their own: A Third Culture.
For example. Let’s say you were born in India. Then your parents moved you to Germany when you were 3 or 4 years old. They bring with them Indian traditions and experiences but you are too young remember them. In the privacy of your home you celebrate these customs with your family members. But you don’t live in India, you live in Germany. As you get older you learn German customs. You speak the language. You have a German accent. It becomes a way of life for you because of your desire to fit in. After a while, you get your citizenship and now you are both German and Indian. You pay your taxes, you contribute to society, your parents are upstanding citizens.
But there’s a catch.
You still look brown. When you visit India, you have a German accent. And so begins a lifetime of “where are you from?”. You start to feel like you don’t belong in either place. Being German means being white and speaking fluent German. Being Indian means being brown and speaking fluent (insert one of the many languages spoken in India). For now, that’s the dominant assumption (we will talk about this some other time). There are some who let you know that you will never be German or Indian. They might even resent you for this. They will most certainly think less of you.
Just to clarify, you don’t have to be a person of colour to experience this. You can be white as snow. Take my lady as an example. Born in Britain. Raised in South Africa. Moved to Canada in her 20’s. People still make fun of her accent and ask her almost everyday where she is from.
I know because It still happens to me all the time. I’m an Anglo-Indian: half British and half East Indian. People have tried to guess my identity all my life. I’ve been called literally every slightly brown ethnicity.
I know a lot of people hate being asked where they are from. It makes them feel like the “other”. I don’t mind anymore. I like telling people my history because it is an unusual story. Most people have never heard the term Anglo-Indian. I also understand that asking where you are from is someone’s attempt at connection. If framed the right way.
What drew me to the term “Third Culture” was the “third” part. It’s that non-tangible space. It exists everywhere and no where. It’s that place where you can be multiple cultures at the same time. You have the freedom to explore and observe from different perspectives. The good and the bad. That’s the benefit of being a mixed kid. You are always on the margins, peering in. It opens up the possibility for change. To resist and alter mono-cultural norms. Always with the desire to create something new.
It wasn’t easy getting to this place. It might sound very difficult for some other Indians to hear this, but I never want to visit India. I don’t like the culture. I don’t like the music. I don’t like the film. And those are two very important parts of my cultural interests.
For a long time I felt more in tune with my British side: the humour, the music. It’s how I was raised. I lived for about two months in London, England in my mid 20’s and fell in love with it’s diversity. Then I went again 10 years later. What was once a very diverse culturally city centre had returned to its monocultural roots and all the brown pushed to the outskirts. It was like looking at a paint swatch. The further I traveled from the core the darker it got.
Last year I went to Berlin for the first time. I had convinced myself all these years that no matter how liberated the city was, that I would still not like the place. Something was … off. And I couldn’t put my finger on it. So many people told me that I was being ridiculous. That I was missing out. By my instincts were right.
I was shocked at the lack of diversity. I tried to enjoy myself but felt insecure in a way I have never felt before. I felt like everyone was staring at me, judging me. It felt like all those times someone asked me where I was from was happening at the same time. With the exception of the architecture and the transit system, I realized that there was nothing about this place that intrigued me. I tried to resolve this issue by recalling all the wonderful things all my friends had told me about Berlin. But then I remembered it was all white people who told me. The lack of diversity might not effect you when everyone looks like you.
I have to point out that there was another reason this had such a profound effect on me. I’ve been looking for a new place to call home. My relationship with Canada has become stagnant. It protects me. It feeds me. It’s safe for me. It even loves me. But it doesn’t like me. It’s not interested in what I have to offer. I thought maybe I could start a new exciting relationship with Berlin. One of the many possibilities around the world.
When I landed in Toronto I get an immediate sense of comfort and I realized that I need to be around different cultures. I love going out and talking to someone about Columbia one night, about Romania the next. It not only intrigues me, it makes feel smarter, more educated about the world. I love learning about their own chaotic lives. I feel more confident about my own, inner chaos.
I started to realize that perhaps I had become comfortable with uncertainty. Comfortable with being uncomfortable. Certain that I will always be uncertain. At the same time I long for the comfort of being around those who also understand the push and pull between multiple cultures.
I also know that I most scared of complacency. That it will lead to boredom. But I’m most scared that complacency leads to nationalism. And that nationalism leads to ignorance. And that ignorance, at the time of this writing is becoming ever more common.