I grew up in a globally mobile family. Now I’m in Scotland, I have a job and a community…but even the idea of being here for the rest of my life makes my heart beat faster, and the panic sets in. It’s not that I’m not happy here, or that I don’t like my life here. I just can’t stop moving.
I love meeting international friends, and trying new foods, and exploring new places. And in a strange way, I think I like being foreign. I like that people can look at me without expecting me to immediately understand the culture, or the idioms, or the unspoken traditions. There’s more leeway to be different, because I am different.
On the other hand, I love the feeling of being settled – of having a favourite restaurant, a circle of close friends that you’d trust with your life, and a steady income. So why, when I find those things, can’t I stay?
My brain is set to rhythms of change. My body is on a timer; every couple of years I want to wipe the slate clean, pack my earthly belongings into suitcases, and start over. I’m not a criminal, I don’t think I’m emotionally detached, I’m just…a mover.
Would I like to break the cycle, to settle down and accumulate life souvenirs, maybe start a family, maybe buy a house?
I don’t know. Maybe I just haven’t found the right place yet.
Either way, all I know for now is that I can’t stop moving.
“Being rootless has given me a sense of freedom. I feel grateful for the experiences I’ve had, and I am proud to feel, above all, like a citizen of the world. The possibilities for the future are endless. The sense of being at home anywhere, yet feeling that home is nowhere, is part of who I am.” – Ndela Faye, writing for The Guardian
Piroska was born in Switzerland to a Swiss mother and a Hungarian father, with whom she moved to Canada as a child. She was a stay-at-home mother and housewife, and now as an ’empty-nester’ is exploring her creative side.
Being an immigrant to Canada changed my life, even though I was young when we moved. My dad’s perception of “us vs. them” came up often – in his eyes, European was often ‘better’. He looked down on his neighbours. Maybe it was his way of compensating for what he thought he lacked.
First Days in Vancouver
I could feel my mother’s sadness– it filled the room like a thick fog.
I stared out the hotel window and saw nothing but gloom and grey; the rain ran in rivulets down the pane, like the tears on my mother’s face.
Vancouver was an ugly city, to my five-year old eyes. The buildings were huge concrete monsters, and the constant sounds terrified me.
Horns beeped incessantly; police sirens shrieked. The sound of people rushing about– the buzzing of busy-ness.
My parents would take us for walks, but it was hard not to get soaked, dodging huge puddles, and I couldn’t get the stench of worms out of my head.
I wanted to hear the pealing of church bells, feel the rounded cobblestones beneath my feet.
I missed the green meadows, alpen wildflowers, and going for walks with my granny.
We’re all people, we all have (pretty much) the same survival needs, internal organs, emotions…when we have so much in common, why is it so hard to fit into a different country or community?
The answer, my friends, is culture. (Usually.)
Culture is more than creative expression: maybe when you think of culture, you think of paintings, or traditional crafts, or national music. And you’re not wrong: the arts are a big part of culture, but culture is not the arts. Are you following?
If you’re picturing ancient Chinese paintings, or African tribal masks, or ancient Greek statues, then again, you’re not wrong. Those belong under the ‘culture’ umbrella. But don’t let a colonial superiority complex make you think you or your country are “above culture”, just because you don’t see it manifested in the way you might expect. You have it, because you are human and you are surrounded by humans.
In fact, some would argue that culture is not what we make, but what makes us.
“Society or culture or whatever you might want to call it, has created us all solely and wholly for the purpose of maintaining its continuity and status quo.” – U.G. Krishnamurti
Our cultures shape our language, our manners, our humour, our relationships, our values, our beliefs… In a weird, brain-twisting paradox, we are forming culture as culture forms us.
The uncomfortable part is that a lot of cultural indicators are subliminal: you might not even realise that you think or behave in a certain way, because it is so deeply ingrained in your experience of life.
Traditions are the guideposts driven deep in our subconscious minds. The most powerful ones are those we can’t even describe, aren’t even aware of. – Ellen Goodman
So it’s no wonder moving to a new country, or working in an international company, or marrying into another culture is so hard! We are all human, we are all valuable, and we all function more or less the same way, but we are all wired a little differently. Out cultures have gifted us with different perspectives and traditions and ways of being, and sometimes those cultures contradict.
Maybe your Brazilian coworker wants to hug everyone, but that makes your Japanese office buddy uncomfortable. Maybe your female Muslim neighbour won’t shake your hand, or your Jewish uncle won’t eat the bacon sandwich you made him. (These are all quite black and white examples, I’m sure you’ll come across much more confusing and subversive ones!)
But here’s the key. Your culture is not right. It’s not wrong, by any means, but it is human and that means it’s complex. It means it’s changing, evolving, and adapting to the circumstances around it. The same goes for other peoples’ cultures.
Your culture(s) almost definitely played a big role in defining who you are today, even if you were fighting against it! But what’s a culture without a people to subscribe to it? You are still free to question the things you have always been taught. The more you travel, and the more people you meet who are different to you, the more you will realise what you are like. You’ll notice quirks about your own country: things you love, and things you wish were better.
So…what do we do with this knowledge? We have all this terminology to think about people groups and how humans function socially, but what, practically, needs to happen now?
You tell me. Would thinking about culture explain that conflict with your foreign neighbour? Would a deeper awareness of your own culture help you settle as an ex-patriate in a new country? Or, would an understanding of different cultures give you a more balanced view of your country’s place in the world?
Again, you tell me.
What do you think are some defining features of your culture?
If you have lived abroad, what did that experience teach you about yourself?
Do you have an awkward culture-clash story to share? (Please do. It makes us all feel better.)
I’m Dani. I’m biracial – Scottish-Latina, to be specific, although I never lived in either of my parent’s countries as a child.
I spent most of my teenage years (and a little of my adult life) wrestling with insecurities: I was never Scottish enough to be Scottish, and never Latina enough to be Latina. I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere, like I’d been made wrong, and that I would never be able to fit in.
I remember one day at university broaching that subject with a British-born Korean friend. She looked at me wide-eyed for a second, then said, “Wait, you too?”
Living between cultures is a huge blessing – think of all the food, language, and travel people like us get to experience thanks to our multiple heritages! But it’s also a confusing place to be in. Having a friend to talk about these things with was a huge help for me, even just to recognise that those feelings and insecurities are actually pretty normal.
So maybe you’re a TCK, maybe you started travelling as an adult, or maybe you’ve grown up in an international home. Whatever your situation, my hope is that this blog might be your ‘Wait, you too?’ friend – a place where you read stories that you can relate with, and that will help you work through all the challenges, tragedies, and joys of living a globally mobile life.
I hope you’ll stick around. And I hope this content will be as helpful to you as it has been to me.