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Friday, September 2, 2016

In My Country

In my country. . .

This is a phrase I hear a lot here. When I heard it the other day, it made me stop and think. Here was someone who knew where their country was. They knew where they belonged. They had a country and in their country things were done a certain way. I didn't have that luxury.

After meeting someone for the first time, and since I travel the percentage of meeting new people increases, the first question they ask is Where are you from? When I returned to Lebanon, I told people I'm most recently from California but I've lived all over the place. If they wanted to know more, I gave them the Reader's Digest version of the continents I'd lived on and if they were really interested I'd throw in countries and ages. I lived here til I was 9 and there til I was 15, etc.

The second question tended to follow rather quickly. Which country did you prefer to live in? If they found out I carried multiple citizenship with quadruple ethnicities, two of which were not even related to my citizenships, their alternate question was Which culture do you most identify with? A new ATCK (adult third-culture kid) asked me that the other day and I didn't know how to answer them. I identify most with the Middle Eastern, European and American cultures was my reply. I'm still thinking about whether that is true.

The older I get, the less a single cultural identity seems of significant importance to me. Perhaps it's because the world is growing more accepting of the global nomad norm, as porous borders absorb thousands of refugees and intellectual tourism or trade is on the rise. Even with airplanes dropping out of the sky, millions of people step into metal cylinders and hurtle across oceans and continents to start a new life or fantasize it is their own for a few days.

I'm finding I'm not so unique anymore. Not long after putting a name to my childhood experiences, I began to meet others who shared similar patterns of uprooting from and adapting to various cultures. I learned there were thousands of TCKs out there and most of them could identify with my experience even if they'd lived in different countries or eras. For a while I found my identity as an ATCK and was proud of my heritage. I joined Facebook groups and poured my heart out on threads that dealt with loss. I focused on cross-cultural experience in my graduate studies and carried out a qualitative study of more than 65 TCKs to evaluate the connection between grief, loss, and adult identity.

After completing my graduate studies, I eagerly accepted a volunteer call in the country I'd lived in before immigrating to the US. In a way it felt like coming full-circle. I was now home even though it didn't look like home anymore and the friends I'd had were gone. I settled in to life and tried my hardest to identify with the Lebanese culture. I found that the hospitality, generosity, and warm friendliness were common to my values but the secular emphasis on materialism, outward looks, and advancing up the career and social ladder were not part of my worldview.

When I step back to consider who I am and which culture I identify with, I realize that my identity is as multifaceted as a red diamond which is considered the rarest diamond in the world. Every time you turn the diamond, a different prismatic explosion occurs. Similarly, as I try to understand who I am, I find that as I encounter different people or experiences, I relate differently to them. Even I cannot always predict how a certain situation will affect me.

My country is an African-European-Middle Eastern-American melding of countries. The good and the bad is squashed into a volumetric space no larger than 4 cubic feet. There are times when my identities clash, like a bad hair day for a multiple-personality person. When I'm expected to act Western but my natural instinct is Eastern, I freeze. I struggle sometimes because I feel like I should choose sides but the side to which I'm loyal shifts with the situation.

In my room, I have Dutch stroopwafels and speculaas, a glass with a picturesque Lebanese scene painted on it, a British flag backpack, Korean noodles, a Taiwanese postcard, an American calendar, a British best-selling biography, and a picture of my Bangladeshi sponsored child. I'm as comfortable with this flavour of the world as I am sitting in a Dutch train speeding through the green countryside. I identify with each culture in its unique way, depending on how long I lived there, at what ages, and the level of connection I hold with it.

The next time someone asks me Where do you come from? I'm still not sure what I'll tell them. I cannot say Lebanon because they will immediately know I don't speak Arabic. I cannot say California because they will ask me about politics and I won't be able to give them an intelligent answer. I cannot say Africa because they will laugh at my pale skin. I cannot say England or Holland because they will expect me to have the accent, neither of which I have.

Perhaps I can tell them I'm a kaleidoscope of cultures and each person who gets to know me will see a different picture of who I am based on their understanding of culture and openness to getting to know who I really am. Perhaps my identity will continue to change or merge til one culture is dominant. Perhaps I will finally settle down, not just physically, but emotionally so I can truly feel that where I am is who I am. Til then, I live in the between, the liminal experience strengthened each day as I grow content in who I am now and accept that who I am tomorrow may change. It is no longer in my country. It is in my heart.

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