As some of you know, I have just returned home from a trip home to New Zealand. And no, that isn’t a grammatical error, I consider myself to have two homes. Whilst I am aware that I am very privileged to have spent my former years as a “third culture kid”, it comes with some deep grief, some of which I am just learning to accept.
“Third culture kids” is a term coined by sociologist Ruth Hill Useem as “children who have spent most of their developmental years outside of their passport nation.” For me, I am lucky that I can (and have) returned home to my original nation – some TCKs can’t return for fearing their safety. However, the struggle of feeling rootless, or confusion about where we belong is a general theme that most TCKs understand. This came to light recently when talking with other TCKs in NZ (Shout out to you Corrine!) I previously thought I couldn’t be considered a third culture kid because both countries were English speaking. However, the cultures in the UK and NZ are very different!
I would have thought returning to the UK would have given me an overwhelming sense that I was back where I belonged, but I felt (and still often feel) as if I don’t quite fit in – that my experiences and therefore personality made me an outsider in my home country.
As a TCK, our most hated question is “where are you from?” These days, when people in England ask me, I automatically reply “New Zealand.” Yet as my husband points out, I’m not really “from” NZ, as I was born and spent the first 13 years of my life in the UK. When I was in NZ, I would just say England as anybody who knows me, knows I have a weird hybrid of English accents, topped with a kiwi twang. I also use a lot of kiwi slang, which confuses people here in the UK. It often amazes people that my accent changes depending on who I am talking to. I’ve never really stayed in one place long enough to develop a distinct accent and with a Liverpudlian Mum, a Dad from Essex, and having grown up surrounded by people in Oxfordshire, Portsmouth, and family in central England, I seem to have picked up a bit of everything.
I moved to NZ at the tender age of 13. When I arrived I couldn’t even finish a sentence without someone laughing at my accent or asking me to repeat what I said. Not only this, but it was a massive culture shock to be fully immersed into the east coast life. On my first day of school I spent hours doing my hair and make up, and had my skirt taken up above my knee like everyone does in the UK. To my shock, all the new year nines at school didn’t wear make up and they all wore these hideous “roman sandals” or weren’t even wearing shoes. I’ll never forget the feeling of panic as I realized I was oh so different to my peers.
I was quick to learn that planning and time management were not very important to kiwi teenagers, and certain phrases meant completely different things. I’ll never forget the day my Mum went into school and shouted at the top of her lungs “MORNING TEA” … and we were greeted with shocked looks at what must have looked to the staff like a sudden outburst. Some kind soul then took my Mum aside and explained to her that shouting morning tea in NZ means you have to buy everyone morning tea (which is biscuits and snacks, not cups of tea).
My parents decided to make the move to NZ for our whole family, and as the only family member that was unhappy/uncomfortable, I unfortunately suppressed my feelings and didn’t allow time to grieve the life I’d lost. Both my parents, and my brother, had no (obvious) qualms about adjusting to the kiwi culture.
However, I was a confused 13 year old who felt that she was suddenly shunted into this foreign world. Before moving to NZ, I wanted to become a musician, yet the town we moved to didn’t have suitable cello and flute teachers for me. At 13, I didn’t really know how to process any of my thoughts and emotions, and I felt if I showed them, I would just make my family unhappy or seem ungrateful. So I suppressed my emotions, and decided to just change my personality to fit in with my peers. I soon started to wear no makeup, turn up late to everything, and plan each day as it came along. And as an adult, I noe love the beach, walking without shoes and even eating pies with my hands (although I still couldn’t stomach one for breakfast!)
My mum repeatedly tells me “home is where the heart is” … and this is definitely true. I suppose my problem with this is that my heart is in multiple places, as are my family and close friends.
Ndela Faye wrote a fantastic blog post on “being rootless, or free” and I think, as always, it’s important to highlight the positives of being a TCK. In her words, “being rootless has given me a sense of freedom. I feel grateful for the experiences I’ve had.”
I am definitely grateful for the opportunities I’ve had living in NZ and I’m sure that if we didn’t move I wouldn’t have gone to university or met all my lovely friends and husband. I also would have a tonne less empathy and cultural understanding.
This year one of my goals is to make an effort to truly put some roots down in Milton Keynes, and along with Elliot, sow into the relationships we have here. I hope this will now be our forever home, but I will always have a bit of my heart left in NZ and I want to make sure I don’t lose that part of my identity. I’m lucky enough to be able to go back to this “home” and visit my friends and family annually. The difference between 13 year old me and now is that I understand I am different, and that’s ok. Instead of thinking I have no home, I will be grateful that I have two.
– Tolaga Bay, Home in NZ