Joburg Expat: Where is Home?

August 1, 2012

Where is Home?

Signs for one of our homes. Maybe the "no outlet" sign has
deeper meaning? Photo by Viv Nazarro
Being an expat and having the opportunity to live in an exotic place might sound like a dream come true to a lot of people.

But it's not always easy being an expat.

Aside from all the big hassles moving entails - packing up your household every few years, finding new schools, buying a car, navigating a bureaucracy that invariable strikes you as more complicated than the one you grew up with, and - this might be the hardest of them all - finding a new hairdresser, there are the little inconveniences too.

One of those little inconveniences of expat life is having to answer the question of where I'm from.

Because there is never just a simple answer.

Somehow "I-was-born-and-raised-in-Germany-then-moved-to-Raleigh-North-Carolina-to-attend-business-school-in-1991-with-my-then-boyfriend-after-having-been-an-exchange-student-in-the-US-at-age-16-and-really-loving-it-there-then-got-married-and-had-kids-then-lived-in-Singapore-for-a-few-years-then-moved-back-to-North-Carolina-then-to-Wisconsin-then-to-Kansas-then-to-South-Africa-after-becoming-American-citizens-right-before-leaving-America" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue easily.

I'd love to be able to unequivocally say "from California" or something equally short and simple. Period, end of story. I suppose I could do just that, but it feels wrong. Because what does "where are you from" mean? Where you lived most recently? Where you were born? Where you lived the longest?

So, as an expat, your answers are often lengthy affairs, with many starts and stops and bits like "well, let's see...most recently lived...born and raised in...originally from" and "wait a minute, I forgot the time we were kept captive by cannibals in the South Pacific." You'll invariably run over your time limit - let's face it, people typically don't allot more than fifteen seconds to their where-are you-from questions - and feel compelled to shout "and I was raised by wolves in Transylvania!" after them as they're already turning their backs.



Saying good-bye to Kansas. "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore" pretty much
sums up expat life, don't you think? Photo by Viv Nazarro

Because I never really get to tell the entire story, I feel like I have all these different identities among my acquaintances of the moment, depending on the day and my mood when I told my tale.

Every once in a while I'll sit down and try to think about where I really am from.

Am I from Germany? That's where I was born. But I haven't lived there in 20 years and it doesn't feel like home anymore. On a recent visit, I got utterly lost on what should have been an easy drive from the airport in Hannover to the town of Grossburgwedel (yes, that is the name of the town and there is, of course, also a Kleinburgwedel). As I was growing more and more desperate circling through quaint villages and trying to interpret the utterly confusing signs, I was already formulating a blog post on it in my mind, describing the pitfalls of German highway signs. I felt like an expat in my home country, which I suppose is precisely what I am, if at least one who can speak the language reasonably well. Although even that can be a challenge. I seem to have missed a wave of hip new language since 1991, so that I probably sound like a Pennsylvania Amish woman coming to the big city.

Maybe I should practice wearing a bonnet.

I found that the best way to make myself understood is to take the equivalent English word and pronounce it in a German way, hoping for the best. English words are definitely in fashion.

Speaking of language, there is also the problem of articles. Not the written kind, but articles as in "the." The German language, you know, insists on hoisting not one, or even two, but three different articles at the unsuspecting learner. Every noun known to mankind must become either male, female, or neutral before it is allowed on German soil, there is no escaping it. Clearly, trees are male, and the sun is female, as is butter (although there is a bit of a North-South debate on that latter one, to be completely honest). The problem arises when articles must be found for new arrivals from overseas. Is an iPad male or female? A computer is male, because its predecessor, a calculator, was also male. You'd think that would make an iPad male as well, but no, I was corrected, it is actually neutral. The German word for swimming pool is neutral, but if you use the English word pool, as many Germans are wont to do, it suddenly becomes male. And how in the world am I supposed to guess that a donut isn't female like all the other nuts out there?

And how, while we're on it, do you "friend" someone in German?

Collecting  memories along the way is an expat specialty. Photo by Viv Nazarro


I know it sounds corny, but most likely home is really where the heart is. Which means wherever your friends and loved-ones are. Except that makes the home debate even more difficult, because by that definition(not even counting all the other places some of our friends have moved on to) we have little bits of heart scattered all over the globe, from Germany to North Carolina to Singapore to Wisconsin to Kansas and all the way to South Africa, where one day, when it comes time to say our good-byes, we will leave a particularly big chunk sitting on the doorstep.

So you see, my identity is not all that clear to me.

Which is why I was actually pleased to find out the other day that I'm not the only one feeling this way. Apparently there is a whole host of people similarly afflicted, and they are called Third Culture Kids or TCKs. People who grew up in a different country than their parents, or who have parents of different nationalities, or who have lived in so many different places they have no idea which one to call home anymore. I'm not particularly fond of the term TCK but apparently there are entire books written about it, some of which are on my reading list. If I myself don't technically qualify as a TCK, having only moved to the U.S. in my twenties, our kids certainly do. Three of them were born in the United States, one was born in Singapore, and they all currently, temporarily,live in South Africa with German-American parents.

I wonder how they will answer the question of "Where is home?" when they are young adults?



So Where's Home? A Film About Third Culture Kid Identity from Adrian Bautista on Vimeo.

10 comments :

Conrad said...

toll geschrieben!!!

Anonymous said...

German grammar is devoid of logic and is close to impossible to master for a non-native, and even the natives struggle with the finer points.
As regards SA, if you ever leave, you will be drawn back here, it's just that kind of place. I've managed 44 years on and of and I'm still surprised every other day. Therein lies the allure.
And yes, well written, indeed.

Tony said...

I can so relate to this! Great post!!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a very thoughtful blog! I can relate to so much of what you have covered. I read up in Wikipedia and found the following paragraph that follows on after a TCK returns to their passport country -

"Many TCKs take years to readjust to their passport countries. They often suffer a reverse culture shock upon their return, and are often perpetually homesick for their adopted country. Many third culture kids face an identity crisis: they don't know where they come from. It would be typical for a TCK to say that he is a citizen of a country, but with nothing beyond his passport to define that identification for him. Such children usually find it difficult to answer the question, "Where are you from?" Compared to their peers who have lived their entire lives in a single culture, TCKs have a globalized culture. Others can have difficulty relating to them. It is hard for TCKs to present themselves as a single cultured person, which makes it hard for others who have not had similar experiences to accept them for who they are. They know bits and pieces of at least two cultures, yet most of them have not fully experienced any one culture making them feel incomplete or left out by other children who have not lived overseas. They often build social networks among themselves and prefer to socialize with other TCKs.

Many choose to enter careers that allow them to travel frequently or live overseas, which may make it seem difficult for TCKs to build long-term, in-depth relationships. There are, however, a growing number of online resources to help TCKs deal with issues as well as stay in contact with each other. Recently, blogs and social networks including MySpace, Facebook and TCKID, have become a helpful way for TCKs to interact. In addition, chatting programs including MSN Messenger, AIM, and Skype are often used so TCKs can keep in touch with each other. The unique experiences of TCKs among different cultures and various relationships at the formative stage of their development makes their view of the world different from others.

They tend to get along with people of any culture, and develop a chameleon-like ability to become part of other cultures. Some TCKs may also isolate themselves within their own sub-culture, sometimes excluding native children attending their schools, or defining themselves in relation to some "other" ethnic or religious group.

As third culture kids mature they become adult third culture kids (ATCKs). Some ATCKs come to terms with issues such as culture shock and a sense of not belonging while others struggle with these for their entire lives". form Wikipedia

DrieCulturen said...

Nice post. I had an "aha" moment when I read the book "Third Culture Kids, growing up among Worlds" by D.Pollock and R. van Reken. This book is a must read if you want to know more about TCKs. I'm one too, I was born in Zambia, lived in Malawi and Zimbabwe. At 19 years of age I went to Holland (my passport country), I had such a culture shock and it did not feel like home at all. It's good to tell your kids about what third culture kids are and the challenges they face, because the information can really help them along the way, I'm sure!
I blog about third culture kids and more. Wish I was over there in Africa...

Sine said...

Thank you everyone!
And thanks Anonymous for the reference to Wikipedia. I think this is good to know as the kids get older, so you don't just qualify them as "weird" if they act differently from their peers.

Sine said...

Hi DrieCulturen - I just went and checked out your blog (I think I've come across it before) and LOVED the poem. All of that rings true, about the way you're always playing catchc-up to people who are more rooted in one place. And yes, I DO have to read that book, absolutely, you're about the 5th person who's recommended it. Thanks for the reminder!

Kim said...

Excellent post! When people ask where I am from, I say, "Alabama" which is technically true. Invariably, they either think I am joking or mistaken. It's just too hard to explain the jumps through 7 US states and 5 countries. When I do, they want me to be a "military brat" (and I am not). It just frustrates people when they want a simple answer to a seemingly simple question.

Frankly, I was relieved to learn the term TCK.

:)

Sine said...

Hi Kim,

not sure why I missed your excellent comment from so long ago. Yes, I totally understand how that feels. I also often get the "military brat" question, which I'm sure would have amused my parents (I grew up in Germany) and which doesn't amuse my husband (who people never assume grew up in the US because of his accent). Not sure how my kids would feel about the TCK label. I asked them the other day where they think home is and got three different answers.

W. A. Jeffrey said...

Interesting question. Probably best to start with citizenship status. In your case you would be a German-American. But from that point on it gets difficult. When you've lived in so many places I suppose you have to go with whatever feels right. My advice in your current 2015 situation would be to say "I'm from Tennessee but was born in Germany." If that isn't enough you can always tack on the "I've lived all over, really" to whatever you say.