Musings of a Third Culture Kid
By Piri Altraide
‘How come you moved around so much? Were your parents diplomats?’ It’s Christmas Day, 2020. My body feels warm, despite the tame weather, most likely because of the red I’d had with lunch and the humidity. I’m at an ‘orphans’ Christmas in Footscray hosted by my church. Something in the conversation has led to these questions. I balance my plate of prawns and samosas on my knees and, more enthusiastically than I expect, offer an answer. For once, I’m proud and excited to talk about my unique background. For once, it brings joy. In recent times, discussions about my peripatetic upbringing have been somewhat rare. Since moving to inner-city Melbourne four years ago, I’ve mostly avoided the (incredibly annoying) ‘where are you from?’ question (problematic on many levels, not least because of the uneducated presumptions it reeks of). Further, in conversations that do incidentally lead there, or where I bring it up myself, I say, ‘Perth’, and that’s enough in most interactions. The truth is, though, it’s not that simple.
I’m a third culture kid, or TCK , who was born in Nigeria and raised predominantly in Perth, Australia. However between Nigeria and Australia there was a bit of shifting. By age seven, I’d lived in seven countries (Nigeria, the Congo, India, Malta, England and Scotland, and Australia), and attended five schools. Most TCKs are the children of diplomats, missionaries, or army personnel (sardonically termed ‘military brats’). But, my case was a corporate one: my father was a seismic engineer for Schlumberger, an oil company, and was posted around the world for his work. My family and I moved along with him until December 1993 when we finally settled in Perth.
To say my formative years were disruptive would be an understatement. I remember loving the travel, and the sense of adventure amongst the moving and flying and planes and airports. I felt excited each time we were told we’d be travelling again. Most TCKs feel restless, chronically struck with itchy feet. This was definitely true for me. Staying in Perth felt a bit ‘stuck’, and from a young age I dreamed of plans to escape the pretty but somnolent city–town.
This feeling wasn’t helped by the parochial culture and attitudes around me. I couldn’t relate to my peers for obvious reasons, but being a TCK in my generation (the somewhat older millennials) relegated me to an even rarer breed of migrant. The unique situation of TCKs is apparently becoming more common due to globalisation, but it’s something I haven’t read about in the Australian literary landscape. Further, I’ve rarely crossed paths with other TCKs myself. Most of my classmates in Perth had not so much as moved to a new house, let alone country; so finding peers with similar wavelengths and experiences was impossible. Initially I grew up jealous of them, wondering what it felt like to live in one place, to know without a shadow of doubt where ‘home’ was. And even though there’s still a sense of loss around not having a definite ‘home’, I think about how incredibly limiting knowing only one place would have been.
Some research on TCKs found that we are more likely to speak more than one language, have a broader world view, mature earlier, and be more culturally aware. However, the peripatetic lifestyle can create a sense of restlessness and rootlessness. While I (sadly!) only speak one language, and am grateful for the open-mindedness and awareness the TCK experience has gifted me, I do find myself existing in the liminal. In her Liminal interview, Thanh Hằng Phạm talks about being a ‘stranger at home’, both in the land of familiarity (Australia) and the land of heritage: ‘How do you sit within a place that is not your home, but you’ve been constructed to think that it should be your home?’ My relationship with Australia has evolved into this exact thing: a strong familiarity which never translates. The cruel problem with familiarity is how close you get to belonging, without ever actually belonging. For most of my years in Australia I was constantly reminded of this fact, vis-a-vis the relentless interrogations of: ‘Where are you from?’, ‘Where are you originally from?’, ‘I meant before that’, ‘And before that?’, ‘Where are your parents from?’, ‘Oh. Well, you’ve been here for so long – you’re Australian then.’ Australian, after spending 15 minutes telling me I’m not. I wish I had the wherewithal in those years to give them a bit of KenTanakaLA. But alas, what doesn’t kill you by irritation makes you stronger.
I find I’m most at home in places of limbo, like when I’m travelling and surrounded by other nomads and inquisitive seekers. I performed these ‘escapes from Perth’ often as an adult, as soon as I could afford to (back when that thing called overseas travel existed). In these situations I’m not cast into a role or stereotype, or already have my story decided before I open my mouth. In these situations saying I’m ‘Australian’ feels right, even true. Not down-to-my-soul true, but close enough, because my answer is accepted without question. For once, I can give a simple answer. For once, I can be straightforward, just like everyone else, even if temporarily. I enjoy this openness, and have fond memories of trading tales and insights about culture and language. I realise in all this how much I love learning about others, how my early life of constant upheaval and change kept me open, interested, curious. I’m a smorgasbord of tastes and influences, and I consider how eating Indian food feels comforting, how I connect with Europeans most in conversation, how I feel like I’m returning ‘home’ when I visit England, and experience nostalgia when drinking English tea, despite England’s fraught history with Australia and Nigeria.
One definition of a TCK includes someone who ‘develops a sense of relationship to all of the cultures [they’ve lived in] while not having full ownership in any.’ This summarises the TCK sentiment perfectly. On this side of eternity, I know I can’t fully answer the question of ‘home’. What I do know at least is this: it’s one of each, one of many, and all of none.
Piriye (Piri) Altraide is a Nigerian-born Christian writer of poetry, short fiction and hybrid creative non-fiction. After escaping Perth, her work has been published in Cordite, Djed Press, Milk Crates, Folk Magazine and The Lifted Brow. Singing is sometimes included.