A Third Culture Kid's Dilemma
Updated: Sep 11, 2018
So, first things first, you may be wondering what “Third Culture Kid” means. A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is an individual who has spent a significant part of their development years outside their parents’ culture. The TCK often builds relationships to all of the cultures they come across yet do not have full ownership in any. However, elements from each culture may be assimilated into their life experience.
I, as you will soon learn, can be considered a quintessential Third Culture Kid. Both my parents are Malayalee, coming from the southern most state of India: Kerela. My dad’s side of the family spent most of their years residing in Southern Africa while my mother grew up in the ever-green landscape of Kottayam. Just like them, I carry strong “mallu” blood in my veins. However, both my brother and I were born in the glorious capitol of Zimbabwe. Harare, before it’s political chaos erupted (Thanks Mugabe), was unlike any other African nation at the time. Once being the wealthiest country in the Sub-Saharan African continent, Harare was a buzzing hub with a perfect balance between modern architecture and magnificent wildlife. Zimbabwe was known for its top quality education that molded generations of successful professionals, of all ethnicities, that now work at the best institutions worldwide.
By the time I was five, we relocated to Tanzania and for the next three years I was thoroughly enriched by its culture. I learnt Swahili kind of fluently, spent my evenings at pop-up markets, helped my parents pick out one-of-a-kind local street art pieces, caught ferries to destination beach locations every other weekend, spent a day with a Maasai tribe, had delicious seafood from simple restaurants that deserve at least one Michelin star award, witnessed the great migration at the Serengeti, went to small beauty salons at the end of each semester to apply the traditional black henna as a reward from my mother and much more. Living in Tanzania was like an endless trip to a theme park. You could say I was more than devastated when my parents told us that we would be moving yet AGAIN.
C’mon, I just figured out how to make friends Appa.
So we then moved to the landlocked nation, Botswana and since 2004 we have called Gaborone home. Moving to Botswana was a huge change, almost a lifestyle shock. Tanzania was a true depiction of hustle and bustle while Botswana’s ambiance was that of a lazy Sunday afternoon. Home to the Okavango Delta, Kasane, Kalahari Desert and Tuli Block, Botswana proudly showcased the beauty of wildlife. More so, it was the first time we truly settled in somewhere, maintained a beautiful garden, where friends became family and we even got a pet that didn’t require a tank. I completed my primary and secondary education in Botswana, which was a huge thing for me because I once attended four schools in the space of six years. It was an amazing experience being welcomed and nurtured in a community while witnessing that same community grow overtime. Finally, I was able to build life long bonds and relationships. Thus I am eternally grateful for Botswana giving me the opportunity to do so (Also my dad for not making us pack up again).
Soon, I left Botswana for further education in The U. S of A. Temple University, Philadelphia became my “adult” home for three quarters of the year. For the past three years, being an international student in a culturally diverse melting pot of a city and university campus has been an eye opening experience – socially, politically and emotionally. As as international student the question “Where are you from?” is as common as “How are you?”. Are our accents that obvious? Anyways, this repetitive question can be quite dreadful for TCK because, well, most of us have no freaking idea on how to actually answer that question without giving you a well rehearsed monolog. It usually starts off with something like “Well, I’m from * insert nationality/ethnicity * BUT…”. My answer to this has evolved over the years and will continue to do so. Ultimately, the short answer is I consider myself to be Indian and African.
However, people have always questioned if it’s possible to be both. Yes, it is possible. It’s called intersectionality, peeps. I may have never lived in India, only visiting every year or so, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that my parents have raised my brother and I with Indian values, culture and traditions. Not only has my Indian heritage been part of my daily life but it is something I am immensely proud of. So when fellow Indians in my native land question my “Indianess”, I politely ask them what makes me less of an Indian than them? I have a deep understanding and appreciation of our history, constantly being educated by my well informed Visual Studies roommate (Thanks Boo, your passion is much appreciated). I grew up on Bollywood movies, basically self teaching myself Hindi in the process. I know my “mother tongue” Malayalam well but I find myself hesitant to speak it due to my pathetic accent. I have been trained in a classical dance form, Bharatanatyam, from the age of seven. More so, I have always taken part in the Kerela Samajam’s cultural shows from a young age. Additionally, I even started choreographing and teaching Indian dances for students of all ages for the past five years. I enthusiastically celebrate and take part in festivals and holidays whenever possible, simultaneously improving my sari donning skills each time. I’ve grown up eating authentic homemade North and South Indian food, not the commercialized white-washed version found in most restaurants. Whenever my roommate and I cook, you bet your fine arse that we are jamming to a well prepared Bollywood playlist consisting of ALL the 80’s, 90’s and 00’s hit songs. P.S. sorry to my floor mates that had to hear us screeching to “Chura Liya Hai Tumne Jo Dil Ko” for the past two years. So, yes, these things have shaped me into the proud Indian woman I am today. If you don’t think so, I shall kindly stick my Indian passport in your face for “evidence” sake.
Yet at the same time, I share a deep connection to the African soil I was born, raised and may even die on. I may not be black or have parents who identify as African but being raised amongst various African cultures is bound to have an effect with who I identify as. My “Africanness” may not be as physically evident as my “Indianness” but that does not mean it is irrelevant or nonexistent. I often feel like Cady, from Mean Girls, when Karen asks “So if you’re from Africa, why are you white?” (Except in my case I’m brown). Does my lighter shade of melanin exclude me from being a member of the continent I call home? Sometimes, despite learning Shona, Swahili and conversational Setswana, learning and appreciating Southern African history, advocating for the decolonization of social norms and trends, fighting against cultural appropriation, spending years giving back and learning from various communities, having more of a Southern African accent than an Indian accent. But, I am an African because this is where the roots of my identity lie, this is the land that I love, where the people I cherish the most remain and this is where I will always return when home and sanctuary are needed.
Unfortunately, being part of multiple worlds can make one feel lost as they constantly try to balance the various cultures and lifestyles. Often I feel as if I do not fit in completely into either. On the one side, I look nothing like the stereotypical African. I am an outsider, an expatriate because my passport is Indian even though I was born in Zimbabwe and know the land inside out. And on the other, I am too “western” for India because of my clothes, appearance, opinions, perspective and accent. There is a particular quote that sums up this feeling; “So, here you are too foreign for home too foreign for here. Never enough for both.” Ijeoma Umebinyuo.
So my answer to the confusing question is “I’m Indian BUT Botswana is home” whatever you may think.