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Strangers at home
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 18 - 02 - 2010

Living away from home as the child of a diplomat can be both difficult and rewarding, with the chance to gain experience often coming at the cost of one's identity, writes Nashwa Abdel-Tawab
"I can still remember the security guard at our house in El Salvador shooting an owl that had landed on our balcony at my parents' request, since this is a bad omen in Egyptian culture. But the following day I got to know that it was a good omen in Salvadorian culture. Such memories give me a different world view and multicultural skills," remembers Injy, a journalist and the daughter of an Egyptian ambassador, who was herself brought up in five countries.
"I got to know in my teens that people in different cultures tend to associate luck with animals or things, and being brought up in many cultures I didn't believe in omens. I found myself outside the frame, looking at human activities in each culture without being rooted to any. And so I learned that I could get along with anyone anywhere once I had learned to respect differences."
"As a result, I stop focussing on details and start stressing universal aspects of human beings that transcend borders and cultures. These traits are not relative. They are significant truths that bind us together," she says.
This is not only Injy's case, since, as one of the so-called Third Culture Kids (TCKs), her childhood experience was of parents packing their bags and their kids and going from country to country according to their work postings.
TCKs are typically the children of diplomats, business people and military personnel who live outside their native countries for extended periods. US researchers Ruth Useem and David Pollock were among the first to use the term in the 1970s and 80s, based on their work with the foreign affairs community of the US State Department.
Pollock describes a TCK as a young person who has lived in a culture other than his or her own. The result is the integration of the norms and values of the host country with those of the child's own country, forming a "third culture".
Yet, though rewarding in some ways, living away from one's home country can also be difficult. Because of their international experience, TCKs can gain a wealth of insight. They are typically tolerant of diversity, become skilled observers, and can serve as a model for multicultural education because of their expanded world view and exposure to cultural differences.
Typically, TCKs live outside of their native country for an extended period of time, and they tend to be fluent in at least two languages. Because of their international perspective, TCKs have distinct advantages, particularly as countries become more interdependent.
Yet, certain disadvantages are also associated with being a TCK. Exposed to a variety of cultural influences, TCKs may feel culturally separate from both their parents and their peers. A TCK may share a sense of membership in multiple cultures, yet lack ownership of any one culture. Unfortunately, this dynamic can continue throughout life, with a TCK being adrift with respect to cultural ownership.
Third culture kids often feel most at home when they are with others from similarly mobile backgrounds. In fact, by the time they reach adulthood, many TCKs prefer to live and work outside their native countries.
Joan, a British teacher and daughter of a diplomat who grew up in an internationally mobile family, often reflects on her third culture identity. "Will I ever feel like a legitimate Briton? I don't know. I am most comfortable with myself as a foreigner. I might be most at home living part-time in the UK and the other part in another country, or perhaps at a spot mid-way across the sea. I'm not sure. In the meantime, I am going along fairly happily, living in Cairo."
Joan's life in a Muslim country has allowed her to see global issues of Islam, the wearing of the hijab and the Palestinian issue in a different way than she was used to when she lived in European or Asian countries.
Lamia, the 16-year-old daughter of a diplomat in Morocco, also thinks of her experience away from home as being a mélange of pain and wonder: pain at saying yet another goodbye to friends and wonder at the circumstance that have brought her to such a moment and how far she can once again benefit from a new life abroad.
Although Lamia lives and comes from a Muslim country, she, like all diplomat children, goes to an international school and mixes with peers from different cultures. She engages in discussions with friends about religion, beliefs and youth activities like drinking, smoking and drugs.
"My parents can't tell me, 'don't do that,' when I see others do it, like drinking for example. There is a freedom that makes you fall into mistakes, but what makes things better for me is the fact that my friends are from my home country. Thanks to today's technology, I don't lose contact with old friends. We chat daily through Facebook, and their advice still counts. Their friendship helps me feel rooted in Egyptian culture, even though I am physically far away. Such bonds stop me from drifting away completely in a foreign society."
Lamia, however, is still at school. How do Injy's opinions differ after many years of living abroad?
Injy agrees that she has learned a lot from the experience, though she stresses that this has come at a price. It's not easy not to lose yourself, or even not to know who you are and where your peers are.
"I feel as if I am sitting on a fence with one leg on each side. You can see things and deal with issues well with no pressure, and you can judge in a better way, but you don't feel you belong to either place. It's not a comfortable position, and you may want to relax. In which case, which place will you land in? Normally, it's your homeland, but you'll still feel different even there," she says.
Injy also thinks that her young son is living a better life than she is. She tries to be a critical and objective mother with broad perspectives when she deals with her son, while at the same time trying to provide him with a stable home life that will save him from any later identity crisis.
According to Ali Suleiman, a socio- psychologist teaching at Cairo University, "most adult global nomads say, 'I don't feel different, I am different.' For such people, these feelings are not a phase, and instead they represent a state of being. When provided with an international environment that acknowledges and values their global background, [expatriate] children are good at their studies and stable academically, but they can still suffer from alienation and identity crisis."
Suleiman explains that the international schools that diplomat kids typically go to everywhere in the world offer the same global culture, consisting of bits and pieces from the globalisation era. They do not really integrate into any of the societies they live in, and they don't mix with the ordinary people of the countries in which they study. Instead, they mix with other diplomatic children. As a result, they are not multi- cultured in the full sense of the word, instead gaining a smattering of global culture suitable for different countries.
"They might retreat from society and may not be able to build normal relations or mix with certain groups. They may think they are better than the rest of the society. In either case, they are not leading normal lives," Suleiman says.
As if to bear out Suleiman's words, it does seem that children in the international community can be more prone to loneliness, possibly because of changing friendships as people move in and out of their lives. They may tend to avoid solving interpersonal problems, side- stepping potential conflicts because they know the problem will "go away". After all, they will be moving again soon.
Adolescents are particularly affected by frequent moves. They are still developing their sense of identity, and they attach great importance to making friends. Teens may also feel uncomfortable when they return "home."
According to Suleiman, such teenagers "are not part of this or that country. Instead, they are uprooted from family and transplanted to another and another and another country. They do not have the mental stability and tranquillity that the daughter of a porter may enjoy, rather than the daughter of an ambassador. However their exposure to other cultures makes them more suitable for global jobs. Even so, their contact with the normal strata from any society is limited, and so they can't build strong social ties."
Parents who have chosen such lifestyles for their children need to provide them with support if they are to succeed in making all the pieces fit, he adds. "I hope ambassadors will change their routines. They stay four years in a country, and then two years at home, and then four years in another country, and so on. They should stop going from one country to another for the sake of their mental sanity and for that of their kids. Four years outside and more than that at home is better than the opposite.
"There is no difference in my opinion between a prisoner and an ambassador. Both live their lives behind bars doing what the government asks them to do, except that the first lives in an iron cage and the latter in a golden one. But what is the value of a life spent behind bars?"


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