December 17, 2008

"Third Culture Kid": Being Canadian-American and not having a home

The other day I was talking to someone about how excited they were to go home...and somewhat out of the blue she said something along the lines of "well at least I have a home where people know me" and it sort of got to me a bit. (I actually don't have any friends in Boston I've only actually been there a week...and most of my old friends lived around Vancouver and Chicago and have since spread across North America) When explaining to people where I'm from it often took a while...with the end result being one or both of us concluding that I'm homeless. I've talked about my travels a bit in earlier posts, but right now I'm going to detail it and talk about being what Ruth Hill Useem coined a "Third Culture Kid" means to me.

First off...to give you an idea of my life so far...

I was born in Quebec...moved to a Chicago suburb at age four... Moved around the suburbs a few times...living part-time in Chicago. Then living part-time near Chicago and part-time just outside St. Louis. I then received US citizenship and later moved to British Columbia for a year, moved back to a Chicago suburb for a year, and then to Boston a week before I moved here. I tried counting the number of 'homes' I've lived in and I came up with over a dozen.

Now to being a 'third culture kid'. As the U.S. State Department puts it:

Third-culture kids are those who have spent some of their growing up years in a foreign country and experience a sense of not belonging to their passport country when they return to it. In adapting to life in a 'foreign' country they have also missed learning ways of their homeland and feel most at home in the 'third-culture' which they have created.
I don't think there are any two countries as similar to each other as the U.S. and Canada...and in fact the original study on Third Culture Kids was on North American children living in India, but I've also had the feeling of not having a real home. It's hard to fully tell someone where I'm from in less than thirty words. To Canadians it's usually something like this: Well I was born in Quebec but I've moved around a bit. I moved to the States for a while, around Chicago. I moved up to BC for a while, back to Chicago, and then to Boston and then here.
Then I might go on to say: To be honest I probably liked my time in BC the best...but I went to a better school outside of Chicago...but I don't think I'd move back there.
Do you see how it might be a little complicated?

There are websites dedicated to people in similar situations (albeit most of them have much more varied backgrounds)...and they have a list of answers to the question "Where are you from?" I've probably used ten of them and some of my own:

  • “Somewhere out there”
  • Do you want the long version or the short version?
  • Pick a country—any country!
  • Are you asking where I was born, where I grew up, where my parents are from, or what kind of passport I have?
  • When I find out I’ll let you know.
  • Please don’t ask.
  • Um, it’s kind of hard to explain…
  • Do you have enough time for this?
  • Technically, I’m from…but my parents are from…but I grew up…and I do/don’t speak…but I like living…but technically I’m from…
  • Are you sure you want to know?
  • That’s a tough question.
  • You know, I wish I knew.
  • Um, it depends.
  • I don’t know.
  • Well, all over the world really. Where are you from?
  • Just a sampling of the situations so far that I've felt somewhat out of place, in the (very small) minority, defensive, out of the loop, upset, or confused:
    Political Science: Which system is better, presidential or parliamentary?;
    Canadian History: Everything, especially when hearing what Canadians say about the American Revolution (the British stopped fighting because they were too busy in Europe) and the War of 1812 (the Americans really didn't win);
    Watching Canadian News: especially the most recent political news...I thought Canadian government was democratic;
    Being asked if I identify as American or Canadian (I answered "Umm...I dunno...both?);
    Any political discussion...especially about Canadian politics...or American politics;
    Constant America-bashing...it's pretty well deserved...but it gets old sometimes;
    Telling people I'm renewing my passports;
    Price gouging especially in this small town, hours from any major city (There aren't any in New Brunswick...unless you count Moncton)

    It has been a bit of an adjustment, not only to living at University, but to living back in Canada. I've been reconciling being told (somewhat jokingly, I hope) that I'm not a real Canadian for various reasons (including because I sometimes mock Canadian government, politics, and culture in favor of the US) and feeling a bit distant from some mainstream Canadian perceptions (especially of the U.S.) ...with my past nostalgia...seeing Canada as the pristine country of my birth.

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