“Five years old I sat on a plane wondering aloud “Mom… can we still talk to each other in English when we get there?” The true honesty of a boy torn between a Filipino father and a New Yorker mother, born in Hawaii and now in transit to Nepal, a country unmatched in its ethnic diversity. My childhood was truly fit for a movie…
In the many years to follow, my mother would try to comfort my confusion by giving me an identity. “You’re a Third Culture Kid,” she would say, dismissing my doubts, but I couldn’t understand what it meant. I was one of a large number of TCKs growing up overseas who didn’t identify with any one culture. Unable to relate to the country they once called home, TCKs are forced to adapt and survive an international adolescence separating them further from both their family and nationality. Though each of us has an original story, we all share a common experience, which we live every day.
As for my friends and I, we were the young expats of Nepal and all knew where we were from. We represented our countries like ambassadors. Our school, which ranged from elementary to secondary, hosted 52 nationalities in a student body of 300 — an extreme level of diversity even for an international school. Indeed, our United Nations Day celebration threatened to put the UN itself to shame! We shared our flags, music, dances, languages, national dress, and of course our national dishes. It was a tremendous day of pride and appreciation, and the food each student would share on this day is still embedded in my memories…
It’s important to understand that we were all guests, hosted by a nation that seemed to have perfected hospitality. I grew up a Nepali and was raised with an extended family of four brothers, two aunts and an uncle who I call my family, even if they are not my blood. I celebrated their languages, holidays, customs, and always their food.
As TCKs, it was up to each of us to mix our own nation’s culture with the many customs of the land, and there were many. It was our job to recognize them and apply them to our everyday lives. Though I cannot speak on their behalf, there was evidence that the young Nepalis were affected as well, as they too were exposed to our languages, cultures, and habits. As I got older with the mix of Third Culture Kids and the young locals, we began to recognize the differences we did not share. In respect of the diversity surrounding us, unspoken rules were silently implemented. Religion was a major one. We would never debate it…only discuss it in curiosity and for the growth of knowledge and understanding. Those who did not were quickly corrected. There were times when new students would come and try to overstep their bounds but when this would happen, again, it was up to us to correct it and make sure the delicate system stayed balanced amongst spirited teenagers. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was important that we didn’t disrespect our hosts or the countries we represented.
Nepal is a rare land of beauty. The country is home to 104 ethnic groups separated by the vigorous geography with the south at a height of 194 feet (known as the Terai) all the way up to the gigantic Himalayas hosting Earth’s highest point of 29,029 feet. So many regions have their own customs, clothes, architecture and of course delicious food. (Are you now beginning to realize I’m a foodie?) The crystal clear rivers, the lush rice and mustard terraces decorating the hills, the scattered villages of wood, mud and hay, the welcoming smiles as you walk through the front of their homes, the perfectly river-chilled Coca-Colas, and I will never forget the feeling I get every time I see the Himalayas as I reach the top of the hill. It’s humbling to stand in its presence.
Living overseas embodied more than living in our host country as many spent time traveling whether it was going back to visit family, visit new countries or accompanying our parents’ for work. Airports are a part of a Third Culture Kid’s life, and many of us have spent more time in some airports than we have in our closest relative’s house. I know the layout to these airports by letter and number: how long it will take to get from one side to another, whether or not I have to go through security when I transfer, toilet locations, good seats without the armrests that I can use for a nap if the layover is too long, and if you haven’t guessed yet… where to eat! Perhaps flying for us is like a road trip upstate or the vacation to the nearest beach for others. It’s just natural…
My travels have defined me and helped me see humanity as a whole rather than who I am as an individual. It’s an addiction to knowledge. To quote Anthony Bourdain, “The more you travel, the less you realize you know…When you travel it changes the definitions of words that you thought you understood.” I live by these words and perhaps they define me more today than the title of “Third Culture Adult.” I’m happy to say that I believe in this life so much that my son now lives overseas with me in Cambodia where I work to help children locally and around the world. I’m sure he will be as confused as I was, but I know this is only because we have no meaning in the phrase ‘world citizen’. We are mentally jailed behind borders and are ingrained to feel restricted by what we see in fear-media. I wish the mainstream perspective were different.
If you haven’t traveled yet, I recommend it, and if you have, I challenge you to travel again. Perhaps I can recommend Nepal. It is the perfect time to visit even after the earthquakes that took so many lives and left so many homeless. But it is not for charity that you should visit Nepal, but to be inspired by a great culture and to witness the strength of people who will never stop and never give up. You take what you want from your travels whether it’s the people, the land, architecture, or the food. And though many of the ancient temples have fallen, there is so much more to see, do, and experience. The Himalayas stand taller today and perhaps after a visit, you’ll stand taller too…”
070/100 of #100DaysofConfessions Instagram Project
Photo credits: Hugh Rutherford (Lead) & Cesar Kuriyama (Footer)