I often hear people talk about what a great opportunity expat life is for a child. ‘What a wonderful experience’ they say, ‘great opportunity for them’ they remark. And each time they do, I bite my lip and wonder if this is really is true. You see, I was an expat child. And while I would agree that I have had many ‘great opportunities’ it wasn’t always a ‘wonderful experience’.
My first expat experience
I had a strong British accent when I moved over to Canada. It was my first time being an expat although I didn’t even know the word existed back then. Moving to Canada was a really difficult thing to do even as an expat child aged 11. We had visited the country previously. But then, all of a sudden we were moving over there. My parents were selling the house and we were selling our stuff. I remember coming home to having my bike sold to great dismay (not that I was ever an avid cyclist-in fact I’ve become a bit of a special case on wheels but that’s another story!). I had to say goodbye to friends that I had grown up with my whole life, in the middle of the year.
That, in itself, was going to set me apart as an expat child. I would never say that ‘I’ve known so-and-so my whole life’, or ‘we’ve been friends since we were kids’. With a great ocean between us my childhood friendships disappeared.
So we moved. And you’d think it would have been an easier country to settle in to. The climate was relatively similar apart from the winters. Everyone spoke English. It was a ‘multicultural’ country, right? What could go wrong?
Adjusting to a new life as an Expat Child
Being the new kid in any school is tough enough, let alone in the middle of a school year. Add a foreign accent to the mix and hey presto- you’ve got an unsettling school experience. I was constantly pestered for my accent and the words I used to refer to things. I learned pretty quick not to ask for a ‘rubber’ in a math lesson and got learned to use the word elevator. Sometimes I just didn’t understand what people were talking about. I didn’t get the slang, I didn’t get the references to TV shows that I’d never heard of. I grew up with Blue Peters and The Broom cupboard, and not a soul knew what that was. Nobody had heard of Neighbours and Home and Away. Nobody knew of any of the music back in Britain. So despite speaking the same language, I may as well have been speaking Dutch to them.
I was missing home very much and with no internet (not like we have it now that is), there was no way for me to get a slice of home comforts.
Fitting in as an Expat Child
But you get used to it right? And kids learn quickly. And so I did. I tried to assimilate myself into Canadian culture. My efforts were poured into skating, figure skating even, snowboarding and watched hockey. I learned French like everyone else (and can speak very little of it like everyone else). But it didn’t work. The older I got, the more I began to admit that ‘this wasn’t me’. After 9th grade I stopped skating. The year after I stopped learning French (one of my only regrets about school). Finally I stopped snowboarding after high school.
Instead I pursued things that were more me. I played rugby and football in high school (and maintained the game was called football). On a Saturday , I woke early to watch ‘Soccer Saturday’ and get the highlights from the Premier League. I followed every Euro cup and World cup religiously, even if game times were disagreeable with the time zone I was in. In university, I even tried to round up a group of friends to ‘watch the game’ at the closest thing resembling a pub ( which was really just another Irish bar). But that just wasn’t a part of Canadian culture. To watch a hockey game at a sports bar on a Friday, sure. But a football game in a pub! In the middle of the week! Madness! Increasingly, I felt like I just didn’t belong.
The expat interrogation
The worst of it were the questions when I met new people for the first time. ‘Where are you from?’ they would ask. ‘I’m from England’, I would answer. And they would have this sort of puzzled look on their face. As if something didn’t match. ‘No but where are you originally from?’ they would persist. ‘England’ I would repeat, slightly more insistent. ‘No but where is your family from?’ they would continue. When I would finally reveal where my parents were from (through gritted teeth at that point) they would conclude ‘Oh so you’re Sri Lankan’, much to my frustration. I’d never even been to Sri Lanka at that point- how could I possibly claim that was where I was from?
Well… interestingly, others had no problem with this. In high school I was surrounded by people with European decent who would declare themselves to be so. Never Canadian, despite being 2nd or 3rd generation Canadian. Some had never even been to Europe or the country they claimed to be their heritage.
What’s more, to most people in Canada, it appeared to be unfathomable that someone that wasn’t white was from England. I must have immigrated over from some other country that was my birth country and then moved over to Canada. Needless to say it was incredibly frustrating, upsetting and most of all left me desperate to go back to the UK.
Feeling at home
Canada is a country with a history of immigration. It is a country that prides itself on it’s mosaic multicultural immigration policies and culture. One that enables cultures to exist beside one another and not assimilate into the host country. Appealing to the many that choose it to be their new home. So maybe I couldn’t fault them for their way of thinking. I mean after all, that was just their experience of immigration right? Regardless, as a result it was never a country I could feel at home in as a result. Ironically because they never allowed me to feel like I could be myself and maintain my ‘European or British’ culture in their country.
Where are you from?
I moved back to the UK in 2005 where I began working and discovering my birth country as an adult. I was never asked where I was from when I returned with a strange transatlantic accent, but some people got confused when they knew I held a Canadian passport as well. So at times it felt like I didn’t even belong in the one place I had considered my home my whole life.
As an expat I still get asked ‘where are you from?’ and with many surprised looks when I said ‘I’m from England’. In Qatar, many would elaborate on why they were asking ‘I thought you were from India’. Being from India themselves they were clearly trying to find a common ground to work from. In Singapore, they believe me to be local so the question arises from surprise to hear a different accent. But the surprise was never in disbelief that it was possible for England to be my home.
On being a Third Culture Kid
In the last few years, I was introduced to the term TCK . A Third Culture Kid is someone who is raised in a culture outside that of their parents culture (or their own passport country). Reading Third Culture Kids by David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken has really helped me understand what I experienced as a child. Comforting to know I wasn’t the only one.
There are many things I don’t have a frame of reference for as a result of being an expat child or TCK. I don’t have childhood friends, I don’t have a lot of memoirs from my childhood, or have people around me other than my parents that can attest to what I was like in my younger years. But I am learning about some of the things I have gained as a result of being a TCK; I can make friends more easily, I’m not afraid to move around, new places don’t really scare me, I love trying new things and I have a very international set of friends. I will share more of this adventure as I learn more.
The future of an Expat Child
I know my experiences aren’t a drastic, horrific experience by any means of the sort. I also know my parents made the decision to move to Canada for our benefit and for the better life we could have as a result. So if I sound ungrateful or hard done by, that is not my intention. However, living in a world where your core identity is challenged often and having a lost sense of belonging is a strange world to live in. Something an expat child may have to face. Especially when everyone around you has a more linear answer for where they are from. But maybe that’s why I’ve always been more comfortable in an international setting.
In a world with increasing moblisation and globalisation, I have no doubt that expat children or third culture kids will be more of a norm than not. However, when thinking of the challenges I’ve experienced in understanding my own identity, I hope there will be more acceptance to answers for the question ‘where are you from?’ in the future.
For now, although I do hold dual citizenship, I will always answer that I am from England. It is my home, a place where I can be myself, a place where I am my most confident, where I am welcomed home at immigration and not interrogated, where I was born, where I met the very best people in my life and where I met and fell in love with my husband. So that’s my final answer and I’m sticking to it!