Social issues

There’s no place like…

– by Hanifa Abdiraihan


It’s a word that produces, almost purely, a warm feeling of belonging. Occasionally it feels nostalgic, but more often than not it evokes a picture of familiar, welcoming faces in a familiar, welcoming place: perhaps a specific city, town, even suburb. Home is almost always a comforting memory, a reminder of the fact that whatever hardships you might encounter in the outside world, there is always a safe haven ready to welcome you unconditionally.

But what happens if, no matter where you go, you don’t—or rather, you can’t—find ‘home’? What happens when you are perpetually an outsider and, hard as you seem to try, there is never quite that warm feeling that tells you, this is where I belong?

How does your tired and confused psyche endure?

Imagine being inside a plane before you were two, flying to a country whose language uses an entirely different alphabet. Imagine being in another one by the time you are five years old, and then another one before your seventh birthday, and yet another one after your eleventh.

Imagine, then, being told you are going to move back to your family’s home country, the one whose symbol is on all of your passports. You’re a bit sad at the prospect of leaving your friends behind again. You won’t even have time to properly say goodbye this time. But your parents look relieved to finally go back, and their excitement might wear you down. You might even start looking forward to ‘home’.

But then you actually arrive, and—well, to put it mildly, things are different.

Everyone jokes in unfamiliar slang that they expect you to understand. Everyone has social customs that they expect you to adhere to. Everyone gossips about some popular celebrity which you’re expected to swoon over.

Everyone has expectations of you which you can’t or don’t want to meet. For a place that’s supposed to be home, you have never felt more like a stranger. Things are different? No. You are different, and everyone knows it.

It becomes hard for you to make friends. You are barely fifteen, and all you really want to do is understand this ‘differentness’ that no one seems to know how to deal with. Talking to your parents about it means risking their anger or heartbreak. Sometimes you turn to your friends online, but they are far away, and you even lose contact with some of them.

You miss—what? Home? You’ve lived in so many different places, but they were never quite it, remembering all the times your parents told you gently, “We don’t do those things in our culture, darling.” This place is meant to be home, but… you don’t seem to belong here, either.

So imagine beginning to feel as if you’ve lost something, but you can’t even put a name to it. Imagine a sense of grief that takes root in your heart, and the more you attempt to understand, the more its tendrils creep around your limbs—silently, steadily, until one day they grow to be too heavy and you can’t bring yourself to get up and face the strange world.

For some third culture individuals, or TCIs, this is their daily reality. Fitting in often becomes the least of their problems when there is more than one identity to choose from. In the worst case scenario, they will be forced to choose—their peers’ culture, or their parents’, risking potential alienation from one if they pick the other. This may be especially true when they are returning to their family’s country of origin.

The resulting conflict is a terrible battle of the mind: a battle against themselves. It’s difficult to find a way where defeat isn’t the only option. There is guilt for letting down their parents’ expectations; there is shame for ‘failing’ to adapt; there is confusion about their ‘split’ self-identity.

Most damning of all, there is isolation. There may be very few whom they can confide in, who can nod comfortingly and say, “I understand,” without judgement. They often aren’t allowed to grieve the loss, through external circumstances, of their previous life, including the loss of their friends. At the other end, they are pressured to assimilate into the new culture. All in all, it’s a recipe for catastrophe.

Unsurprisingly, other problems might also develop: commitment, abandonment and trust issues, as well as low self-esteem. Many fall into depression. Seeking help and recovery is likely to be difficult, because a TCI’s situation involves tangible problems that they see as insurmountable. They can’t simply ‘solve’ their self-identity—one cannot stop being a TCI. They see themselves as the problem, and so the vicious circle begins.

Sometimes they don’t take their feelings seriously, perhaps thinking they are exaggerating or overreacting. The struggles of many TCIs, especially children and adolescents, are not new, but discussion around them still doesn’t seem to reach the mainstream dialogue of other prevalent mental health issues. This is particularly concerning as now, more rapidly than ever, the world is becoming increasingly globalised, and there will be more TCIs as time goes by. Representation and validation is important. They need to know that they are not alone.

This year’s Mental Health Week, I am taking the opportunity to address the topic.

If you are a struggling third culture individual, know this: you and your experiences are valuable assets, not burdens. You might find this difficult to believe right now, but being different is not a sin; it is not your responsibility to be anyone else’s expectations. Don’t be afraid to seek help—you may find it in the unlikeliest places.

And most of all, stay strong. Always remember that there will be others—if not now, there will be—who love you as you are, and hopefully, you’ll be fortunate enough to find your home with them.

After all, home is where the heart is.

Photo credit: rawdonfox

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