Spending my formative years in the UAE gave me many things: a large worldview, a web of international connections, an abundance of opportunities, as well as the title of Third-Culture Kid (TCK). Coined by Dr Ruth Hill Useem, TCKs are children who accompany their parents into another culture, usually for their parents’ career choices. It is a term I only discovered a few years prior, but one that perfectly encompasses my experiences as an expatriate. Born to Sri Lankan parents in a country considered a melting pot of cultures, I was extremely fortunate to grow up among others who could relate to spending a significant portion of their lives outside of their parents’ cultures. But whilst there were many benefits to being a TCK, these did not come without their challenges.
One of the pillars of a person’s identity is their culture. Our sense of belonging to a set of ideas and traditions is what simultaneously sets us apart and brings us together. For TCKs, this is less straightforward than what it says on our passports. When people ask, “where are you from?” my answer needs no contemplation, yet it is merely the tip of the iceberg that is my cultural identity. My cultural identity is a unique and wonderful amalgamation of beliefs, values and attitudes, expanding my worldview to encompass dozens of nationalities, ethnicities and religions. At the same time, having a multicultural identity has made me feel disconnected from my ‘own’ culture and unable to fully relate to and find a community within the multitude of cultures to which I relate.
In spite of conforming to societal norms and assimilating to the Eurocentric ideals of my British school, I experienced microaggressions. At the time, I could not find words to describe what was said to me, but I can still recall the shame and embarrassment that they made me feel for things that were out of my control and, quite frankly, completely normal. I came equipped with traits that should have made me a wallflower, able to blend in with the majority-White student body – a neutral ‘international’ accent, light skin, identical clothes and belongings. Still, I found myself singled out for inconsequential things like eating with my hands, the shape and size of my nose, and the natural texture of my hair. The little brown girl who desperately wanted to fit in could not comprehend why her nationality came with the assumption that she was ‘dirty’; she internalised these words and ideas, subconsciously distancing herself from her culture and traditions to please the majority.
For those familiar with the term, being a TCK means high mobility between countries, constantly moving away from friends and family, having to start from scratch in whichever new place they found themselves. I have found that most articles that spotlight TCKs focus on those who move away rather than the ones they leave behind; I was part of the latter. Spending over a decade at the same school sets me apart in that I cannot relate to the traditional TCK experience of leaving friends and family behind. Despite this, I still grieved the friendships lost every time someone moved away, constantly shifting through social circles in a desperate search for stability.
Repatriation to Sri Lanka, although an inevitability, remained a jarring experience. My family and I reasoned with ourselves by saying, “Dubai was only ever temporary”, but it did not make leaving what had been our home for 20+ years any easier. My parents, who had left the stability of their homeland to pursue their careers, had seen skyscrapers built and a new city born from the desert, were confronted with the reality of returning to a country they did not recognise. My sister and I, born and raised in a place that did not claim us, offered us no citizenship or tangible thing to prove that it was where we learned to walk, talk, and ride a bike. We made friends and found our stride there. The UAE will always be our home, just as Sri Lanka is; what was heartbreaking was feeling expendable, easily replaceable by another young expatriate couple hoping to build a life there, have a family there. A country built on the backs of expatriates but with no plans to take care of them afterwards. An ideal holiday destination, where we drive past the hospital I was born in, the houses that we lived in, the places that hold our fondest memories, as if all we left were footprints in the sand, here one day and gone the next.
Being a TCK is a mixed bag full of unique opportunities and harsh realities but has taught me a great deal. Despite being challenging at times, I can confidently say that I would not change my upbringing for the world. I am forever grateful to my parents for choosing the
UAE as the place to raise my sister and me, as it afforded us a standard of living beyond what Sri Lanka could give us. Their decision opened doors and granted us opportunities that we otherwise would have missed. Although my experiences may be considered niche, I hope that my words bring some validation to a fellow TCK’s feelings and that they recognise their ‘unconventional’ upbringing for the strength that it is.