What It's Like to Be a "Third Culture Kid" in the Age of Social Media

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Publish date:
August 18, 2016
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social media, diversity, culture

Instagram is pretty effing dope.

I know that sounds arbitrary, but just think about it: you follow people, sometimes they follow you back; you can watch, emulate, fawn over, covet, inspire, and be inspired by these people who, oftentimes, you don’t even know! You can find similarities with these strangers, and it’s pretty powerful when you realize — damn, someone out there is just like me.

Instagram has motivated me to connect with other like-minded women who are speaking their truth and living an existence parallel to my own. It has given me the bravery to speak up.

An app was the catalyst to my own becoming.

Through my perusing, I stumbled upon a term that I never knew, but that I’ve felt through my own experiences and my siblings’ experiences — Third Culture Kids.

“Third Culture Kids” refers to children who were raised in a culture different from their parents’ culture for a significant part of their developmental years.

It was something I knew I had lived through, but I did not know it was recognized — or even had a name. It was cool learning about other third culture kids. Reading their immigration experiences and witnessing them essentially find their own identities has taught me how to open up about my own immigration story.

My family immigrated to Canada from Botswana in 2000 when I was 13 years old.

Many people are actually surprised by that fact because I’m so “well adjusted” and “eloquent” They assume that I only began speaking English at age 13, and gained no social skills in Africa. The reality is that I went to some of the world’s top international schools, was very well-traveled, and was asked to tutor kids in English when I began school in Canada.

In many ways, I shattered the stereotypes of poor African girls who had no hope for a future.

I was interesting and had a unique background. As a result, I was popular all throughout high school, and even into university. At times, I resented the attention I got — adjusting to a new life was tough enough without constantly being asked to divulge my past. Sometimes I felt like I wasn’t really liked for being Danai, myself, but for being a caricature. I was liked for representing this idea of who people thought I should be.

Still, I absolutely had a story to share. I felt like I could educate people about the realities of being born in Zimbabwe and living in Botswana. I could tell them how different, and amazing, and developed those countries were in comparison to their portrayal in the media. The dichotomy between trying to fit in while wanting to share my unique story was a tough place in which to exist.

The truth is, moving here wasn’t easy.

The idea of starting a new life was an exciting one, especially because we had hit the literal jackpot by getting accepted to live in Canada as landed immigrants. We even tried to apply for permanent residency in Australia and Switzerland, but Canada was the winner. It was a big deal, because the process of immigration is a long and hard one. My family had experienced moving to a different country before; I was 5 when we left Zimbabwe for Botswana. But this was different.

Even though Canada is so multicultural and liberal, adjusting to “Canadian culture” was profoundly more difficult than I could’ve anticipated.

Difference and diversity is so widely accepted, but there is a level of assimilation required in order to feel like a citizen — not an immigrant. I witnessed the hardships my father faced to find a job and calibrate to cultural norms — and that transition, in many ways, broke his spirit.

Thankfully, I was young and malleable, and I became accustomed.

In order to avoid the difficulties my parents faced when learning basic cultural nuances and colloquialisms, I inadvertently unlearned my African self.

It still trips me out that I moved here with a strong foreign accent that I completely lost by high school. Looking back, it made sense. It was almost a relief that I no longer sounded different, and I could finally fit in. But I never really did, and I still don’t.

As I’ve grown up and met people with this shared “Third Culture Kid” experience, I’ve reintroduced the African parts of myself again. I don’t worry so much about wearing my hair straight or in a weave so I can appear Westernized. Wearing braids helps me feel connected to my roots.

I still mispronounce words when my old accent rears its head — if someone catches on, I get self conscious. Still, I’m embracing my identity and opening up more about the journey that got me here.

That’s what’s really cool about living in the age of social media and connecting with so many women across the world. Through our discovered solidarity, I’ve been able to let out a huge sigh of relief and say “…me too.” There is something profoundly powerful about knowing that you’re not alone in your existence. Thanks, Instagram.

My uniqueness is now a comfort — not a burden I have to carry or feel embarrassed about. It’s taken me a long time to understand that. Even when I still feel stuck between who I was born as, and who I am now, I can understand it. I remember when I taught young kids in Korea, they’d ask, “Danai teacher, are you African?” I’d say, “Yes, but I’m also Canadian, and that’s my home.” They’d tilt their little heads, perplexed. The looks on their faces exemplified exactly how I often felt in my own life, but in those moments, I’d think, hmm, I was born Zimbabwean, but I hold Canadian citizenship, and I live in Korea, and because I’m free, I can live and do and create wherever I want to. How damn lucky am I?

Don’t get me wrong — it’s still hard at times. It’s often easier to develop my Canadian cultural identity because I am so physically far from my Zimbabwean culture. Some days I identify so much with my Zimbabwean self: when I’m around my grandma, or laughing with my beautiful cousins, or looking at photos of the beauty and wonders that country has to offer — or when I ‘m brought to tears over the disparity in Zimbabwe or the family I’ve left behind. Other days, I still get butterflies like I did when I was 13 years old arriving at Pearson Airport in Canada, almost in disbelief that this could be my life. Every single time I see a Canadian flag, I am proud that I get to call this country mine.

As a third culture kid, I always have the perspective of “other” in a culture that has not seen or experienced anything different from their norm. It’s the reason I’m so empathetic to the immigration experience. I know how truly difficult it is to move to a new country while trying to maintain some of your old traditions.

And yes, Instagram is a construction, but it helped me find my identity, and that is very real.

Perhaps the trick is that, really, I don’t have to identify as either Zimbabwean or Canadian. Existing in the in-between means that I have free reign to carve out whatever life I want to create, while always remembering my parents’ journey to get me here, and being thankful that I can make a wonderful future in this smorgasbord of history and culture.

Danai Mush is a communications pro and freelance writer who still feels 17 at heart. While she has no formal dance training whatsoever, she hopes to be part of a professional hip hop troupe some day. You can follow her escapades on Instagram and Twitter, or visit her website mushlove.ca.

The post originally appeared on hellogiggles.com: What it's like to be a "Third Culture Kid" in the age of social media; Danai Mush

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