Growing up in a Pakistani household meant having to listen to PTV news constantly running in the background, having biryani for lunch all the time, and endless conversations about cricket and the recent marriage of yet another cousin. On the other hand, growing up as a Pakistani in Dubai meant celebrating the second of December and Nowrooz, trick or treating during Halloween, and giving a long explanation to the question, “Where are you actually from?”.
Yes, I am a third culture kid and life gets a little complicated at times.
Being a third culture kid (often affectionately referred to as an expat brat) is common in this part of the world. Parents leave behind their home countries for better opportunities in the Gulf, and raise their kids in a culture different from their own. Living in a diverse environment with a mixture of cultures, norms and rules can be overwhelming and yet exciting.
People often wonder if we are constantly confused about who we are. Do we relate to one culture more than the other? And bizarrely enough – what language do we think in?
Growing up on a overdose of cultural experiences does have its pros and cons. As Zamin Dharsi, an American of Tanzanian-Indian origin who has lived in the UAE, puts it:
“Language and accents become easier to understand, you tend to know a lot about different (and often conflicting) cultures, and you learn very quickly how to adapt to a new environment and make friends. Simultaneously, you never really know where you belong. You can go years trying to understand what ‘home’ really means; until now, I still joke about being a nomad at heart.”
Where is home?
While some of us try to figure out what home really means or where it is exactly, others accept uncertainty as a way of life. Mohammad Khan, originally Indian-Pakistani, raised in Saudi Arabia and currently working in the UAE, explains:
“Home ends up becoming wherever you hang your hat. The best is having that global perspective, having the capacity to understand things beyond what you know.”
Having lived in the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain – and now planning a move to Denmark – Zeina Moawad, an American of Indian-Sudanese origin, says:
“I would never have had all these amazing experiences if I wasn’t an “expat brat”. I don’t belong to any one culture because I’ve taken the best of all the cultures that I’ve been exposed to. I know that, with my knowledge and experience, I would make a way better spy than most others!”
Do we fit in?
Fitting into just one culture or place can be difficult but adapting to different places and people becomes easier over time. As Clara Wiggins, a British journalist who has lived in countries such as Cuba, Philippines, Jaimaca and Pakistan and now settles in the UK, says:
“I found it hard in my twenties to connect with people who hadn’t led the sort of life I had. But I think we all chill out a bit as we age. Now I find I can fit in almost everywhere and make friends with people from all sorts of different backgrounds, cultures and even age groups. This is very typical of people who travel a lot – when you find yourself in a new place, you need to fit in, not expect people to fit to you.”
Being an expat can come with a reputation for being spoilt – but also a few perks . As Dawn Elliott, a British expat now back in the UK but who grew up in Bahrain and Cyprus, explains it:
” I am useless at washing and ironing, as I relied on my house girl, Zanny. My biggest expat regret.”
Are we missing out?
Yet regardless of titles we are given, we can understand the need to belong to one place – and even yearn for it. Perhaps that is the downfall of being a third culture kid. Expats such as Lisa Watson, a South African raised in the UAE and Bahrain and now living in New Zealand. She explains:
“I value my upbringing and the awareness I received about what ‘culture’ means, but miss the lack of a sense of ‘home’, especially since my family have, for the most part, been displaced from what was Rhodesia after six generations. But growing up in the Middle East has given me a certain ‘social currency’ that I’ve fallen back on quite a few times.”
British expat Jenny Stewart, who also grew up in the UAE and went to university in the UK before returning to Dubai, adds:
“It isn’t great, not having a ‘home’ country or a home base as an expat kid. But that is something I only felt later, as an adult. On the other hand it’s quite a liberating feeling that I could live in pretty much any country in the world and be happy.”
Yes, being an expat kid comes with its insecurities. For example, I often think: Where would I retire? Where would I raise my kids? Where should I buy a home?
But then I think about what I have gained as an expat. Appreciation for religious festivals from around the globe, love for many foods beyond biryani, gratitude to aspects of my own culture, such as Punjabi poetry, and memorable conversations with people I never would have never met unless I traveled.
As a third culture kid, my passport no longer defines me.
As Sumrana Akram-Kakakhel, a Pakistani expat who grew up in Bahrain and the UK but now lives in Afghanistan, beautifully puts it, “People say we don’t have an identity of our own, but I disagree. We are people of the world. I wouldn’t wish to have been raised any other place or way.”