I sat in my favorite solid wooden chair at our kitchen table and stared out the window. Many an “aha” moment has come to me on this comforting chair with its rich mahogany varnish. This moment was no different. As if the view on our neglected, winterized garden had just given me my inspiration, I even felt my back hitting the chair, acquiescing.
“You know what, babe?“ I said to my husband who was, as always, cooking something in the kitchen behind me. “I don’t think I have been Brittany in a while.“
Brittany was the quirky secret name I gave to my American persona. I sincerely apologize in advance if your name is Brittany. I could just as well have chosen Tiffany or Ashley or another typical white American name straight out of the 1990s. When I thought of Brittany, I thought of a dumb blond who only speaks in gushy adolescent argot. She is the one who dumbifies her speech with intensifiers like “totally”, guttural whatEVerrrs and uses high-rise terminals (uptalk) in each statement to make them sound like questions.
In our first years living in the United States, I would come home from running an errand and would tell Tall Mountain that “Brittany went shopping today.” With an all-knowing face-palm, he would smile. It meant that I had given the cashier bright bulging eyes and in a loud sing-songy voice had said “How aaaaare you?” or a “THANK you! I DID find all I was looking for! How was YOUR day?!!!“.
Usually, I would receive positive feedback from the clerk. “I’m doing just fine thanks. You have a great rest of your day too!“ they would say. I knew my acting would elicit a response like that. That’s why I did it after all. I had been a faithful student of my surroundings and felt as if overly expressive small-talk was appreciated and accepted here.
It wasn’t disingenuous per se, as if I wasn’t a kind-hearted person. It was just that the actual unedited me, fresh off the boat from Western Europe via Asia seemed so cold and rude in this context. I myself felt awkward when listening to that girl. In order to belong, therefore, I felt like I had to become another type of person.
In China, I was Mei Ya, a name that had been thoughtfully picked out for me by my new friends. Don’t get the tones wrong or else you would be calling me “toothless duck” when in actual fact, the characters in my Chinese name mean “beautiful elegant”. I chuckled at how I was perceived by my friends. Beauty and elegance were about the furthest away from my aspirations. Still, when in China, I was dutiful and respectful towards the government and the people I interacted with and sure, I was usually fairly well dressed. That was what was appreciated there. When I was Mei Ya, my skin was fairer, shinier and more radiant. When I was Mei Ya, I never outwardly questioned anything.
I have since read that it isn’t uncommon for Third Culture Kids to create multiple personae for themselves. It is part and parcel of the transition journey. It is a stage in the evolution of the TCK. In new settings, particularly when returning to a passport culture, we might be known to become chameleons fixed on adapting to our surroundings at all costs. The ‘who I am’ is very much contingent on the ‘where I am’. Brittany was my outward name, pointing to much more complex cultural malaise within.
I can’t say that it is always a bad thing to slip into a new persona. In the case of Mei Ya, I learned language faster because I put my whole self into the shoes of a local. This said, a new persona should only be a starting point in the journey of transition. Because, you are faced with a real problem when you stay in that dissociative identity state. It becomes an obstacle in your personal growth, it asphyxiates opportunities, and it hinders relationship. Think about how betrayed that cashier would feel the day they discovered the real me.
At the heart of the new persona lies much unresolved grief and loss for the Third Culture Kid. When we are able to process and accept the grief and overcome the loneliness caused by leaving our former home(s), we allow ourselves to be transformed by our environment. We become trans-nationalists, or global citizens that have developed a remarkable ability to neither be afraid of change nor of stability. We have the skill-set required to thrive in both cultures. This, my friends is where I long to be.
I can’t say that I am fully a completed and arrived Third Culture Kid yet but somewhere along the road, I ditched Brittany to become the real me. Somewhere along the road, I started letting people in on the real me as a leap of faith. I no longer feel the need to act a certain way or become a Brittany. This gives me the temperature on where I am on my Third Culture Kid journey.
It is an exciting, freeing place to be me here. And there.