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Ditching Brittany

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.

5 thoughts on “Ditching Brittany

  1. I loved the comment on “it isn’t uncommon for Third Culture Kids to develop multiple personae.”

    Our very well known and trained mission often produces couples and families that encounter a new culture for the first time. The result will horrify you. They often end up “going native,” i.e., adopting the local culture and rejecting their passport culture. They are unable to relate to monocultural home town people. What doe this look like? Oh it’s shocking. Sometimes they can’t relate to the opposite sex without seeing a gentle touch as a complete affront to their personality and moral principles. Things that are “out of bounds,” like child raising and healthy couple relationships are so shocking to them that they are an island. No, more. They are like a dingy lost in a sea of people they are fleeing from to keep pure to their home passport culture. When I was in the Peace Corps some 40 years ago, they warned us about this. The issue then was that of the contrary. Tourists and Peace Corps people took advantage of young girls since they felt that they were outside of the purview of respectable home values, which were obviously an inch deep and wide as Texas. So many of our values are backpacks that we take on and off.

    Back to the TCK kids in a multilingual, multicultural setting. They have much more than the advantage of language and culture, but they are empowered to live in but above the dictates of the local mores. Gosh, I was taken before a team leader and accused by a girl of wanting a female from a Muslim culture (yes, a bona fide westerner) to cut my hair like we did in YWAM to save money. You would have thought that perversion had come to town. And this was at a Western retreat. You see, they couldn’t uncouple their life from where they vested their souls. In France, I could never find a male hairdresser, except in a dark alley in a Muslim corridor in a big city.

    I say that carrying a changeable persona helps removes the stigma of my culture being God almighty and gives peace to the poor souls that have to hear junk like “we don’t do things like that in the USA” when they travel. It’s a sure turnoff. No, and we don’t have government dictated lunch programs or 50 percentile worldwide school grades when we poor millions more into US schools either. The point is that multiculturalism is reaping the benefits of all cultures and learning at their feet. Wow! That is a richness beyond compare.

    I’m a believer in changeable personae, because it stops the forced integration and opens the door to wide open learning and sharing as a child’s heart can do.

    1. You know what, contextualization is not the issue I was referring to in this blog post. I have a whole separate draft on contextualization and how it can be bridge-building and personally transformative. I might publish that one day. Like you, I initially mixed up the two and as a result wrestled over my post for weeks. After sorting it out in my own mind, I ditched all the fruit of my labor.

      I believe these two to be very different issues:

      – contextualizing interactions for our the host culture (seeing their behavior through the lens of their set of values, learning appropriate attire, which conversational topics are culturally preferred etc). This comes with maturity of the international experience.
      – the invention of a whole new persona the Third Culture Kid creates to be accepted at all costs. This reveals a level of immaturity in the journey of transition. It is a normal stop along the road, but should not be the end.

      You see the difference?

      Yes, absolutely, we adapt and contextualize daily. But we simply can’t claim to be global citizens still living inside a fake persona. Being a completed TCK means having the ability not only to survive but to thrive in each culture, being wholly ourselves. We still contextualize but we are no longer fakes.

  2. This is a wonderful post, Esther! I have re-read it a few times, because it contains so much for those of us who are not Third Culture kids. I am happy you feel you are well into the transition….further down the road in your journey. It must, indeed, feel very, very good…peaceful even. This is all very interesting, educational, and even touching for me as I take in your thoughts and your heart.

  3. I too have often felt my personality veering into some kind of caricature of a local in the countries I’ve lived in, even though I’m not a TCK (18 when I left my home country). I agree that although you may blend in more by taking on a persona, you eventually need to find a path which is true to your own personality and values.

    1. Fascinating, Georgia. Thanks for sharing.
      What really shed light into the whole persona game for me is the moment I asked myself what I was afraid of divulging, what I was fearful of the culture not accepting in me. For me, there was plenty of judgement and some insecurities in there as well…

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