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Life as an expatriate: A third culture kid's perspective 3/3 Life as an expatriate: A third culture kid's perspective 3/3
by Joseph Gatt
2008-12-11 09:00:28
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Part 3: reverse culture shock

Whether expats adapt to their adoptive country or not, homesickness eventually takes over and they end up going back to their home country. They usually go back to their country feeling like it was about time, but do find difficulties in readapting. If they have children, in their children’s case, it could be devastating.

“I don’t want to go back to Algeria. I have never been there, and the little information I have about that country is not good information”. I kept repeating that to myself when after being in Turkey for a few years, my parents announced the next destination. Don’t get me wrong. I built strong ties with my parents’ country, learned both languages, and reconciled with my roots. But like most third culture kids, I felt like it was just one of those foreign countries, not really my original homeland.

“I want to graduate from high school and leave this country as quickly as possible” would brag a lot of third culture kids that were in the same school I attended. When someone would announce the news that they were heading for abroad, a feeling of jealousy and envy invaded us all. People would spread rumors about who was heading where next, some would here from one person that they were headed for Germany, from another to India, when in the end they ended up heading for Rwanda.

Third culture kids, expats children, don’t feel at home in their passport country. For third culture kids whose parents are from developing countries and who lived in developed countries, this feeling is even stronger. A lot experience long periods of depression after going back to their passport country, and I’ve known some who committed suicide. Often, they experience living in their country as a punishment, and feel like they have been stripped away from their privileges. As for third culture kids from developed countries, they feel isolated by the fact that they missed out on what happened in their neighborhood, on the fashion, the trends, and would like to feel like a normal citizen but can’t. Unlike third culture kids from developing countries who have a sentiment of superiority when they go back to their native country, third culture kids from developed countries have a sentiment of inferiority.

You traveled, so what?

The most surprising feature of someone who spent years abroad and goes back to his country is the lack of interest by other people for his experience abroad. Of course, I understood that the only valuable reason to ask someone what life abroad is like is when I myself have interest in traveling to that country. Many people don’t understand this. They are often introduced to other people as the guy who lived in Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan when they actually lived in Uzbekistan.

The lack of interest by other people for what the expat considers being a life-changing experience leaves a lot of people frustrated. Funny thing is, this also has phases. When going back to Algeria, during the first couple of months, even though I knew much about the culture, I would intentionally tell people I couldn’t tell the difference between 50 cents and 50 dinars. I would ask shop owners to give me the price in Dollars or if possible in Francs. I would pretend not to understand the language and repeated the words I was taught using a French or American accent. Just to remind people I was a foreigner. Expats who go back to their country often want to use every opportunity they can to show they are foreigners in their country. That phase is followed by a depression phase, where everything goes back to normal.

Back to normal

All the excitement of living abroad takes an end when going back to the country. People no longer found weird products in supermarkets, no longer need help or assistance to figure out which product is better or to know directions, can’t find a new historical landscape they never knew about.

Going back to normal is often depressing. The expat feels he knows everything about everything, he is not learning much, and life is nothing but routine. Everything becomes so predictable, and he is understood by everyone. When visiting the US for vacation, the excitement lasted for about 48 hours, when friends were letting me know what happened to my former friends and classmates. And it ended there. A mixed feeling of not really being from New York, but still knowing almost everything about the city invaded me. It took two days to readapt, cross the street when the signal says “walk”, maybe cab fares went up a few cents, and it’s the same stories I heard again and again. As I mentioned before, I can’t compare life in New York to what I experienced abroad. Despite everything going back to normal, the expat feels there are things he doesn’t understand about his native culture. Having lived abroad, I came to have thoughts about New Yorkers that New Yorkers themselves don’t have. I found the city loud, the people rude and thought it was unusual that hookers and drug dealers could invade the streets when it’s illegal. That feeling was like that of a foreigner living in his own country. I felt like I had the edge to understand New York culture better, but that’s not how my friends felt.

Not smarter than us, just more annoying

Though I understand how spending time abroad, may that be six months, can change a person’s life, many don’t. When expats go back to their home country, they have the feeling, which is true, that they are annoying. “You really haven’t heard of this movie?” “your dress is sooo yesterday. Call the fashion police”. Answer that with “don’t blame me, I was abroad” and you’ll be considered annoying. Even more so if you ask the person whether she speaks French, the language of romance, Chinese, the trendy language, has seen the latest Korean drama, Bollywood movie or has heard of Keiko Lee, trendy Japanese singer. Foreigner culture may be trendy, but the guy who lived abroad and who knows a lot, maybe too much about foreign culture may have to choose between silence and listening to his friends talk about the latest trends he missed while keeping silence, or talking about foreign culture no one really cares about that much in the end.

That is the greatest dilemma expats and third culture kids face, whether overseas or in their home country. They don’t know about their adoptive country’s culture enough to discuss it fully, yet when they go back to their home country, they missed out on too much of the local culture to say something about it. In_______ (country) is just about all they can say when having a long conversation, which no one finds interesting. However, expats and third culture kids do have huge advantages. Almost all of them get a college degree, many get a grad school degree, are bilingual, multilingual, or as in my case, hyperpolyglots, are more open to foreigners and foreign culture, more tolerant and have more patient than average people.

Spending a few years in an adoptive country can only be beneficial. With all the drawbacks it might have, living in one’s home country might not either be all benefits. As the United States elected a third culture kid as their president (Obama spent his childhood in Indonesia), there are a lot of brilliant kids out there who lived abroad and might, in the end, understand their own culture, as well us other culture, better than local people. Yet they remain largely misunderstood.



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