I’m what they call a third-culture kid. Basically, that means I was born in one place but was raised in a different culture to the one I was born in, or different from that of my parents. In my specific case, I was born in the UK, London to be precise, but was raised in St Lucia by a South African mother and a St Lucian father.
There’s something strange about being a part of 3 wildly different cultures. When I was a kid, I spoke with a very bizarre accent. My mother, who not only is South African but has traveled all over the world, has an accent that is vastly difficult to place, and my father speaks English with the accent of a St Lucian who’s been in England for a while. So my accent was a weird Frankenstein mash-up of different intonations, borrowed words and Americanisms picked up from TV. Which was fine until I went to primary school.
“Why you soundin’ like that?”, a particularly demanding 5-year-old asked me in kindergarten.
“Like what?” I wondered what they meant. I’ve always just sounded like me.
“Like DAT. You do say things wrong.” The kids sniggered, and I knew that something was up.
And so I learnt how to fake a St Lucian accent. It wasn’t that hard, I realized. I hardened my Rs and turned my THs into Fs and Ds where appropriate – “dat fing over deh” – and before I knew it, the kids at my school were sufficiently fooled well enough to leave me alone. This lasted all the way until I went to private school and realized I didn’t have to keep faking an accent around the variety of kids who went to private school, many of whom were also third culture kids. The jig was up when I got to secondary school and realized that half the kids from my old primary school remembered me, but I was known a different way by my friends in private school. My older cousins, who only ever heard my ‘home’ voice, tried to defend me, but I was stuck. Being a dramatic person, I did the best thing I could think of: I waited until it was my turn to read in class and switched between the two accents depending on dialogue. Problem solved and I had learnt a new skill – accents. I can still do several accents at a drop of a hat, though they’re not quite as convincing as they were when I was a kid. Still makes for a great bar trick.
Another thing was food. Food is a major part of cultural identity, but what food do you eat when you’re from one place, your mum and primary food source is from another and you’re both living in a country where neither of you were born? I would come to school with leftovers of whatever we had the night before. This was like playing Russian Roulette; was it going to be stewed chicken and rice and peas, or would it be bobotie and millipap? Or would it be something from one of my mother’s African friends – Kenyan pepper soup, fufu, and egusi? Or would it just be ham on white bread? The menu, like the possibilities, were endless. I never really got teased for it, being lucky to have friends from all over the world who were open to the idea that there’s no wrong way to get sustenance, but it did make for a lot of teaching sessions during lunchtime.
I’m not one of those lucky third culture kids who learnt another language at birth (my Afrikaans is an insult to South Africans everywhere, and my Kwéyol is lacking), but I guess being around all these different cultures made it a lot easier for me to pick up languages. I became massively interested in Japan and Japanese culture because I was and am a complete nerd, and I found Japanese about as easy to pick up as Spanish (that is to say, not that hard). Greetings and insults are a piece of cake, and I can curse your mama in way too many languages to count (not that I would, I’m sure she’s a lovely lady). I remember asking my friend how to say hello in Arabic and she taught me how to say “donkey” instead. I’m lucky I don’t trust my friends, the multicultural trolls.
I think the weirdest thing about all of this is when people ask me, “where are you from?” This is usually a targeted question that has been triggered by my long and ambiguous name or by my accent, which has morphed into a London middle-class accent with a strange lilt and a lazy drawl. It’s also a question I don’t like answering very much. If I have time, I’ll give the long answer, but if I don’t have time, I default to a vague “just over there” pointing in a random direction. If it’s race-related, I tend to look them in the eye and give a very specific part of London (“Well I was born in Camden, but I’m from Harrow, really”), and when the inevitable, “where are your parents from”, follow up question appears, I go, “Well my mum’s from Lewisham” (True-ish, she owned her first home in Lewisham), “And my dad is from Paddington” (True-ish, as part of the Windrush generation, when he came in the 60s he lived in Paddington). The real answer is that I don’t know. I grew up in St Lucia, so it’s my childhood home. I became an adult in the UK and it’s where I live now. But I’ve moved 10 times in the past decade, and I have family and friends all over the world whose casa es mi casa – so what do I say? What is home? Where is home? I guess it’s where the fridge is, which means that home is London, but my aunt makes the best barbecued chicken and she’s in St Lucia, so that should be home, right? Decisions, decisions.
Currently, I’m dating a third culture kid, a Canadian born Australian with Chinese parents. We’ve just had an argument on word usage (specifically the word ‘vest’ which is used differently in the UK) but we’re getting along like a house on fire. My friends dub us the United Nations because there are 6 countries between us, and every weekend we make each other something from each other’s cultures. Last week, we made dumplings from scratch, and we’ve made akra (fishcakes) before. I showed him Scotch Bonnet Pepper Sauce and he showed me Laoganma, and I plan on making him bobotie and rotis sometime soon. Food, the international language! It’s nice being with someone who understands my loose definition of home, and his accent is as weird as mine (think Australian but with a vague European flatness). It’s nice to not have to explain the home thing, or why I refer to distance in Caribbean terms (“just over there” means anything from 3 feet to about 4 miles) because he gets it. The last time someone asked us where we were from, we both shrugged and said London because why bother?
I guess ultimately being a third culture kid isn’t so bad. And in an age of increased globalization, it’s becoming more and more normal to meet people who, like me, have a claim to several cultures. I suppose at the end of the day, home is where the heart is and I’m lucky to have hearts in many places around the world.