Being a 30-year-old Third Culture Kid
For as long as I can remember I believed I was a regulation introvert. I made peace with the fact that I was an anxiety-ridden stammering semi-socializer that needs to be placed in her solitudinous habitat in order to function. I was more of the reading and writing type, never the speaking type. So over years I resigned myself to my destined cozy introversion where I’d become so good at creating excuses out of thin air not to attend things (especially those that required meeting people for the first time, yikes).
Every once in a while I still had these inexplicable episodes of seamless social encounters which also used to happen when I was in large groups (extremely un-introvert like behavior). It was like all my social skills harmoniously clicked together to do what they were meant to do after long bouts of malfunctioning. But I put that away as the occasional outlier which I guess made sense happening every once in a while. But it felt good to know I was capable of doing something like that. I had it in me to park the introversion at will. That’s how I felt at the time until the big picture came into focus and I realized this had nothing to do with introversion or extroversion. I was culturally stuck. All the time.
I’m an Egyptian that has lived in Egypt, Jordan, and the US (in that order). Needless to say, polar opposite societies. I’ve worn hijab, been to nightclubs, smoked weed, had a boyfriend, regularly did my daily prayers, and fasted Ramadan. I can discuss with you the Nasser and Raegan administrations. I can write up a review about a F. Scott Fitzgerald followed by Naguib Mahfouz. My adolescence was shaped by a cultural and social dichotomy of East and West. And I love that about myself.
Although looking at things now it’s easy to see they worked out for the best. Through all the travel I’ve become more exposed, more well-read. However, that really wasn’t the case when I was a struggling fresh-off-the boat middle schooler that had just transferred in from a catholic all girls school or a “spoiled” college student that just returned from the US with her fancy overconfidence and American accent. I was always “that” kid, perpetually adjusting. Wherever I was, I didn’t belong.
Ever since I finished college in the US I’ve been living in Cairo. That had always been my choice. That’s where I belong (relatively at least). That’s where I felt I should be. Of course making that move was anything but simple even though it is my home country. In Egypt, when you live a while abroad and come back you become this awkward creature. You’re bombarded with the “wow your accent is so American” just because you don’t stress the T in “computer”. Slang that has apparently been around for a while goes way over your head so you’re left looking like a dumbass in most conversations until a do-good-er volunteers to break things down for the “American girl”, usually searching for an equivalent English word or expression. You carry around the “Western” tag like a quarantine warning people to carefully pick how they talk and interact with you. This starts to fade after a while. The cultural schism begins to close when you’ve been in town long enough to know when to bring out your American accent and when to stow it away like a big diamond ring in a busy market. People assign you the essential aura of condescension known to be sported by those that came back from the West. “I was educated in America and therefore I’m better than you.” And that’s how they treat you. You find them uninvitedly recount their “cool trip to New York back in 2005” where they visited the statue of liberty and went to the MnM’s store. You’re tired of the pedestal you’re being placed on where everyone is trying to take a step up towards you through their meaningless Apple store stories and Cheesecake Factory menu choices.
Rewind to ten years prior: my transition from an all girls school in downtown Cairo to an American school in Amman, Jordan after my dad’s transfer to a new project that required our uprooting. Although still in an Eastern country, I was thrown in an entirely Western habitat. Imagine a bespectacled overweight seventh grader with her hair done up on a too-tight braid meant to confine her wild unruly hair, slightly glistening with the struggling hair products. Sporting the all too prim and proper look of catholic school girls. Dumbfounded by the lack of school uniforms and the casual presence of boys (who had easy friendships with the girls, no less!). Boys, an alien creature only encountered and enamored through Walkman earphones and Firefox screenshots and sometimes through family acquaintances where they’re treated like they don’t exist (but very much did judging by the extreme -yet very well hidden- anxiety that they incited). Although my English had been perfect (with a heavy accent still clouding my conversation), I felt like a complete outsider in every sense of the word. Classmates were speaking Gibberish, eating strange snacks, wearing different clothes, were so intimidatingly comfortable and open. Needless to say, I was the class weirdo for a very long time.
Fast forward to high school: my hair has become permanently straight, boys permeate all aspects of my life, I’ve tried tequila for the first time (and liked it a lot), and I go to parties like they’re where I belong. I’ve adjusted. I’ve assimilated as I needed successfully. You cannot tell from my accent that I’ve been in other schools. Mission accomplished.
But unfortunately life throws curveballs. All the time. I moved back to Egypt. (See fifth paragraph for woeful account of further alienation). And the cycle continued endlessly from one country to the other. Perpetual need for assimilation. Constant adjustment of accent, mannerisms, friends, and bedrooms. It was exhausting and I could not for the life of me appreciate the changes. All I craved was stability. To be able to keep my best friends for more than a year. To take a break from having to search for new close friends everywhere I go.
I’m turning thirty next year. I’ve been living in Cairo where I’m married, working, and with a baby. My parents are still on the move so I visit them in New York every year. Needless to say, in the month or so during my stay I revive my third culture kid-hood despite closing in on thirty. I find myself stammering during impromptu conversations with strangers. I will be overwhelmed by all the options of oatmeal at the supermarket. I will be involuntarily breaking a few laws while driving. But you wouldn’t tell me apart from a local in two weeks time after my adjustment kicks in full throttle. My cultural gap will always exist; whether I’m home or away. It just took me this long to realize I’m really not an introvert. I’m in cultural limbo. It’s something I’ve learned to live with and I’m not going to outgrow it; it’s been deeply ingrained into who I am since I was thirteen. I’m still thankful though, because if it weren’t the case I’d have never learned to adjust so quickly at anytime.