Third culture kids in the world: where do we belong?
As a kid growing up in Panama — with parents from New Zealand and England — we always talked about going home. I was under the impression that home was Hamilton, New Zealand. Finally, at the age of 15, we moved home.
As much as I loved the carefree life we had in Panama, it was painfully obvious that we were foreigners. It didn’t matter that I was born in Panama and only visited family and friends overseas.
- I spoke broken Spanish but fluent English.
- My school year was different from my friends, and I spent eight months every year at boarding school. My summer holidays were right in the middle of their school year.
- My skin colour, mannerisms, and cultural background were all different.
It was apparent to all that I was an outsider.
It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t fit in once we “moved home”. Imagine my shock, at a vulnerable fifteen, of finding out that I was a total misfit back home. This was not where I belonged.
- I spoke English with an international American accent, picked up from seven years of boarding school.
- Apart from being the weird kid that spoke English with an American accent, I also spoke Spanish and had lived in a country that people had barely even heard of. The best they knew was the Panama Canal. That all changed when the US invaded in 1989, and they discovered Noriega.
- I had never actually lived in New Zealand more than passing holidays and stays and had no idea how to fit in with the culture. Especially not returning to a public school of 1,500 high school students after my sheltered life at a small boarding school of fewer than 100 students.
I experienced what I now know as reverse culture shock. Expat kids worldwide experience this when they “go home”, whether their parents are members of the military, diplomatic corps, aid workers, or work for multinational companies around the world. Everyone talks about “going home” as if you will fit right back in, easily and effortlessly.
You reenter the culture that your parents know as their own as they move back to their friends and family and the life that they once knew. But as a child who has spent most — if not all — of their life internationally, it’s as foreign to you as any other country you’ve lived in.
I studied US history and civics, with some English history thrown in for those who weren’t American. The Spanish conquest of the Americas was thrown into the mix, together with Panama's role as the Bridge of the Americas, being essential to the gold route from Peru through Panama and onto Spain. Soccer was the game to play, followed closely by baseball or perhaps basketball.
I grew up with Southern Command, knowing US military operations in the Darien Gap and Central America. We kept an eye on which dictator was installed or toppled in South or Central America. Before we left Panama in 1987, there were constant military faceoffs between the US and Panamanian forces throughout various points in the city, and all police, being part of the military, carried military-grade weapons.
My kiwi counterparts, on the other hand, grew up watching ANZAC day parades, Maori land rights protests, New Zealand protesting nuclear testing in the South Pacific (French and the US), the fight against apartheid and protests of the Springbok tour, the winning of the Rugby world cup, New Zealand refusing the USS Buchanan access to NZ ports and waters, the Rainbow Warrior bombed and sunk by the French agents in Auckland harbour. The police in New Zealand were unarmed except for batons. While the boys played rugby and some soccer, the girls were busy with hockey and netball.
What did I know about being a teenager in New Zealand?
By the time I finished law school, my accent had adapted — for the most part — to a Kiwi accent, and I felt supported and loved.
Yet, somehow, part of me was still missing. I was still a complete misfit. In late autumn of every year, when the skies were turning grey and dreary, and the temperatures dropped, I longed for the endless tropical weather of the Isthmus.
Eventually, I returned to Panama to find the missing pieces, making peace with my past.
I never understood why mum cried so much as I got on the plane that March, heading off on the big OE (overseas experience), planning to return within the year. But she sensed something I could never imagine.
As I walked out of the airport in Panama and the humid, hot air hit me, the only thought in my mind was, “I’m home”. It felt like a return to my land — a deep spiritual resonance that I couldn’t explain.
My plans to stay for three months and then travel to the UK changed in less than six weeks after I arrived. I was going to try to get a job and stay for a year or two.
Enter culture shock. Reentry wasn’t quite what I thought it would be.
- The vocabulary I had and needed at fifteen no longer suited the 23-year-old me that had a University education and a year’s business experience. I found myself with a headache just trying to read the newspaper's business section, with a dictionary next to me.
- Despite carrying a Panamanian passport since I was a baby, with countless renewals, when I went to get my cédula (national ID card), I found myself faced with countless obstacles. I was confronted by more than one official insinuating that my Panamanian birth and nationality were questionable, without recognising that it was their intentions that I should question. I realise now they were looking for kickbacks — but naive and innocent me had no idea how the world worked.
It was more than just my accent and the colour of my skin. My way of thinking and the lens through which I viewed life, business and politics were different.
Eventually, I went back to university to get my second law degree. This time under a Napoleonic law system, rather than common law. I discovered a totally different education culture than the one I had come to know and used to in New Zealand. It wasn’t about thought and process. It was about rote learning and reciting back to the professor exactly what he wanted to hear.
I discovered for the first time that it was possible to cheat on exams and tests — ask the person next to you to see their paper. Unimaginable in New Zealand! You wouldn't just fail the paper; it would get you kicked out of University and good luck ever trying to get back in.
It was even possible to pay your way out of doing exams if you really wanted to or get the questions before an exam.
I thought I was coming home and discovered it was just as foreign to me as arriving home in New Zealand was. There are so many things, even twenty years later, that jar me — a reminder that I see the world differently.
Swings and roundabouts: where do we belong?
Here I am, some twenty-plus years later, with a 7-year-old daughter. Her father is Panamanian and Italian. She has spent her entire life in this Isthmus, and now she realises that perhaps she’s different from everyone else.
She recently started to ask why she and I can’t go home to New Zealand to live close to grandma and grandpa.
We should go home.
Her reasoning: we speak English at home, not Spanish. And while she speaks fluent Spanish and is learning Italian, she identifies as being a New Zealander.
How will I break it to her that she would have to immigrate to New Zealand since neither she nor I were born there? How do I explain that she has an Italian passport, but we’ve never even visited, and I only know those family members that live in Panama?
She talks to me about belonging and where we fit in. And I feel a sense of dread and deep pain.
How do I create a world for her in which she belongs?
When will she start to understand that my local — the only pub I consider home — is the Ram, in Firle, England. The cathedral that I most identify with is a spiritual home in Hereford, England, where I’ve only visited once.
The land that I love is Panama and New Zealand. And a tiny slice of Firle, Sussex.
And her family is spread out worldwide, from Sweden, Italy and the UK, through Panama, all the way over to Australia and New Zealand. I have no answers other than that she is loved wherever she is.
The world is her oyster, and yet she may feel incomplete. In this life I have created, she may always feel that half of her heart is on the other side of the ocean.
Where do we belong?