The following is a guest post written by Lizzie Clark, a TCK who grew up in Saudi Arabia. Lizzie currently attends Virginia Tech University in the United States. For inquiries you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
American culture is strange.
American advertising, and marketing is overwhelming. American sports are apparently common knowledge, and American reality TV is both terrifying, and intriguing.
Americans are weird.
Since starting university, I find myself thinking these things more often. Reverse culture-shock is when you spend an excessive amount of time away from the country of your nationality, and then re-enter that place. Upon re-entry you experience all of the differences between yourself, your homeland, and – more specifically – the people of your homeland. This is why after three years I’m still struggling to adjust to life in the United States.
The first time I lived outside of the U.S., I was six-months-old. The company my dad worked for at the time relocated him to New Delhi, India – he took his wife and three kids, who were no older than the age of five, with him. I’d love to say that I remember the chaos of New Delhi’s streets, or the way people danced and celebrated with bright colors during the ancient festival of Holi, but I was far too young. Unfortunately, we only lived there for a year before we were relocated yet again to Jefferson, Maryland.
Jefferson is where I developed my first memories. It’s where I learned to ride a bike, and where I learned to swim. It’s where the carelessness, and joyfulness of childhood began. As a family, we had come from one of the world’s most populated cities, to one of the smallest and most quaint towns. We remained in Maryland for four years before moving to my home: Saudi Arabia.
Five is my favorite number for several different reasons.
There are five members in my family, five characters in my last name, and I was born on the 15th in the tenth month of the year, 1995. I was also five-years-old when I found out we were moving, and in December 2001, we traveled halfway across the world to Saudi Arabia. Not too long after 9/11. Our extended family thought we were insane for making such a drastic choice, but we were excited to start a new adventure. This move marked the beginning of my third-culture-kid (TCK) experience.
A TCK is a child who grew up in a culture different from their parents. The first culture represents the parents’ culture, the second is the culture of the place the child grew up, and the third is the first two cultures combined – resulting in the TCK phrase.
As a TCK, I can say for certain that most TCKs struggle with defining their identity. It’s confusing, because you think you relate to your parents for the first chunk of your life, and then it occurs to you one day that their upbringing is completely different from yours. At the same time, you can’t relate to the people of the nation you live in because you’re not of that nationality. I particularly struggled with this during middle school, and was often frustrated. My family and I would go to the U.S. for summer vacation every year, and as each year passed, I became more and more confused about the “land of the free” I was from.
Take American advertising as an example of my confusion – my best description of it would be loud, and inescapable. The first time I saw an infomercial, my eight-year-old mind was blown.
For me, America was the land of shopping, relatives, and amusement parks.
When we first moved into our house in Saudi Arabia, there were only local channels. One was a news network, and the other, an Arabic cartoon channel. Whenever I visited my Egyptian friend Fatimah, we would watch Arabic cartoons together. Even though I couldn’t understand it, I was satisfied. This made American television all the more exciting.
I loved coming to the U.S. to see the commercials, because commercials meant America. Just like never-ending green grass, and trees meant America. As well as Honey Nut Cheerios, and Go-Gurt. Every year when I would visit Virginia for summer vacation, I was exposed to this America more and more. (Like spray butter. I discovered that mastermind invention five-years-ago. I imagine the logic behind sprayable butter was similar to the logic behind the abominable product that combined peanut butter and jelly in a jar.)
Honestly, there’s a lot about America I still don’t understand.
I even found myself confused by the personalities of some American people, and the similarities of many Americans. For instance when I was twelve, I met a thirty-year-old woman who truly believed that where I lived – Saudi Arabia – was a city in South Carolina. After that incident, I began to observe the creatures surrounding me during the summer. I watched how Americans ate their food, and interacted with each other. I soon realized how different they were from me, and became weary of them asking about what life was like in a desert. I also couldn’t help but become annoyed by their southern drawls. Most of all however, I became tired of explaining my life story to another seemingly ignorant person, because often all of my words would just go in one ear, and out the other.
Obviously not everyone in the U.S. is like Ms. Saudi Arabia-is-in-South Carolina, but I was disappointed by how many times I had to explain that I didn’t live in a tent, or ride a camel to school, or speak the local language – which is definitely not called “Arabian.”
Gradually, a barrier arose between myself and other Americans.
Oh, you’re the girl from South Africa!
— Saudi Arabia.
Same difference, right?
Eventually, I questioned what American values were. If they were so great, why did my fellow Americans know nothing about people like me, or people from other cultures? It became more and more strange – bouncing between the two extremes of Saudi Arabia, and the U.S.
Experiencing the ignorance of others is inevitable no matter where you are, but that doesn’t make it any less depressing. I’m abundantly grateful for my international upbringing, and how it made me the person I am. I love that I’m intrigued by other cultures and countries, and that I have such a strong sense of wanderlust. I only wish that others shared my curiosities, but you can’t make people into something they’re not.
Over the past year, living in the U.S. has become progressively easier. I continue to struggle coping with a lot of American quirks, but I still meet interesting people; particularly those who appreciate diversity and new ideas. Those are the people I celebrate, and the people who make living in this country better for me. In some cases however, my best defense is to just accept things as they are. There are always going to be things I don’t like, or agree with wherever I am in the world.