Belonging… or not

Okay, so, belonging. I feel like I probably touched on this a fair bit in my “home” post, but I’ve been thinking about it recently and hey, I think it’s the one thing that TCK’s ‘suffer’ from most, shall we say. It’s something that impacts us unconsciously almost all the time. It shapes the way we think, the way we make decisions, the way we talk, move, live. 

For example, one of my hobbies is writing. I won’t call myself a writer because I’m not self-disciplined enough to ever actually come close to finishing anything, but I do enjoy creating different worlds and people that live in them, and I just realised that a lot of these little stories and characters and worlds often have something in common: a sense of belonging or, rather, of not belonging. Whether it’s a genocide survivor trying to create a place where she and other survivors can live in peace freely being who they are, or a bride in a political marriage moving to another country, or an outcast searching for her role in a society that rejects her, none of them belong in the place where they are. Either they are rejected by those around them, or they are in a place that is new to them. Many of these stories seem to centre around them finding – or not finding – that place (and I say seem because a lot of them are more like “ideas” than “stories”!). Also, the conflict that arises is less political in nature, and more over identities and having a place, such as various minority groups fighting for a place where they can be themselves and “do their thing”, and the inner conflict is usually over who they are and where they belong as opposed to mysterious pasts, right vs wrong, and so on. 

This all resonates with me, which is why I subconsciously formed my ideas that way. (Write about what you know, right?) Having a home and belonging are different, though it’s difficult to articulate the how and why. I have homes in many places and can settle quicker and easier into new places than most, but there’s never been a sense of “ahh, this is where I belong!” even on the subconscious level. Instead, I enjoy new places and learning more about them, not because I will be settling there but because I find different cultures and languages fascinating and also because I want, to different extents depending on the circumstances, to fit in. I came up with 4 ways that TCKs (maybe it’s not limited to just TCKs) respond to this sense of not belonging. I don’t presume to say that these are the only ways, and I’m sure there are far more. These are fairly broad.

1. Exaggerating difference

The person takes pride in what makes them stand out from the rest, what makes them different. They may make it obvious, or make a point of it, in the way they dress, eat, talk, etc.

2. Exaggerating similarity

The person does everything they can to eliminate differences and everything they can to increase similarities, such as assimilating to speech patterns, language, dress, etc.

3. Settling

The person looks for a place to settle more or less permanently and make that place their home.

4. Wandering

The person feels the need to move somewhere else every so often and doesn’t attempt to settle anywhere permanently.

(As an aside, at least for the first two, those are the extremes.)

I would say that I respond in all ways but the third. As I mentioned in my “roots” post, I struggle with the idea of being in one place for a long period of time, but I also don’t think that there is anywhere where I would ever feel that I fully belong. Wandering though… that sounds like a dream come true! As long as I could find someone else to come along for the journeys! Between 1 and 2, I would say that I swing more often towards 2, but I’m also guilty of 1. Often at the same time. I enjoy telling new friends my history. I enjoy seeing their looks of amazement when they find out where I was born, and in how many countries I’ve lived (really, it’s not that many! I wish it were more! I can’t boast to other TCKs!) but when I meet someone for the first time and I know that it’s just going to be a shallow acquaintance I hate it when they ask where I’m from and when I say “England” (just because it’s easier that way) they ask “No, but where are you from really? Your name isn’t English”. Just accept that I’m from England, please. Otherwise this talk taking place while you’re in the middle of running out the door and I’m busy doing something else is just going to be a bother. But I can’t just say “I’m Finnish” either, because that’s just… not… quite… the case… So I throw out that my father is American and my mother is from Finland (I never say my mom is Finnish. I just assume they wouldn’t understand what that means!) and they run on with a smile and I wonder why it was so important after all. I often never see them again. At those times, I guess I don’t mind being different, but I don’t like to delve into the details with someone I’ll hardly ever speak to outside of whatever it is that threw us together in the first place. Having to explain things such as how my parents met and why on earth I was born somewhere hardly anyone has heard of and why I’m in England and how long I’ve been in England and why I’m not African gets tiring. I like to assimilate when I’m alone. I like to be different but similar when I’m with people I know. I dread being viewed as a tourist. I love being asked for directions even though I’m so directionally challenged I get lost if you put me just one street away from those I know. But I refuse to carry a map because… I don’t want to look like I don’t belong! Oh sure I know this place! Look at me strut my stuff down this road while I go over in my head the directions I memorised from google maps: “it’s the street after Smith Street on the left… ah! there’s Smith Street! Okay, now Small Drive should be the next one and then I turn right at…” (And thank goodness for google maps too because honestly there are times when I can’t even read a map!)

And don’t get me started on turning around and walking back the way I came because I got it wrong. Hah! Look at that girl, she doesn’t know where she’s going, she’s lost! It amuses me to see other people do it because I dread it so much. I cross the road and then walk back even if I know that I’ll have to cross the street back again to get where I want to go. The scream of my heart is: I’m a local, I belong heeeeeere!

Yet, I don’t want to settle and actually make a solid attempt to truly belong anywhere. I’m sorry if your little-house-with-its-white-picket-fence American dream just sounds dreadfully dull to me. Where is the excitement? Where is the meeting new and different people? Where is the learning about goat herders that still yodel in the mountains of… somewhere? I think I enjoy learning to assimilate. Just getting on a bus suddenly becomes like a scene from a James Bond movie – in my head. How do the locals sit? How do they stand? How do they get on? How do they get off? How do they pay? Do they talk to each other? What about mobile phone etiquette? It’s ever so confusing and frustrating when they all do different things. Who am I supposed to copy?! Note: this exercise requires an ability to recognise tourists and other non-locals so that you don’t end up copying them. Maps are a useful hint, as are oversized backpacks with bedrolls strapped to the bottom.

So, I don’t feel like I belong anywhere, and I sort of enjoy not belonging but trying to fit in. I’m also haunted by a desperate need to look like I fit in, even whilst boasting about my extensive travels and mixed up background and home life. Welcome to the wonderful world of a TCK!