on third culture(s) and nomad aspirations

(this was actually nearly a year ago – a month after Oxford began)

As I said in a previous post, this article, though quite vague and sentimental, did contain sentiments that resonated with me.

“I am from Italy, my wife is British, and we live in France. We are in the US for a year, for work.” This explains why the children speak Italian with me, and a very British English with my wife, while sporting an American accent with their little friends — which is what usually sparks these conversations.

The beginning anecdote was enviously charming. I daresay I will be living vicariously through my hypothetical children if I attempt to raise them in that sort of an environment in future.

And there it was, the subtle shift in look. My interlocutor had moved me, in his mental filing cabinet, from a folder labeled ‘foreigner’ to one marked ‘stranger.’

It is possibly narcissistic to say this, but I suspect I have seen this look at least once since arriving here, particularly when I say I’m from Singapore and then talk about Pearson/high school in Canada; more than one person have asked if I was born in Singapore or I’d been there all my life. It doesn’t quite help that Singapore is small (and inconsequential?) enough that people don’t generally tend to know much about it.

I didn’t just hail from a different place. I had a different kind of life.

They are as eager to broaden their personal horizons as they are to expand their professional prospects. They do not expect or desire to spend their career in the same organization or country. They enjoy mobility and view it as necessary to gather the experience, ability, connections and credibility that will turn them from nomadic professionals into global leaders.

I think of them as a peculiar tribe. A tribe for people unfit for tribalism.

More than to any other lifestyle, I think I aspire to this one. It’s a typical thing to (claim to) possess, of course, this wanderlust, and I have enough friends on both ends of the spectrum that I can honestly only say I fall only somewhere in between, perhaps leaning strongly towards the ‘nomadic’ end. It has been this way since I was old enough to become aware of it, and part of it is the reading habit I’ve had since young (because Singaporean literature is almost non-existent, and so the worlds I’ve had to immerse myself in are inevitably foreign), part of it is my parents’ habit of taking vacations overseas, and part of it is my interest in philosophy (again, I am not aware of Singaporean philosophy, to say the least !) because of all the thinkers I’ve read (about) since the age of 12, many, if not most, of them have been Western(ized).

Being in a tiny country gives you, paradoxically, an expansive view of everything … outside.

It’s been this way as long as I can remember, and the decision to apply to UWC, really, while cemented by the prospectus’ articulation of its values and memorably, the attractive (I kid you not) paragraph on kitchen duty, was prompted by an instinctive desire to go somewhere else. It certainly didn’t feel like a big deal, then. 

“The trouble with moving around and falling in love with new places,” a colleague once shared, “is that you leave a piece of your heart in each of them.”

That, in itself, isn’t an original expression, of course, but its sincerity comes with the fact that many of the people I now know will be able to share that sentiment, more or less. I don’t think I have stopped wanting to travel, to move around, but it is starting to seem like that desire is frivolous and consumerist and meaningless if not anchored by a deeper purpose – the difference between being a nomad, a voyager, and a tourist. So I have refined that earlier, primitive spark of I want to go somewhere else to I want to live and work somewhere else. This entails (ideally) learning the language and being involved in geographically relevant projects, and this … limits my wanderlust, of course.

I don’t think I am making my points very coherently. I really liked the final paragraphs of the article, so I’m just going to include much of them.

Yet home need not always be a place. It can be a territory, a relationship, a craft, a way of expression. Home is an experience of belonging, a feeling of being whole and known, sometimes too close for comfort …

Rather than learning to live away from home or do without one, global leaders must learn to live in and between two homes — a local and a global home. Become familiar with local and global communities, and use neither to escape the other.

This takes physical and emotional presence … Leaving a piece of heart with people and places, and keeping them in your heart wherever you are.

Hard as it may be to reconcile local and global homes, it is a privilege to have a chance to inhabit both. A privilege that we must extend to others. That is, ultimately, the work of global leaders — connecting those homes within and around them.

We must embrace the struggle to make a home that feels our own. The unease that goes with it is a reminder of how important that work is, and what is at stake.

The first time I have ever thought, seriously, that I might not want to wander around anymore, that settling down in one place with people seems nice, that I was tired of foreignness, both around it and being it, was sometime in my first week at Oxford, I think. It wasn’t an anguished thought, but it had been a morose week of adjustment, and the fog of mild depression was more disheartening in the aftermath of the fresh, almost riotous cheerfulness during orientation the week before. I was tired of having to adjust to a new way of life, new surroundings, new social norms. It was a bizarre (and unsporting and whiny) sentiment.

I’ve recovered from that since, of course. This article reminded (and reassured) me that I wasn’t as lost as it had seemed, in particular in its timely exhortation that home is an expression or a relationship or an experience of belonging. Yesterday I decided that I am content in Oxford, that although I will never intentionally say home to mean my room or St Anne’s or Oxford I do feel some rightness in my being here, and this is perhaps far more than I have ever felt in Pearson. In many ways, this satisfaction is functional – the terms are short enough, the vacations generous enough and continental Europe is close enough that I can’t imagine ever feeling trapped here. Crucially, however, is the inherent sense of academic purpose I have the privilege of possessing for at least the next three years.

The momentous undertaking of my subjects is at the core of my contentment here, I think. I remember worrying intermittently that doing what I love might be a reason for my stopping to love it, because my previous experience has been that I am generally disinclined to do work assigned to me, as opposed to work I voluntarily assumed. This, happily, has been proven to be false, because it is an absolutely liberating and joyous existence to be given leave to only focus on the subjects I hold most dear(ly to be the underpinnings of  any study of humanity). This is one aspect of it. I have a purpose here.

The only gaps in my contentment are people (and the sea). But these are things you learn to stop whining about, I think (hope).

That’s the first experience of belonging. It’s very individual, of course. The second is the people I’ve left behind (or, less egocentrically, the people who’ve left !) How many times have I heard an expression to the effect of but now you have friends all over the world? This means as much as I feel at any one point, I guess. It’s another experience of belonging – I think of being international as having relationships pulling you in all directions, in the bittersweet anticipation of being left and also leaving, as existing as a finite individual, impossibly, in the infinity of the world. In the littlest things, it’s being aware of at least four different timezones at any given time. It’s in not registering any accent as foreign, really (oddly enough, I am still quite sharply aware of the British accent, though most other exotic ones sound entirely familiar to me.) It’s in the muted awareness of the simple parochialism my perspective inevitably imposes. Tonight, I came down to the library to Skype someone, and I realized that it must not be a common sight here, someone on an armchair outside the library, Skyping. How common that was in Pearson! 

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