Jan. 7, 2010
As a child I used to love jumping back and forth between hot and cold temperature swimming pools. Some cringed at the drastic temperature change, but I prided myself in being one of the few who could rapidly immerse my body in the two temperatures in succession, seemingly demonstrating my body’s superior adaptability. The point of the exercise was to cleanse the body. The hot temperatures opened your pores, allowing toxins in your body to be released, and the cold temperature pools washed these toxins away. This was supposed to leave your body cleaner, healthier, and ultimately, stronger.
I thought about this metaphor on my plane ride from Asia to the US this time around. Experiencing stark differences can make someone stronger, whether it’s stark differences in water temperatures at the swimming pool, or transplanting oneself from one culture to another. Yet, although the end product is something “good” or beneficial, if one wanted to impart a value judgment on the process (as a sociologist I feel like I am being trained to be value neutral…as if that is possible), the process is harsh. I felt the harshness particularly during this trip, though perhaps I have always felt this in the process of leaving Asia and coming to the United States, or vice versa. The 24 hour period that I am traveling between my homes, in hindsight, is merely a small blip in time compared to the rest of my year. However, during the experience, it is always a painful and heart-wrenching process.
Sometimes its hard to comprehend that within the blink of an eye I can be in two completely different places, with different histories, different cultures, different societies…sometimes its hard to remember that humanity across all geographies possess similarities. Although I know a 24 hr travel period is not necessarily a “blink of the eye”, just think—it used to take people months to travel between continents. They had months to contemplate their journey, and adjust themselves to the thought of being in a new place. They had time for acceptance. Modern technology allows us to be in completely different places, within the day. We process change at much faster rates. Yet, do we process the change, or merely note the differences and move on with our individual lives?
Furthermore, the buffer zone feeling that exists while I am between my two homes is gone after the 24 hours of travel time. Once immersed in a setting, I adapt. Some may argue that is what third culture kids (TCKs) learn to do. I argue that its always been in my personality to adapt. Whatever the cause, once I’m in a place, I’m there. I thrive and become the person that society recognizes. I am lucky to have a great support network in both homes (thus making me feel that both are my homes, as opposed to giving priority to one over the other) and when I leave one to enter the other, I still enter a welcoming atmosphere.
So, it is not the thought of “going somewhere” that is the painful part of this process. I don’t feel this way because I dread coming back to America, or dread going back to Asia. Rather, it is knowing that you are leaving, and knowing where you are going, and being so acutely aware of the differences between the two places, that causes the angst. As opposed to immigrant generations, who have a definite “home country” and “destination country”, I feel like the global citizen gives equal priority to all of their homes. Perhaps I feel this even more since although I am a TCK, I have really only lived in one country abroad: Singapore. Therefore my heart is definitely divided equally between two places—Singapore and the US.
What is even harder sometimes to make sense of is the feeling of being a foreigner and a local at the same time in multiple places. When I go back to Singapore, I love it like a local. I love it with the love of having grown up in the place for over 10 years. While the place has changed, the texture, color, and sensation of the place remains the same. Yet, I am not Singaporean. The way I dress, the way I talk, even some of my values and viewpoints, are not Singaporean. I am always confronted with the question, especially when I speak in Chinese for some reason, “Ni shi na li ren?” (What country are you from?). (Actually in Taiwan I get “Ni shi wai guo ren ma?” Are you a foreigner? While they are similar, to me there are subtle differences in meaning.) Similarly, when I go back to America, I love it with the love of having spent most of my adult years in the place. Yet again, there is the disjuncture—no I’m not from any particular state/city within the US, I usually answer “Most recently from Chicago”, and yes sometimes I say “carpark”, “Air Con”, “ toilet” instead of “parking lot”, “AC”, and “restroom”, which cause many to laugh and jokingly say, “oh that’s right you’re not from here”. Although these incidences are really minor, they are just a smattering of experiences that add up to a general feeling of being a foreign local.
It’s not only that, but I am a different person in the two different places. They are not extremely different, but I notice that I put on different acts in the different countries. I am acting, but I’m not. They are all parts of me, I just learn to turn one part on or off, depending on the context. One learns to observe situations. Read signals. Body language is very different in the two countries. Facial expressions. I have to adjust my threshold of sensitivity to body language and signals accordingly.
So if I am a foreign local in both places, why is it so hard to leave one to head to the other? If both places give me the same feeling, shouldn’t I be ambivalent to either country? For me, the answer is no. (Perhaps for some other global citizens, they find this transition easier.) The transition to either side is equally difficult. Because as soon as I feel like I am tipping the balance between foreigner and local in one place, I up and move back to the other place. I am reminded, with that experience, that I am also as much a local and a foreigner in another country. Thus the dilemma: just as I feel like I am becoming more “local” in one place, I leave. And again become a “foreigner” in both places again.
Perhaps I am being naïve. Perhaps this is the way it should be. Perhaps it is not time for me to have a place for me to feel like a local in. Or perhaps I will always feel most at home, but also most disturbed, in an airport.
I know some may make the argument, just as dipping oneself into two extreme temperatures of swimming pools in succession, that exposure to multiple experiences and cultures makes one’s views more broad, and oneself stronger. Perhaps it does. But it doesn’t make the process any easier to think about, knowing those outcomes.
In reality, these concerns also exist within the space that I inhabit when I’m between homes. And in another 12 hours, these feelings will be gone as I immerse myself into one of my homes once more.