“Would you like a biscuit?” my new school friend asked me politely. I had been at my bursary won boarding school only a few weeks. It was my first winter in the UK, and I shivered under the coat I refused to take off even indoors.
I declined the delicious looking biscuits, politely shaking my head.
“You sure?” she said and I nodded smiling. Then I watched in dismay as my new friend turned and put the biscuits away in the cupboard never to be seen for the rest of the evening. I was left horrified. Horrified and hungry.
In Turkey, the country of my childhood, when you are offered food you know to refuse it at least three times before accepting. It always returns, as a Turkish mother bustles in urging and pleading with you to eat. The refusal is a form of politeness. After a few refusals you would then be offered the tasty treats again and finally accept, proving to your host that the food was too tempting to say no to after all.
I spent the rest of that evening longing for those wonderful biscuits and I returned to my dormitory room feeling uncared for and alone in the world … biscuit-less.
No one had ever taught me this unspoken rule. I had learned it, without even realising its significance and how lost I felt without a society who followed it.
Third Culture Kids lives are dappled with moments of loss like this. Children who grow up outside their passport country, grow up forever feeling the tectonic plates of identity shifting beneath them. *
The smallest piece of social culture you don’t notice, for example saying “Thanks love,” are in fact huge cornerstones upon which your identity rests.
A Third Culture Kid lives out the entirety of their life having to lose those cornerstones, which can have a detrimental effect on their sense of security.
In Turkey I loved being able to pass by a road sweeper or a builder and sing the words, “Kolay gelsin.” Literally translated it means, “May it come easy to you,” referring to their work. A common, throwaway phrase which brings a show of respect, an honouring of their contribution – that you see them.
I remember passing a manual labourer my first few months back in the UK. I went to say, “Kolay gelsin,” but realised they wouldn’t understand. I searched my brain for a parallel English phrase but none came. None existed. I walked past that cleaner, unable to connect, having lost the ability to make a friend where once upon a time I could.
A lot of people assume it is the big loss of a country or home that creates difficulties for a Third Culture Kid, but more often it is these tiny moments compounded over years and years, until you realise your ‘culture’ no longer exists anywhere.
* The term “third culture kid” was first coined by researchers John and Ruth Useem in the 1950s, who used it to describe the children of American citizens working and living abroad.
Jay Moussa-Mann is a writer and singer-songwriter living in Teesside. Her writing has been published in Film Stories Magazine, Writing Magazine Online and Short Story Sunday. Her feature screenplay Ruth the Musical was made into a film now being distributed by VisionVideo. You can contact her on Twitter at @jbmoussa and read her articles at her website http://www.jaymoussamann.com