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  • Writer's picturePaul

Growing Up Among Worlds

Traffic passes in front of a mural at the Ecuador-Peru border. The mural, painted by Venezuelan migrants refugees, reads "Dreams Without Borders" in Spanish.

Where are you from?

You’ve probably asked countless people this question. It’s one of the go-to small-talk questions. But I wonder if you are aware that for some people, it can be one of the most difficult questions to answer?

I had never heard of a “third culture kid”, a “cultural chameleon”, or a “global nomad” – even though I am all of these things – until earlier this year when I was browsing a bookstore in central Brussels. One book caught my eye, sticking out, looking slightly out of place.

The book was Third Culture Kids, by David C. Pollock and Ruth van Reken. I didn’t understand the title, so it was really the subtitle that caught my attention: “Growing up among worlds”.

This resonated with me. In ten of my most formative years – from ages nine to nineteen – I lived at at least ten different addresses in three countries. I traveled almost constantly, and often alone. I became used to a life of going and coming back.

I learned valuable things: how to thrive in new places, how to connect with people very different from myself, how to cherish a moment and how to say a real goodbye. But even though I knew that I was privileged to see so much of the world so young, even though I knew that my experiences would stand to me, still there was one nagging question that I would ask again and again, and that would torment my parents – and myself:

Where is home?

I always felt like the odd one out. Fortunate, yes, but also confused. Independent, definitely, but also uprooted. I could hold my own in conversation with a stranger from half-way across the globe, but I couldn’t recognise a Father Ted reference. Was I even Irish?

In Third Culture Kids I re-encountered my younger self in the written recollections of others who have had similar childhoods. These testimonies are scattered throughout the more academic chapters of the book, which expertly examine the psychological and social impact of a physically and culturally mobile childhood.

But it was through the personal stories and interviews that I began to finally gain something like power over those long-dreaded questions about place, identity, and home.

The personal recollections I read in Third Culture Kids did not merely remind me of my own experiences. Instead I felt like someone had reached into my mind, watched my memories, and was now describing them back to me in their own words.

Squirming when someone asks the most basic yet hopelessly complicated question, “So, where are you from?”

Sitting in an airplane, taking off, feeling confused about why I was sad to be going “home".

Navigating a new culture without knowing the names for things (as a displaced nine-year-old I once asked my American teacher for a “rubber” and saw her jaw hit the floor).

This isn’t a review so much as a personal reaction. Reading Third Culture Kids felt to me like some kind of revelation: words and ideas to understand myself in a way I had always been searching for but never quite managed on my own. It helped me to realise that my experience was not abnormal, but instead was known and understood, had been shared by others, had been named and even studied.

It’s hard to fully express the catharsis this enabled me to feel. I spent a lot of my teenage years longing for a “normal” life – to live in the same country as my parents, under the same roof, to go to a local school. Third Culture Kids helped me to see that I did, in fact, have a normal childhood – just not the same as that of the kids I grew up around, nor even of most of my siblings.

“Somehow that sense of normalcy is very liberating”, the authors write in one of the book’s later chapters. I felt that way from the moment I read the first testimony on the first page.

There and back again, or…

An Irish photographer with a Polish name in Belgium. That’s me in a nutshell now. Variations of that description have been in my social media bio for years.

I keep my bio short for the sake of style, I suppose, but it omits so many of the places I feel connected to.

America, where I lived for eight years. Australia, where I had my first real taste of independence. Germany, where my wife comes from and where my in-laws are. Other places I’m connected to in various ways – Switzerland, South Sudan, the Netherlands and others – always, always, going and coming back.

And that going and coming back – that, too, is named in the book. That’s “expected repatriation” – when patterns from childhood become a sort of assumption that this is how your life is: you go, and you come back.

Only now that I have a name for this pattern, I can see that it is just an assumption, that going and coming back is not something automatic, that I can make choices about where to live, and what kind of life to have.

I haven’t just ended up in Brussels. Work brought me here, like so many others. But I felt at home almost straight away. I used to wonder why that was – but I understand now. Brussels is multicultural, beautifully and magnificently so, and multicultural is my normal. Life here doesn’t have to be temporary. I can choose Brussels because it feels like home. And I have.

Here, I’m not the only one with a name that doesn’t match my accent. I’m not the only one with a partner from another country. I’m not the only one who moved abroad as a kid, whose family are somewhere else, whose cultural environment has been constantly shifting in the background of their life.

Where am I from? Ireland – but it’s a long story. Where’s home? Brussels.

There is a lot more to say. The third culture experience has shaped me in ways that I’m still figuring out. The people and stories that I connect with. My worldview and the issues that have driven my career. The similarities and differences with other - often less privileged - experiences of migration, and its effects on forming an identity. Third Culture Kids touches on these things, introduces some intersectionality, but there is much more still to be written – way too much for this post.

I’m starting to explore these insights through my photography. I see Brussels and the people around me anew. I want to meet diverse people who’ve grown up cross-culturally or third-culturally and who've made this city home. I want to listen, and work with them to capture something of their stories through my lens.

Along with Third Culture Kids, these explorations are inspired by the wonderful Subjective Atlas of Brussels, in which several of the contributors address similar questions, as well as Afropean by Johny Pitts – who masterfully explores cross-cultural Afro-European identities in both pictures and words – and New to the Parish, by my extremely talented friend and colleague Sorcha Pollak (see here for some of my work with Sorcha about Venezuela refugees in Peru).

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