“What’s your background?”. That’s a loaded question, bud.
I’m a proud third culture kid.
It has taken me a while to fully appreciate what that means. At first, I imagined it was a sort of luxury and a privilege, based on how much of the world I was able to see — but its way beyond how many flights you’ve been on and hotels that you’ve lounged in. Third culture mentality is a mind set that can help us all at a time like this.
We aren’t some cult where everyone has similar tribal tattoos, we don’t nod our heads when we recognize each other in a crowd or sell multi-level marketing schemes where you have to buy vitamins and spoons (yeah, that one is oddly specific because I almost did that to get some money in university). Third culture kids have glimpsed at something that is becoming increasingly common knowledge — systemic inequality is a global issue. Racism is born of that systemic inequality.
The journey to third culture starts with curiosity
I was born in India, in New Delhi — at the time my parents lived there, though both were from the state of Punjab. Punjab has had a huge influence in the Indian Sub-Continent. It’s culture is vibrant, proudly agrarian and rich in art, music, and much more. The Punjabi language is poetic with its origins in the Indo-European family, the food is glorious, the people are ethnically quite diverse, and it was the birthplace and/or sanctuary for various religions and cultures. My family up-bringing has very much ingrained Punjabi culture within me. As my family traveled, my dad got a job in Dubai — which was such a stark comparison to my experience in New Delhi. Dubai was (and to a large extent, still is) primarily run by new immigrants and I was thankful to my parents that I had a working faucet of hot water, that the electricity didn’t cut, that air conditioning (which is highly needed in a desert like Dubai) was omni-present. Delhi is no longer that place now, it has seen so much more improvement in many ways. Though Dubai was this metropolis, it had its shady race-based hierarchy that I was largely oblivious to at that age. My expectations of my own childhood were spoiled by the possibility that it could continue to get better — and it did.
After a few years, we moved as a family to Singapore. A true meritocracy. A place where I had my foundational years and what an experience it was. I went to an ‘International School’ (a private school for expat kids — it was the only way I would be able to get my education recognized outside Asia). Seeing kids from all over the world (100+ countries) represented in my school was overwhelming yet thoroughly exciting as colours and languages were celebrated as if it were the norm. Singapore has 4 national languages — English, Mandarin, Malay & Tamil, which represents it’s diaspora quite well. By the age of 10, I was fluent in Hindi & English with limited vocabulary in Arabic (from my school in Dubai — where it was mandatory to learn) and French (which I was learning at school in Singapore). At my school in Singapore, kids would hold that as a badge of honor — the number of languages they could speak. It was honestly, pretty cool to see at that age and I was proud to be one of those very kids. We had things like UN night, a sort of ceremony where we’d celebrate unity, where we would hold a different country’s flag and walk it to the podium. We’d indulge in various sports, art, and history — which increasingly made me curious about different parts of the world. Sometimes, through just banter and conversation, I’d get feel like I was traveling to Sweden, France, Australia, Japan simply due to the excitement kids had about knowing about each other’s cultures. It’s hard to organically create that environment, where curiosity becomes a virtue. Yes, I had to deal with my share of racism and bullying (that’s for another time), but the experience of having a close circle of friends from all corners of the world (without diluting it to fit into a mold of any sort) felt really unique. Felt like this is the way the world should be. Free of judgement based on an outdated social hierarchy established way before our time.
This isn’t some Crazy Rich Asians shit…
People have a whack idea of what Singapore must be. No there aren’t grandiose weddings out in open courtyards and 5000 sq ft. mansions where the cars park themselves. It really is a melting pot. Very similar to Toronto, where I live now — where segregation is increasingly less common and a mosaic of union is more the norm. A hawker center where people of all walks of life can get a world-class, and even a michelin star meal, for under $10 (with a nice cold beer included) is a classic example of this.
Yes, there is a growing upper class in China & India and other South East Asian nations, but guess which demographic is still the majority rich elite/upper class expats globally? Ding ding ding! That’s right, white people — namely, Westerners (I make this distinction for my Eastern European friends who typically get offended when I lump them in with other white people). Western culture has exported it’s brand of systemic racism to many nations around the world and the geo-politics of each region (the west. vs. china, for example) deeply affects how people perceive other cultures. The hierarchy gets set, as you begin to realize that no matter where you go, whether it is Hong Kong, Kenya, Thailand or Switzerland — the rich elite set the narratives for societal divisions.
I saw how people treated migrant labourers back in India. It was eerily similar in Dubai, in Singapore, in Cambodia, in Indonesia and the list goes on. The social pyramid is almost pre-determined by a superficial identifier within the demographics — caste, creed, religion, occupation race etc. We are quickly desensitized by how so many of the things that we’ve come to love in terms of material possessions, are mostly made through someone else’s suffering. Its the same way I see how black and brown people often get treated in the US and the indigenous population in Canada. The Black Lives Matter movement resonates globally for a reason: you’re seeing the rise of an oppressed group of people who had been continuously denied the resources to mobilize and enter the privileged classes. The very corporations that employed the expat kids’ parents where I grew up, where they were able to enjoy the opulent luxuries in a bubble, were the same organizations that participated in the hazing and burning of forests in Indonesia, the financing of commodity warfare in the middle-east, protecting offshore tax havens and much more. This isn’t news by any means — its just so similar here in North America and also in Europe. The haves and the have-nots, the pattern of struggle is very predictable almost anywhere in the world. The wealth gap, world-wide, is the largest its ever been. Oxfam reported that the richest 1% in the world have more than twice as much wealth than 6.9 billion people. It is not surprising, to me as someone of third culture, to see how uncannily similar racism can be here in North America compared to Asia. It’s quite easy to see that we’re all playing a part in this mess, knowing that it is socio-economic is a start and knowing that the root of it lies in addressing the global wealth gap is definitely a step forward.
So, why are you here?
I always get asked that a lot. I noticed that first hand when my colleagues at various jobs I’d worked at would refer to brown people as immigrants, where as that guy with the British accent is an “expat”. Huh, whaddaya know. I knew that in order to stand proud of who I am and where I come from, I’d have to bear the struggle any immigrant faces entering a new country and educate people whenever they showed any curiosity to learn. All this adjusting does take it’s toll, you can be deemed as an outsider by everyone. This is the true cost of being a third-culture kid. You’re curious enough to learn about the world and embrace it’s diversity, yet the majority of this world identifies with a home land, a state, a city. I, thanks to my family, had many homes. I knew this would eventually become an advantage, I knew being a third-culture kid was the real anti-dote to any kind of supremacy.
By the time I left for university to Canada, I was a bit more mature in my approach. I had enough distance from my high school years to recognize that I should be owning who I am a bit more. The questions I encountered frequently were: “Why Canada?”, “What is Singapore?”, “No way, you’re Indian?”, “You don’t have an accent at all?” — okay those last two were facetious comments disguised as questions, but they often felt like questions because I felt I had to answer them to let people know I belonged. I’ve learned now, after this has finally become a mainstream topic, that this was subtle racism all along. Except, its not so subtle when you have to constantly deal with it. There’s always a chip on your shoulder when you have to explain yourself to people and soon enough, you end up feeding the very stereotypes you’re against. It takes a lot of discipline and energy to drown that noise out, ignore the ignorance and move on. Yet, we’re expected to do this everyday. I wish I could just say that I’m from Orangeville, Ontario — but my story is way more complex. Chances are, most people’s stories are. If yours isn’t, you need to learn about your very own family and how they established themselves. Our histories are interconnected and the only thing that makes us all more interesting to each other is our curiosity to get to know our backgrounds and where we come from — this very curiosity leads to establishing a diverse culture, one we frequently see in a city like Toronto.
An antidote worth spreading
Anthony Bordain once said “Travel is fatal to prejudice” and I believe that segregation and gentrification is fatal to diversity. Diversity isn’t just a hashtag or a box to check, it is a badge of pride. Diversity is difference of opinion, knowing where that opinion truly comes from and understanding the cultural roots of it. Curiosity, as I mentioned, is essential in learning about others — it is fueled by emotional intelligence. There are no degrees in curiosity or EI, in fact, one of the most important measurable outputs is cultural reform. In fact, anyone who is truly a Third Culture Kid will know this. They have had friends and best friends from all over the world, from different walks of life, from different backgrounds and that very fact is the reason they are who they are. The ethos is always one of embracing an uncomfortable truth — there is a lot less that divides us, compared to what unites us.
The definition of “Third Culture Kids” unofficially is “individuals who are raised in a culture other than their parents’ or the culture of their country of nationality, and live in such an environment during a significant part of their early development years”. Many of us, around the world — in fact, the majority of people who aren’t in the elite ruling classes can be put under this category. We’re often placed in the presence of other cultures, learning which is dominant in different parts of each city, state and country. Adopting a culture often makes you keenly aware of your own identity and belonging, those of your parents and family in relation to the larger world. It allows us to see the bigger picture instead of squabbling about in our tribal understanding of each other. If you made it this far and you haven’t frowned in confusion and disagreement, there is hope after all!