Nationhood & Belonging — A Third Culture Perspective

“Ash, you’re brave…I don’t know how I could do that”

No, I’m not. Millions of people around the world do this.

A landed immigrant who becomes a naturalized citizen. When most Canadians hear that, there is a warmth in the response — regardless of how politicized a topic immigration can get. It can be disarming, especially when the initial impression leads to a “wow, you didn’t grow up here?”. In my last article, I mentioned that I was lucky to grow up in places like Dubai, Singapore & Toronto (where I’ve spent most of my life) — where a mosaic is becoming the norm. However, there is a label attached to having lived outside of your homeland for the bulk of your life. It swerves from “immigrant” (which connotes a sense of displacement, reaching the shores of a foreign land for socio-economic reasons) to “expat” (exploring, travelling or settling in a foreign land while bringing some perceived added value).

Unconscious biases and perceptions based on the two labels

History and background play a huge role in understanding belonging & nationhood. My university happened to be in a suburb, which was in stark contrast to my experience growing up in large, dense cities. It felt like I was out of my comfort zone, like I had to find my path towards my tribe and honestly it was a humbling experience. I always had an easier time around other international students, it just felt uncomplicated. No talking about where I’m “really” from. No forced conversation with people who’d zone me out the minute they learned I didn’t grow up in a sub-urban town — a name they’d recognize. I was here by myself. At parties, gatherings and events I often felt I would have to explain my presence among a group of people that were from here, just by a virtue of not being born here. My international friends would understand body language better, tonality played a large role as we ignored each other’s accents, grammar and mispronunciation of words and laughed and talked endlessly while having substantive exchanges about each other’s backgrounds. It reminded me of the ease of which you make friends as a child, the filter-less lens from which we saw each other made the experience more rewarding.

I understood how that can be viewed from the lens of the local population, the dilemma was always present — are they adding anything of value to local culture if they aren’t fully Canadian?

This applies to any country where you arrive as an international student really. Talking to various students on campus, especially those from smaller sub-urban areas was eye-opening for me as I realized that many didn’t know why international students would journey so far to arrive here, let alone be around groups of them. I mention the sub-urban part because that felt especially foreign to me growing up — the pop culture had been exported to Asia and I’d always seen North American sub-urban culture represented as a core tenet of being North American. I understood the disconnect when I met people who grew up here, the same way I did in my growing years spent in Dubai and Singapore. Locals were used to perceiving each other in fixed and easily identifiable groups. I knew my pop culture, I had the accent, I knew the things to say — but I still didn’t belong, at least from a groupthink perspective. It’s hard to blame people for thinking like that — it happens almost everywhere, the norm has always been to assimilate into the dominant culture. That culture can often propel sense of nationalism and is strongly linked to pride, especially if neighborhoods and districts are set up based on socio-demographic factors like income, ethnicity and culture.

On the flip side, there has been a significant shift, especially in major urban areas across the globe, as cultures bind together to form an interwoven fabric. Maintaining pride in your heritage, while adopting an identity that encompasses a wider perspective is key to addressing global issues. The challenge then becomes isolating that sense of national pride, which can be so ingrained in our identities, and focusing on the bigger picture.

In a post-colonial world, it is no secret that racialized hierarchies exist everywhere. The expat is often thought of as the Westerner who can add value in other parts of the world. The immigrant, a burden — meant to be tolerated. The trick, for many TCKs who go back home for opportunities, has been to convince people that you’re the expat. It’s quite common to see many kids who come to study in North America eventually get lured back to their home country by that same desire — to enhance their value within home countries with the bounty of knowledge and experience that they have gained abroad. Many great historical figures (Gandhi comes to mind), celebrities and artists have done that — which in itself is quite patriotic. Perhaps that still lies in our future. I believe there is value in being that minority among a dominant culture sometimes, representing a part of the world that once seemed foreign and is now a fabric of this land, while learning about everyone else’s. The hard part, then, becomes identifying oneself so as to belong within a large group and stay relevant — Am I truly a patriot if others don’t recognize it?

Source: Jason Kottke

No True Scotsman

The phrase applies as a fallacious argument, an appeal to purity, especially when talking about belonging to a group and within Nationhood as a whole.

You don’t look or sound Indian
Ironically, I’ve received that both from Indians and non-Indians. It’s the curse of not speaking your own mother tongue fluently enough, so as to sound like a foreigner and for others to judge that I don’t meet the stereotype that they were expecting. I often mentioned that while trying my hand at standup (shoutout to Second City Toronto) — that I’m like a brown Oreo. You figure out that metaphor.

You have no accent
Yes, I decided to adopt an accent while in school — many kids do, especially if the goal is to “assimilate” with the larger groups. To any third culture person reading this — it’s rarely a back-handed comment. It’s usually when people from the dominant national culture realize how adaptable you’ve become. Technically, every accent belongs in a particular group — and many third culture kids swing between accents. I could go on endlessly and pick out some hilariously accurate ones, usually people respect it if you can accurately mimic without insulting their accents (believe me, I tread the line very carefully and even then I frequently disappoint).

But you’re not European, why do you support Barcelona or X sports club?
Got this one a lot — I follow FC Barcelona, I’m obviously not from Barcelona (though they embrace international fans more than many other sports clubs). People often label international fans as “plastic” — meaning that they’re fair-weather supporters, not realizing how global the sport truly is and purely ignoring the fact that anyone can be a fan of anything without having to gain validation from an arbiter of fandom.

To be culturally so pure, to fit into a mold that society has unofficially created, is near impossible. We are living in a time, especially with the pandemic ongoing, where the majority of nations and its leaders have taken an approach based on socio-cultural and ethnic identity to bring up nationalist sentiments. While in many ways that can unite people and improve local economies, the way its being done is by shunning differences and ignoring the positive effects of globalism — often at the expense of minorities, expats and new immigrants. Scapegoating is as old as time


Without mentioning party politics — we’re seeing a wave of xenophobia, protectionism, economically harmful trade policies, a lack of focus on climate change and devolving human rights across many major nations. We’re even hearing that the vaccine could be hoarded in countries to protect their own local populace, ahead of the global front-line. Despite many nations having democratic rule a two-party system ends up creating factions and divisions along ethnic, cultural and religious lines. In recent times, the prominent figures (be it politicians, celebrities or influencers in any way) of dominant nationalist culture have learned the ways of the educated middle-class people and how they mostly obtain their information — often through other relatable voices in social media. It has become their megaphone, to whisper ideas that trigger a vitriolic and often emboldened response against those who might be different from us. This isn’t news, but we have become significantly desensitized to this aspect of our lives — because we so badly want the information we receive to affirm our biases, we often search for the sacred and “pure” unbiased sources only to find out that it might not exist. Many of these countries where you’re seeing these trends have one, very united party and the opposition party is too divided to have a unified platform.

For those who live the third culture experience, pride isn’t so simple. It can never be as pure as someone who identifies with one piece of land and it’s culture. I’d wager that most TCKs that I talk to have it almost removed from their egos. That isn’t to say that the solution is to embrace each other in open arms blindly. A healthy skepticism keeps a check on society, but true representation is the logical next step. Criticism of the dominant culture can be constructive when trying to move forward and progress. If you break it down, you find more voices and a newer way to evolve.

It is only natural to have more international students, more expats, more immigrants.

We are a social and nomadic species that has roamed the earth since we can remember. Our combined genetic ancestry is closer than our perceived differences and our cultures have always evolved through exploring other parts of the world around us. People, in any piece of land, living 1000 years ago looked vastly different genetically compared to those that were around when and where I was born, they will continue to look different. The more this happens, the more economic cooperation between nations increases and borders start to look imaginary. Science has made tremendous progress, our instruments of communication have allowed us to understand our roots and so much more — we only lack the moral capacity as a society, to see that our collective future depends on cooperation and not just survival.

Open for interpretation

Sigmund Freud once said that “It is unreasonable to expect science to produce a system of ethics — ethics are a kind of highway code for traffic among mankind”.

As we traverse that metaphorical highway, science will find ways to speed up our travel and shorten those distances — we, as individuals need to find those instruments to develop that code. Developing a cohesive culture that can handle differences, that encourages individual growth and unifies around collective progress at the same time is what will take us to that next step from our ape-like pissing contests to living sustainably.
Egoistic Altruism — an explanation as to why a healthier and a more educated planet works for everyone. Grow the Pie.

The importance of social mobility as a solution

I recall taking a taxi to Toronto Pearson Airport once, and the driver asked me where I was flying to. “New Delhi,” I said, as I delighted in the thought of meeting family, feasting, drinking, and catching up. He said, “Oh, I’m from a nearby city — that’s nice, I haven’t been there in a long time.” We drove past a billboard that read: “Ontario needs more nurses & doctors,” and the driver told me that he used to be a doctor back home. How was it that I was more accepted here than him, while he had been living here for 10 years more than me? Wouldn’t it be a better use of his talents to re-train him to work in Canada’s medical field? Politics aside, it is hard enough to immigrate with your family, but to fall down the social ladder only to put the burden on the next generation to succeed is such a common story. So is this a shortage of doctors and nurses? Or a selective preference in an essential industry? Or is this protectionism at its worst? It rarely that black and white; I may be oversimplifying it — but in those moments, I can’t help but think that’s the opposite of assimilation.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development recently reported that not only are people more pessimistic about prospects of social mobility over the last couple decades but more and more people feel that there is indeed a slippery slope when it comes to their perceived social and financial status. When there is lower relative social mobility, or when you consider your position on the social ladder compared to previous generations, the two core foundational tenets of society affected the most are healthcare and education. They become commodities; unaffordable and unattainable. Privilege becomes the stock that soars, the ship that carries people into the promised land of basic safety, security, and well-being. Parents live their lives for their kids to avoid the “sticky floors,” or when there is low upward mobility from the bottom of the social ladder. Certain types of education and occupations are the only way forward — the ones that are the most in demand and often the most guarded and protected.

In my experience, most of the developed countries that I’ve been to also have a “sticky ceiling” mainly populated by the upper classes. While that may sound logically and practically sound, what’s often forgotten is how that lends to gatekeeping and protectionism. It cuts off mobility and stagnates growth as those in the upper classes fear any downgrading of their lifestyle, the possibility of having to live with less and perhaps actually working as hard as the generations before them to keep it up. What we often forget is how we define words like “developed” and “civilized.” Yes, living in a developed part of the world feels like a luxury, but why should it? History plays a huge role here. Most of what is derived in “civilized” countries has come at the expense of the rest of the world.

Where should the conversation even begin? Source: OECD

Sustainability has only become a relatively recent solution, an awakening that we cannot take our environment for granted. It’s not enough to just live off the past and hope that, with less effort and understanding, we live a life that we’re entitled to. It’s in everyone’s best interests to share commodities such as healthcare and education in order to pave the way for a more viable, shared future. There shouldn’t be a situation where someone with a medical background is forced to downgrade, especially when we’re thanking doctors for doing their jobs at such a demanding time. As individuals who have the privilege to vote and influence decisions, it all starts at the local level. Our collective conversation around immigration should be one of integration and policies need to reflect that. The conversation around nationalism shouldn’t just be about pride and purity, but about contribution. These aren’t novel ideas, just ones that stand out more as we tackle global issues like climate change and wealth inequality as a truly civilized species would. When the entire world is living through a pandemic, when we all talk about the benefits of a herd immunity — we should extend that into the conversation around inequality as well. At least that way, we’ll understand why its important for everyone (globally) to be healthy and educated, for our own good and not just within the boundaries of the countries we live in. A sense of belonging naturally comes to us when we all have common goals to achieve. Borders & political ideology are tribal — we must grow out of this to understand that these are imaginary lines drawn in our own minds.

A third culture kid perpetually journeying

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