My late mother must have written the article about 40 years ago, for a now-forgotten English-language expat magazine in the Netherlands.
Immigrant Mum is the headline. At the time my mother was young, pretty and, she writes, ‘well-educated, reasonably dressed’. And yet, she explains, her eldest son (me) was ashamed of her because she mispronounced the rolling Dutch ‘R’.
In 1976 we had moved from London to the Netherlands for my father’s work. ‘Suddenly we were no longer poor,’ writes my mother. ‘I could offer Simon a birthday party in McDonald’s, plus a film at home. He hesitated: was it worth the potential embarrassment? I promised that I would behave, not ask too many questions and pronounce my “oo”s and “ee”s properly. Finally he agreed to invite seven eight-year-olds to our house.’
The result: ‘Shame, when they all said they had never been to that sort of party, that it was very different from their own parties.’ Then my mother got so nervous that she began speaking English, and everything fell apart.
Having grown up as a third culture kid (TCK), I’m now inflicting the experience on my children. In 2002, I moved to Paris because I found an apartment there for £60,000 (HK$608,000). Soon afterwards I met a pretty American colleague, and today we’re still there, now raising three little TCKs. It’s mostly been lovely – but from the start I have worried that TCK-dom might damage them (even more than the usual experience of family life, I mean).
Being or raising a TCK can be confusing. The usual parent-child relationship is often reversed, because the TCK has to teach the parent about the local language and culture. One day, when I was picking up my daughter (she was two) from the crèche, I asked a childminder whether Leila spoke any French yet. ‘Oh, yes,’ replied the woman. ‘The other day we were talking about cuillères (spoons) and she understood everything.’
Just then Leila toddled up from across the playroom. She had been listening in to our conversation, so that if necessary she’d be able to help out Daddy with his bad high-school French. ‘Thpoons!’ she shouted at me, by way of explanation. Thanks a bunch. By now, when I open my mouth in public, my children find me as embarrassing as I used to find my mother.
It’s also true that TCKs don’t have the simple identity that most human beings take for granted. One day this summer at a ceremony at the Panthéon (Paris’ mausoleum for great French people), my wife and children officially became French citizens. Afterwards we went to a café for croissants to celebrate, and I interviewed them about their feelings.
My daughter, now 11, said, ‘I don’t feel different at all,’ and complained that an official had spent the ceremony loudly checking the sound system. I told her that in a century, her great-grandchildren in Rio or Sofia would be desperately searching her papers for her certificate of naturalisation.
My wife hadn’t noticed any extra Frenchness either: ‘I was hoping I’d be thinner.’ One son said he felt ‘normal’, and was disappointed President Macron hadn’t come. The other son shrugged, ‘I was already French. No need to become any more French.’
That was it: they were already French, but also American and British. They could handle the complexity – and the confusion. And as TCKs they have an inbuilt advantage: because they feel at home in lots of places, they will never feel trapped. If their lives aren’t working out in one place, they can move.
This mobility angers populists. They think we TCKs belong to a rootless global elite estranged from single-culture people. British writer David Goodhart portrayed Brexit and Trump as the revenge of the ‘Somewheres’ against the ‘Anywheres’.
But my experience doesn’t feel rootless or estranged. As a TCK, every day of your life is a training session in understanding other people’s cultures. When I went to university in Britain, I found myself surrounded by single-culture Brits. I liked them. I went to stay at their houses all over the country, met their parents, watched their favourite comedy sketches with them, and acquired a love for their culture without losing my connection with my Dutch schoolfriends.
Now, at nearly 50, I’m still close to both sets of friends. We are godparents to each other’s children, and so, in a sense, have become each other’s family. I haven’t felt, with either set, that our different cultural origins ever got in the way. I feel at home not in a particular place, but in the company of particular people. That’s my ‘somewhere’.
As a child I came to accept TCK-dom after reading Judith Kerr’s semi-autobiographical children’s novel, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. It’s about a German-Jewish family that flees Berlin for Paris and then London. At one point the daughter asks her father, ‘Do you think we’ll ever really belong anywhere?’ ‘Not the way people belong who have lived in one place all their lives,’ he says. ‘But we‘ll belong a little in lots of places, and I think that may be just as good.’