Friday, February 19, 2010

Expat Explorations

The term "third culture kid"refers technically to kids who live in a culture outside of their own long enough that they incorporate elements of that culture into their lives. My beautiful and smart cousins Kirsten and Shannon are third culture kids. My aunt and uncle raised their girls in Cairo, while keeping an American culture within the home. Even as an expat myself, it is curious for me to see them post on Facebook from the states that they are "going home" for the holidays, home being Cairo, Egypt.

I have been thinking about this topic quite a bit since I started reading this blog and was asked some expat mommy questions for this blog. To be honest, I really don't think about my expatriate status, since my life is pretty normal, well, at least I consider it to be. I get up, go through a typical routine of getting the boys and myself ready for school, head off to work, come home, whip up dinner, spend time with the family, hit the hay and do it all over again. We mix it up on the weekends, but the day begins and ends in the same manner, seven days a week. Taking the term from my friend L's shoes, a pair of Keen hybrids, I have been calling my boys hybrids for some time now, but that was more of a joke about the state of their parents. Then I saw A use the word hybrid as a term to describe people living on the crossroads of culture, and I began to think about it.

Our boys aren't third culture kids, they are half American and half Turkish: hybrids. Which means that we have a hybrid household. Both English and Turkish is spoken in our home and while my Turkish still leaves a lot to be desired, we have a hybridized way of communicating. I didn't realize this until recently when my Turkish classmates were in stitches as I was trying to explain the traditions of winter solstice to our Turkish teacher. I couldn't figure out what was so darn funny, but I soldiered on only to elicit more giggles. The gigglers later explained that I would insert random English phrases into Turkish sentences like it was normal. I honestly didn't even know I was doing it. But then I started paying attention to the language spoken in our home, and realized that that is what is normal for us. I almost always say, "are you bitti?" when asking the boys if they are finished with something. Ali and Omer sometimes mix the rules for pluralizing words (s for English and lar, ler for Turkish) Can I have my eldivens please?. Or they speak in English, but use Turkish words like, "mommy, can you kes this?" or "The abis took it." When somebody compliments me on my cooking, I always say afiyet olsun. It is the same with gecmis olsun and I can't imagine not saying these phrases to a compliment on my cooking or to someone who has been sick.

We have a way that we do things in our home that goes beyond language that isn't necessarily American or Turkish. It is something new we created, a third culture really, something that is special and unique to our family that our families of origin might only vaguely recognize.

Another component that shapes our hybridity, is the expat community that we live within. Expats are a different creature that retain their home culture, yet morph with other cultures. This influence seeps into our home culture by means of ethics, politics, words, food, traditions, humor, music, travel, etc. It is pretty cool when I think about it, as we have some pretty interesting people in our lives.

On the day-to-day running of things, I still don't feel all that different than what I imagine my friends back in North America feel. I remember my first week in Guatemala, as a young, green teacher newly out in the world, I asked a colleague what it was like to live in Guatemala. She told me that it really wasn't all that different on a day-to-day basis than the life she lived in Canada. She got up, went to work, came home, hit the gym, made some dinner, maybe hung out with some friends, and was right back at it the next day. As a keen, but naive budding expat, I thought to myself, how lame, I am going to make so much more of my time here. But she was right, my life was and is pretty routine, and I do a lot of the same things people are doing back in North America. Sure, we can hop in the car and 40 minutes later be strolling around ancient Constantinople, or catch a ferry in Asia and a glorious sea breeze refreshed 20-minute trip later, we are in Europe. We can also hop a 55 minute flight and be on the Mediterranean coast, but that is normal here, and normal for the people who have always called this land home.

I think a part of why I don't feel like an expat is because I have made a life here, outside of my home country. This past fall I felt more like a foreigner when I was in Washington State, the homeland, where I hadn't been for quite a few years. I stopped living in the US when Clinton was in office and the past five summers we have spent in Nova Scotia. I was surprised how the money had changed, products were different, the way of life was different, and even the people seemed a bit different. I realized when I was at the local grocery store check out that it was me who was different. I was rifling around for my debit card, and must have been obvious, or taking too long, because the cashier looked up at me, paused and said, "you aren't from around here, are you dear?" My reply, "well, I used to be." This of course caused confusion, compounded by my revelation that I lived in Turkey. Don't get me wrong, I easily slipped right back into being just another American when I was home, and by looking at me people of course didn't know I had flown 6,000 miles to be there, leaving an entire life on the other side of the Atlantic, but I surely felt it in the small things. I was a different person in the same place, eleven years later.

I often get the question "what is it like to live in Turkey?" and because I have been here so long, I have a hard time answering that question. A truly sad part about living abroad for an extended length of time is the loss of magic. Sure, I still dig the Grand Bazaar and the ancient sites around Istanbul, a city I still find amazing. Yes, I still get excited when we plan a trip to a new place, but it isn't that same feeling of excitement, adventure and wonder that I had on my first flight across the Atlantic. I remember waking up and looking down to see the patchwork quilted farmland of France, or flying over the glorious snow capped Alps for the first time. It was such a magical, amazing feeling. Traveling for us has become second nature, and while I still thoroughly enjoy it, look forward to it and need it, it doesn't have the same enchantment that it did before, which makes me a little sad when I think about it.

So, I have thought about it. Being an expat does seem pretty interesting when I ponder it enough to write this blog post. However, I know that as soon as A and O come in from the yard, covered in mud and hungry for dinner, this curious life I am talking about will be gone from my landscape, only to be rediscovered here. And that is OK. I am pretty content with my normal life.


  1. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  2. Didn't someone say, Home is where the heart is?

  3. And yours is always in the right place.

  4. I know exactly what you mean, I have been living here for long enough that I don't feel like an expat (for the first 5 years perhaps yes). When I visit the US (will be there next week in fact) I have this Middle Eastern habit of staring at people I don't know- when taking a walk for example. I never realized this until I noticed people's reaction- they get flustered and ask "do I know you" or quickly say hello, thinking perhaps they do. It is quite funny- Also the personal space is usually much bigger in the States, a km or so ;-)