help an aging third culture kid
December 15, 2016 7:13 AM   Subscribe

I'm from Country A (Asia) but have spent most of my life in Country B (the west) from the time I was quite young. In all this time, I've never felt truly at home in Country B. Country A, my home country, is where my heart is, but for a variety of practical reasons, I couldn't settle there. How do I decide where to live in the future? Is there a happy medium or will I always have to choose between what feels right and what is best from a practical point of view? Have any other Mefites ever experienced this?

I'm from Country A, an Asian country, and have had the good fortune to live and work in Country B, in the West, for many years. I feel very much at home in the West and have Western perspectives on most things. I have a fantastic network of friends in Country B, own a flat, have a good job etc. People comment on how busy I always am. I visit my home country frequently to keep up with family.

Country A, my country of origin, is a developing country. Levels of poverty, pollution, crime, terrorism etc are very high. It's also difficult to be an unmarried woman there - you're basically a second-class citizen. I know many interesting people there, but I don't have that many actual friends. It's rather a stifling existence - it's not even safe to walk around a lot of the streets by yourself. Living in Country A is a far cry from the independence, varied social life and exposure to all sorts of interesting people and culture that I enjoy in Country B. Dating is almost impossible in my home country due to the closed nature of society and how everyone knows everyone else - the single people of my age are all abroad making money, everyone in my extended circle in my home country is either too young to be married, or married with kids, and there's no such thing as an online dating culture. Living in Country A would almost certainly mean I never met someone, and I don't want that. Things function there differently - things are much less organised, and you need to 'know people' in order to get things done.

It seems like a no-brainer to move to the West and stay there, yet I just feel happier when I'm in my country of origin. Something about being in the city I grew up in gives me a sense of stability and continuity and belonging, despite the fact that in many senses (being an unmarried woman etc) I don't really fit in well with the society there. But I just feel happy at a basic almost cellular level in my home country, whereas when I'm in the West, I'm always trying to fill up my spare time with 'things' because I feel itchy and depressed if I'm alone doing nothing. I don't feel that anxiety in my home country at all. I just love my home, and it hurts to be far away from it so much of the time. It's also tough to spend so much of the year away from my family.

I lost a parent recently, which has precipitated this question in my mind. It's horrible to think of being far away from my family and losing someone else. I just don't know if I could take the plunge and move home because of the practical difficulties and the isolation and loneliness I would inevitably experience - would the sense of being 'home' be enough to make up for that? Am I not better off with my settled, full, busy life in the west? Any other Mefites who've moved countries and can help me figure out the best way forward?
posted by anonymous to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I'm in my mid-thirties and have lived overseas for my whole adult life, but in that whole time only spent a year in a developing country, the rest of the time in developed places.

I'd consider this an inportant juncture in your life, but not for the Country A/Country B choice you may think is before you.

Instead, think about these things:

- where are your people - not just family but close friends and even acquaintances?
- where are you safe? free? treated with respect?
- where is the work you like doing and are compensated fairly for? where can you learn more and become better at what you do - or easily strike out and do something new?
- where can you safely store your wealth - not just bank accounts but the property you own or the land you possess?
- where do you like waking up every day and living?

For people like us, none of these places are the same. But is there a place or two that ticks more than one of these boxes? Could you try living there for a while? No need to commit to forever home or forever away. But think about what works now and answers the most questions.
posted by mdonley at 8:04 AM on December 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

it's a commonly held truism that once you've lived in multiple cultures you never feel completely at home anywhere. it's not clear to me how much you've actually lived in A, and how much it's a "grass is greener" situation.

(but i'm sorry about the loss of your parent. imho that's the worst part of living elsewhere and it really sucks.)
posted by andrewcooke at 8:20 AM on December 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

You've only got one life so follow your heart is my standard answer to this type of question which, in fact, it is impossible to answer for someone else. Nobody knows your life and nobody can make that decision for you. We all have different perspectives and the choices we make sometime seem crazy to outsiders.

When I gave up a well paid executive position working as an expat for an international company to go back home and sweat it (and that's understating it) as a small business owner, many people told me then that I was making a huge mistake. What? Going back to Africa when so many people from the continent are dying to move to the West? But ultimately, this is what I wanted to do (go home and be my own boss) and this is what works for me.

All the same, I have lots of friends who have settled in the West and wouldn't be caught dead going back, because they think of Africa as a pit hole. Guess what, this is what works for them and who am I to disagree?
posted by Kwadeng at 8:38 AM on December 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

I don't really fit in well with the society there.

If the limitations you've talked about exist, I'd worry about how things felt in a few years - and more importantly, what options would be available to you. Maybe you could carve a space for yourself, widen the role you'd be ascribed, as a single woman (start a business, perhaps? Take on community responsibilities that would give you more reach in social networks?) - but it'd be against significant social pressure, I'd imagine. You'd probably still need help from those in power (because if you've been away for years, you probably don't have a solid grasp of the nuances involved in getting things done).

have Western perspectives on most things.

I'd wonder if this might hurt your efforts to adjust.

If you want to be married, from what you're saying, that might not be likely. What else would you be giving up for belonging and comfort? What's the best case scenario? What's the worst? Would the community embrace you, or would people your age mostly retreat to take care of their own interests (which is what happens with most people with families, anywhere, just because of time constraints, if nothing else)? Would you be pitied? Would you end up taking care of your remaining parent, and then left on your own?

I don't know anyone who's immigrated who doesn't feel homesick. For most, the security and stability of life in the adopted country is enough to mitigate it. (Usually they have kids, that's another rationale for staying.) And as you say, they change enough to not really fit back home, either. It's a pain they live with and eventually get used to. (Though I know a few who've bought homes in their countries of origin and return whenever they can, or end up retiring there.)

Do you know many people from your country of origin in country B? Might it help to deepen those kinds of connections, get involved in organizations related to your culture? You might find commonality and understanding there.

when I'm in the West, I'm always trying to fill up my spare time with 'things' because I feel itchy and depressed if I'm alone doing nothing.

I think some of this might have to do with Western culture (so many of us feel it), but maybe a big part of it is about being single? Not everyone enjoys living alone (including people who've grown up with solidly individualistic values). What might things be like if you had a partner where you are? Could you put more energy into working towards that goal?

would the sense of being 'home' be enough to make up for that?

My guess - in the long run, probably not...

Am I not better off with my settled, full, busy life in the west?

I would say, probably, by objective measures. Maybe, with some changes, it could feel less bad.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:56 AM on December 15, 2016

I'm an American, but I grew up in an insular and extremely socially conservative rural area of a "red" state and moved away to a big coastal city to attend university. I never looked back and have spent my entire adult life living in major cities where a liberal outlook, open attitude to social life, and assumed equality among all people tends to be the rule. Also, like, we have Thai restaurants and yoga studios and bookstores and other things you just can't get in the remote rural area where I grew up. Public schools here are good, resources for families are plentiful, and there are world-class cultural opportunities that I'd love to expose my future children to.

When I visit home, things feel "right" in a way that they don't in the city where I live now. I don't like the values that come along with that part of the country, and, if I were to move back, there would be immediate practical problems that would make my life qualitatively worse. It would also be a politically, morally, and culturally bankrupt place to raise a child. Even though I don't feel any particular love for my current city, staying there is obviously better than permanently moving back.

So... I feel you. I'll never really belong here, but I can't return there, either.

One thing that has worked for me was finding a place to live that was somewhat of a compromise. I spent 12 years living in New York City, and while I loved living there, the winters were cold, the days were short and dark, and the local culture didn't mesh that well with my way of relating to the world. I had to make a lot of compromises every day in order to enjoy living there. So I moved cities, to a place that met more of my criteria for what I was looking in a place to live while still having all the "liberal bubble" and "big city life" features of New York. For me it was enough sunshine that I don't get suicidal from SAD every year, but maybe for you it's a nearby ethnic enclave which sells the foods and products you grew up with, or an air hub that makes frequent visits home affordable. Is there a way of having a little bit of both cultures, or a few really key things you miss from your home country?
posted by Sara C. at 10:45 AM on December 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Your country of origin sounds a lot like mine. I moved to the United States from Sri Lanka when I was a teen, for college, and never moved back. Thanks to extended family here, and being in college and subsequently grad school, I assimilated pretty well. I now have a large network of friends, am more familiar with my state (California) than the city I was raised in, and could never imagine moving home.

Unlike you, I don't feel happy when I visit my home country, and my parents visit me often enough that I don't miss seeing them. Like you, however, there was a time when I did feel like I didn't identify with being "western" quite as much as if I'd been born here. Sure, my attitudes, perspectives, opinions, and habits are mostly far from those of my conservative family's, and people are surprised when I tell them I wasn't born and raised here. There have definitely been times and places in which I felt a bit... lost. Unsure of what I should say or do, or if what I was saying or doing was appropriate. I also missed having friends that identified with the sort of childhood I had, because it wasn't too similar to that of a typical American kid.

The last time I felt this was about three years ago. Since then, I've met my fiance, and we've brought a son into this world. For the first time in about twenty years I don't miss that feeling of home or extended family because I've created my own. Some of the traditions I grew up with are being incorporated into my son's upbringing. The three of us celebrate Sri Lankan cultural occasions as well as American ones. I've been able to recreate the aspects of my home that I miss into this new home and family I now have.

I don't mean any of this to cause you discomfort, but the point I'm trying to illustrate is that I stopped missing my home and family when I started my own family. Home, for me, is now here with my fiance and son. I know one does not just go out and get oneself a significant other/ child on a whim, but this is my story, as anecdata.

There's another example of a friend I grew up with. We left for college at the same time, only she went to Scotland. Our subsequent outlooks were pretty similar. She remains single, but recently moved back to Sri Lankan to take care of an aging mother. Many of her friends told her not to, and to move her mother to Scotland instead. It took her almost a year to adjust - find a job, get in touch with some other friends we grew up with. At first, she regretted her decision almost immediately and was desperate to find another job overseas and move. That wasn't so easy and she's now more settled, but... the Western perspectives and lifestyle she got used to will never leave her. We talk almost daily and she tells me she misses living in Europe, and is determined to make her way back. And that's where I'd be worried for you. With your friends and family moving on if you were to move back, you may find a life in your Asian country stifling because of the cultural differences that are inherent between that country and your own mentality.

From one immigrant to another, I wish you all good luck. Ultimately, I would never recommend going back to one's home country, but again, you have to do what's best for you. Just... make sure you think long-term.
posted by Everydayville at 11:10 AM on December 15, 2016 [8 favorites]

I also want to say that my friend's compromise is to move to Australia, which is closer to home and has a large Sri Lankan population. Perhaps that would be an option for you - a Western country that is closer to your home country and has a well-assimilated population of your native folk.
posted by Everydayville at 11:17 AM on December 15, 2016

Boy, I really feel for you with this question. On a different day, I might have written it. I moved from India to the US when I was 21, meaning I've spent nearly 10 years here. When I came here, it wasn't intended to be a permanent move - I was always outward focused and adventurous, so I jumped at the chance to study in a different country. But one year turned into five, five years into ten and here I am. Growing up, while my own family and social circle was extremely liberal and open-minded (at least relatively speaking, but also in an absolute, global sense), the country as a whole was not there yet. So at first, I felt that I fit really well into the culture here (especially since that culture at first was a university town with a ton of international people). I've always had plenty of friends and a lively social circle. With everyone being from somewhere else, it was easy to "fit in" in grad school. I eventually met and married a guy who is not from India, but not from the US either, and we had very similar perspectives (also a Third Culture Kid, spent part of childhood outside of home country, not religious, not very attached to home country etc. etc.).

Moving away from the university town has complicated matters to a degree - the new city I'm in (Boston), though big enough for all kinds of people, has more people with roots in the area. I've been here three years now, and in the same three years, my three remaining grandparents died. I was lucky enough to visit often, and have my parents visit often, but there's a fundamental gap that remains tough to bridge. For the first time, I've found myself longing for home.

You mention how your single status complicates matters - but frankly, so does my married status. At least here in the US my husband and I are on neutral territory; in India, he would be dependent on me/my family to get many things done, because you need to know people to get things done there as well. He's also white - Indians have a complicated relationship to white people - they are generally treated very well, sometimes even embarrassingly so, but they will also never, ever fit in completely, just because there are so few people in India who are not Indian and who grew up there. In some ways, I envy your ability to just move back for a while if you wanted to. I think I probably would have post-Trump if it weren't for my husband and our newly bought condo. We are talking about finding ways to work there for a year, to test the waters. He can take a sabbatical, I could try to work from there for the same company I'm in (which is multinational). Is that something you could explore? Try to find a way to spend a year or two back "home"? That way you can see how much of what you imagine is reality and how much fantasy.

One thing I'll also note - most of the time I spend in India is while I'm on vacation. Vacation is inherently different time - you don't have to get things done, time moves more slowly. I've heard plenty of stories about terrible bosses and crazy work hours to know that working there would be very different. I've also never really been an adult in my home country - I've never had to do all the practical boring things you have to do as an adult, and thus I have a rosier view of what people spend there time on. I guess my advice boils down to: find a way to explore what it would really be like to live there (on a permanent basis, not on vacation), and see how you feel. For those of us who feel torn between multiple places, there often isn't a perfect solution.
posted by peacheater at 11:24 AM on December 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

Could you move to Country A for a trial run, keeping your ties in the West? Say, 6 months to a year, test it out.

Or perhaps there's a city in Country B with a large population of Country A'ers. Maybe you need to be surrounded by more people who "get it."

Can you visit home more often?
posted by fritillary at 4:08 PM on December 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'd like to suggest that it doesn't have to be an either/or choice, or at least not yet. I like a lot of fritillary's ideas.

You will probably always have ties to both countries. There's a lot of ways to turn that to your advantage:

- live in one country but visit the other very often (for example to visit family)
- live in either country in an expat community
- choose a job that serves both countries or sends you on business trips often (since you said Country A is a developing nation, humanitarian or medical work could be relevant here, or working in a multinational corporation)
- choose a job that gives you long periods of time off (teaching comes to mind) and use that to spend 1-2 months at a time in your country of choice
- choose a job that makes you location-independent (such as many computer/tech jobs) and use that to live in either or both countries

You also don't have to decide right now where you're going to live for the rest of your life. You could go to one country and try out the settled-down life, see how it feels, see how it's working for you, but at the same time give yourself permission to change your mind if you feel like it later on down the road. Just making the attempt could be very important and satisfying.

Rereading your question, it sounds like your current life gives you busyness but not necessarily satisfaction. Would your life be more meaningful if you were living in your country of origin? That's a complicated question. Meaning comes from within; I'm not sure it's just a matter of changing location. There's a lot wrapped up there in notions of familiarity, family, belonging, community, stability, continuity, home...

It seems like you value your country of origin as a familiar, comforting place, especially since you still have family there. It might feel meaningful to 'come home' to that country, but that's different from feeling like your life as a whole is meaningful. (And you can still 'come home' to that country, even if you don't live there. Home can be more than one place, and it can be not a place at all, but something more visceral like identity/community/belonging.)
posted by danceswithlight at 7:37 PM on December 15, 2016

I am also a third culture kid, having moved abroad 10 years ago. But I have lived in 3 different Western countries, and I know what it means to settle down and move and resettle.

Firstly, a country is not a city. A single country is wildly diverse and cities are very different from one another. I love country X, but I would be unhappy living in several of X's cities. Maybe there is a city in Country A that you could be happy in.

Secondly, how I feel about a given place differs in Year 1 compared to Year 3 to Year 5. How you feel about a given place will vary as you hit certain milestones. Also, cities can change a lot. Presidents change and immigration laws change.

Thirdly, I wholeheartedly agree you on the parents issue. I love my mom dearly and wish she could live with me here. I haven't figured out the answer to this.

Moving back for a year or two might be the correct decision for you. I don't think a long term move would make you happy.
posted by kinoeye at 8:35 PM on December 15, 2016

I'm so sorry to hear about your parent. That sounds tough, and I can totally see why you'd want to stay closer to your family at this time.

What you describe here could be homesickness, for which the cure would 100% be going home and making a life for yourself there in the city that you know and have history with and that is where your family lives and dealing with whatever inconveniences you must in order to be where you feel at home.

HOWEVER, from the way you have described it, this could also very well be what all of the former military brats I know (including me) call "the itch".

YMMV, but in my experience, scratching that "going home" itch might soothe you initially, but once the novelty of moving has worn off and the glow of being HOME AGAIN HOME AGAIN starts to dim, you could very well find yourself deep in "familiarity breeds contempt" territory.

And if you gave up friends and a good job and a flat you liked and a dating pool to move back to this place? Which, by your own admission, has a great deal of drawbacks and not a lot of upsides? I would imagine that the backlash could be all the stronger if/when it hits.

Story time!

My family was stationed in Hawaii from when I was 7 to 12 years old. Though I'd lived other places before and neither of my parents were from there, this was effectively "home" for me. I was raised there, my friends were there, I knew the rules, and I liked the food.

But I'd spent enough time on the mainland with my grandparents and knew enough about living there that when we got the news that we were transferring to a new duty station back on the mainland, I was initially SO STOKED. All of the things that I knew the mainland had and Hawaii didn't would be at my fingertips once more!

And then we moved and I stayed stoked...for like three months.

It was the usual TCK deal, only way milder, I expect--my cultural mores were not the same as in my new location and I suddenly had to learn all of this new cultural context, I was eating new foods and learning new words and starting to miss my old foods and old words, etc. etc. I liked the new place well enough, but it just wasn't MY place, ya know? (Yes, I suspect you do.)

So when I found out a year or so later that we were getting stationed BACK in Hawaii?

OMG. THRILLED. Couldn't wait. Could NOT wait. We were going HOME, thank goodness.

And we got back and we got settled and I was TOTALLY STOKED to be back where I belonged again.

...for, like, a year.

And then, wouldn't you know it, all of the reasons why I was happy to leave in the first place started creeping back in. All of the minor and major inconveniences that I had glossed over with my nostalgia-vision were starting to become more and more noticeable again.

And I made friends, and I continued to enjoy all of the things I'd missed and loved about home before, but when the years passed and my parents were getting stationed in a new place again?

OMG. Stoked. Let's go. Smell ya later, Hawaii, ya traffic-ridden nightmare rock where concerts never tour! HELLOOOOO new place!

Aaaaand fast forward to today and I still get homesick for Hawaii from time to time, despite not having been back in years at this point. I will still occasionally lose a few hours plotting how I might realistically move back there before remembering all of the reasons why I was happy to leave in the first place and reminding myself of all of the things that I love about where I live now. (Heck, sometimes I do that for random cities that I just think are cool--my way of scratching "the itch" in a way that doesn't involve me ACTUALLY moving.)

So, that's my story. Do with it what you will.

FWIW, I like fritillary's suggestions for finding a happier medium. Is there a city or region in Country B where there is a higher concentration of residents who also have strong ties to Country A? Or is there a city or region in Country A that might be a little more relaxed in terms of the more rigid social mores in your home city? If you're wanting to find a place that combines the best of both worlds, that might be a good compromise.

Best of luck! Whatever you choose, I'm sure you will find a way to make it work for you. :)
posted by helloimjennsco at 11:31 AM on December 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

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