A Third Culture Kid is someone who spent some of their childhood in a foreign country. They can end up not fully belonging in either the foreign nor their parents’ country. I am one and here’s how I know:
I was born in Lima, Peru, and when people ask why, I say that it was where my mother was at the time, and they laugh, which is the idea. The reason my mum was there was that she had gone to Peru to be a missionary (with my dad), and she was learning Spanish in Lima when I arrived. Three months later we went to live in Cajamarca, a town in the northern part of Peru, and, apart from nine months in Scotland when I was three, I lived there until I was seven, nearly eight.
We left Peru, partly because my parents were concerned about my schooling and didn’t want to send me away to boarding school. When I was told we were leaving, I cried a great torrent of tears. I lay on the wooden floor of my bedroom and kicked my feet and sobbed, “Mi Perú, mi Perú”, and “Collie, Collie” (our dog). My toys were given away (“Think how much the children in the children’s home will like playing with your dolls’ house,” my mother said), goodbyes were said and we left early in 1977. We arrived in Scotland in January. “Why is the sky all chugged up?” I complained, missing the clear blue Andean skies. Slowly I began the process of adapting to my new environment. My English accent, picked up from my expatriate playmates, had to go pretty quickly, and it did. I probably shouldn’t have bragged that I had eaten guinea pig, a Peruvian delicacy, a stigma that followed my through my school years. I did ok as a child, less well as a teenager, then found a wonderful group of university friends, my friends to this day, who accepted me as I was, guinea pig eater and all.
In time, Peru became something mythical, almost legendary. My childhood remained frozen in the black and white photos I pored over and the memories that I would occasionally bring out to retell, thus ensuring their endurance in my mind. I forgot my Spanish almost immediately and only learned it again as an older teenager. I was terribly conflicted when Scotland played Peru in the 1978 World Cup, a dilemma I resolved by making the flags of both countries (Peru won 3-1).
I grew up, I travelled, I befriended strangers, I tended to be friends with people with similar experiences to mine, I felt like an outsider everywhere, and yet I fitted in easily everywhere, too. I rejected the tag third culture kid until I read a book that exactly described my experience and I reluctantly accepted my status. I came to see my childhood as a blessing, not a curse, an experience that gave me perspective, that allowed me to be a writer of sorts, that helped me relate easily to people from other cultures.
But for decades, I did not return to Peru.
And then in 2004 I saw the film The Motorcycle Diaries (a young Che Guevera crosses South America with his friend) and thought, “Now it’s time to go back,” and I planned my journey, originally to both Colombia and Peru, but something – time? money? stopped me getting to Peru, and I was beguiled by Colombia, with its infinitely complex story and terrible pain, and that is where I stayed, until a Scottish friend, currently living and working in Lima, invited me to stay. After a couple of days in Lima we headed to Cajamarca to start our holiday proper.
The first night in Cajamarca I cried myself to sleep: little was familiar and I couldn’t decide if what I recognized was from photos or from my memory. I knew there was no way to know.The buildings looked back at me, dumbly. I had left no mark here, there was no seven-year-old blond child waiting for me to explain it all.
The next few days I spent outside Cajamarca, having the kind of great holiday for which Peru is justifiably famous.
When I came back I started to make contact with friends of my parents – some providentially on holiday in the area, and little by little my frozen past thawed. People who had only been names or dimly remembered, stepped forward to say, “We remember you, we remember your parents.” One family had photos of me as a baby, one taken with the grandfather of the family, and others remembered babysitting me. (Most of the members of a numerous family seemed to have cared for me at some point.) Another visitor, someone I had actually met in the intervening years was there to greet me, warmly.
Why the warmth? We do not know each other now, and yet our shared past is enough.
The mythic past became an everyday reality but it is better so. The faces in the pictures have become real people and by the wonders of technology and the casual intimacy of Facebook we can stay in touch, follow each others’ ups and downs and be connected again, after all those decades of silence.
Why did this trip mean so much to me, so much so that I spent much of it near to tears? Because it means that my life starts at the beginning, that those first eight years mattered, and not just to me. It means that I didn’t imagine or invent it all and that that part of my life which died, and it was a real death, can be resurrected to a new set of relationships and a new set of connections.
I am a third culture kid. I belong everywhere and nowhere, and that’s ok.Share this post: