A Suitcase Full Of Homes

Privileged, sheltered yet somewhat displaced

MUMBAI, INDIA — In elementary school a lot of us joined the choir; we were taught a lovely Samoan nursery rhyme called ‘O Le Pepe’ by Ester Temukisa and Laban-Alama. The song goes ‘Va’ai I le Pepe, Va’ai I le pepe’ inviting us to see the butterfly as it flies and flutters about (E lelelele solo, ma fa’apepepepe’). Listening to this song almost 15 years later, in a country different to the one I was born and raised in, I seemed to resonate with it more. Identifying with the butterfly, the song goes on to say ‘E pei se manulele, E pei se manulele, mania on a lanu ese ese’ which means like a bird, colourful and beautiful. I remember, singing this song at an International Day at our school, with the rest of the choir. A choir comprising of more than half of the worlds nationalities, yet all sung in harmony. I came home and would sing it much after the international day was over. I loved it even though I wasn’t quite sure of what to make of it at the time.The last part of the song, actually was my favourite ‘E lele i i , Ma lele i o, Ae leai, leai se pa’o’ which means it flies here and there but doesn’t make a sound at all. Often times, as kids surrounded by an international community, we fail to realise the sounds we make or the voices we have. As butterflies of the world, we flutter around the globe, picking up and leaving our little bread crumbs, in each and every corner.

Ever heard of the phrase “living out of a suitcase”?, well for some it’s more than just a phrase, it’s a lifestyle, and it’s one that some of us, Third Culture Kids (TCK’s), inevitably consider home.

American sociologist, David Pollock defines us TCKs as “a person who has spent a significant part of his or her development years outside the parents culture. He explains that we, “the TCK frequently build relationships to all of the cultures which may be assimilated into the TCKs life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationships, to others of similar background.”

We are also often defined as “placeless”, or to be more specific “placeless people of privilege”, which yeah, as a TCK and having a definitive social circle of TCKs, I can’t say I disagree.

Unlike most TCK’s I have had it relatively easy. I lived in one house, up until I moved away to University. Well now you must be thinking, what do you mean? How are you a TCK then? Let me explain. Definitively speaking, I was born and raised in Thailand, a country that I wasn’t ethnically from, nor were my parents — who are of Indian origins.

From an early age, I was exposed to a multitude of cultures.I was enrolled into the kindergarten near my house. It wasn’t an Indian kindergarten, nor a Thai one but rather one of Japanese-English medium (random? — I agree). My two best friends were Japanese and Korean — my favourite cuisines till today. You could also say I became multi-lingual; maybe not in the language per-say but definitely in the culture. I could tell the difference between Japanese and Korean, and I learnt how to use chopsticks before I could even use a fork and spoon.

In Thai, there is a saying ‘Nam Kuen Hai Reeb Tak’, if literally translated it means ‘as the water rises don’t hesitate to take some’. In essence, encouraging one to seize the opportunity that presents itself, before its too late. Or on a lighter note to seize the day. So I guess, with us TCKs we are quick to seize these opportunities, friendships and culture that more often than not are thrown at us.

In fact, a recent virtual conversation with a friend, who I had also grown up with, made me realise the level of diversity we were exposed to while living in Bangkok. Recognising this privilege we had of studying at an international school, meant we had the world at our feet.

Growing up, I was acquainted to (at the time) a somewhat foreign concept of “expat life”. From the moment I started elementary school, I had friends from Argentina, Germany, America, Japan and even more so, cross-cultural kids who were living the third-culture life. They came and went, and like them, I was also used to making new friends along the way.

A perk that came with my diversified portfolio of friends was the cultural richness. Whether it was my friends returning from Argentina with a big jar of Dulce De Le Che, endlessly dancing to the tune of the Ketchup Song, learning the art of Origami with my Japanese friends or the intense obsession of K-Pop songs that came about in middle school, we all shared many memories.

Come senior year, -like the butterfly in the nursery rhyme, we too had to flutter away, I quickly noticed that everyone had their mind set on a university of their choice. At age 17, as excited as I was to move away from home, I was grappling with the separation of being away from it for the first time. Moving away connected me to my roots even more so; being a part of The Thai Society, as well as eating the usual Thai meal (where although I’d get ‘americanised’ Pad Thai with Sriracha Sauce — and not Thai ground chilli vinaigrette), it still gave me the satisfaction of home.

After Scotland, it was a series of shorter moves, so I went back to Thailand for 6 months and then India for another 5 months (which mind you was the first time I ever lived in India in the 17 years — at the time — of my existence). I was culturally ‘out of sync’ by the originality and authenticity of my mono-cultured acquaintances. Still determined, I found some footing at a job, which among other things, sort of validated my place in this new environment. Still, I noticed differences. It was definitely an adjustment; the adjustment of being in a new city, one I was supposedly meant to share a strong connection with from the get-go. There was the difference of speaking in a mother tongue with a slight foreign accent. There was also that main difference of looking too foreign for locals, even though, I was/am technically Indian. While I took no offence in the mockery towards my accent (yes speaking to some uber drivers included), I was also eager to explore; I still remember the admittedly, foreign thrill and excitement of trying ‘Pani Puri’ (on the street!! with bottled water though don’t worry) or ‘Elco Dosa’ for the first time.

A commonly held perception of us,”hybrids” if you will is that we are an accumulation “both the local and the global culture” thus a ‘glocal’ culture” (Besley, 2003). It was this excitement of having street food (apparently not a very south bombay thing), that also rooted me back to Thailand, where local food was accessible yet divine — or as they say in Thailand ‘Ha Daaw’ (5 Star).

5 months had passed. Emotional messages, dinners and “I’ll see you soon’s” were in order.

The suitcases were packed, the passports were checked and the plane was boarded. It was time for Paris. With a heartfelt sense of nostalgia, of leaving this new life behind, I was surprised at the emotional connection I had built with Mumbai.

While the cultural repercussions of our many moves will continue to dawn upon the best of us, it will also continue to add flavour to our ever expanding suitcase of identities. Scholar and educator, Michel Vandenbroeck famously said “it is a personal mixture of past and future, of fact and fiction creatively rewritten into an ever-changing story.

To be continued from Paris, and who knows where next.

Author: Shannon Tanwani