As a child, I remember shop stalls on the sides of roads busied with red taxis, sellers yelling words I didn’t understand in the back of their stalls, chopping the heads off fish and cleaving open their bodies to expose beating hearts that show their freshness before chucking them on ice. I remember standing in a back-street watching a man with a bag of chickens take orders from passing people, cutting their heads off with scissors and yanking feathers from their bodies. I remember restaurants with rats on the floor picking up the scraps that fell from the table, completely ignored and respected by every patron as a sign that they were not in the food. I remember cockroaches the size of my fist scuttling across the kitchen, our domestic helper chasing them down with a shoe in her hand, slapping over and over at the ground. I remember cheap, neon lights flickering on as soon as the sun dipped below the horizon, bringing an ambiance and energy of glowing Cantonese characters to a city’s night life that never slept. I remember old men with long hairs growing out their moles spitting into the road, dodging buckets full of animal bits as you walked past closing stores, and people walking up to me holding toys telling me a price they had made up on the spot. I remember the smell of stained wood, the seemingly endless heights of buildings, and the rickety bus rides at breakneck speeds along poorly built roads too close to the cliff’s edge.
As that same child, I remember a suburban town in the proudest state of the land of the free. I remember going to school and being indoctrinated into a belief that this land, this state, was the greatest in the world. I remember looking for a place to call home, and wanting to believe them, and becoming part of the culture. But I remember God, and I remember I never agreed with the things I was told about him or the promises people made in his name. I remember wanting to be one of them, but knowing that I was as much one of them as I was the people of the other lands I had seen. I remember not having friends. I remember being scared and alone. I remember being afraid to meet people, afraid to attach. I remember leaving and feeling sad, but feeling happy at the same time.
I remember the cobblestone roads and pretty streets of a suburban neighborhood on the edge of the most notable french-speaking city on Earth. I remember walking up the path to buy bread from one shop, meat from another, and milk from yet another. I remember the glowing clover-like sign of a pharmacy on every single corner of every single street. I remember chickens slowly roasting on spits in every city, ready for picking for the meager price of the change floating in your pocket you would have not spent otherwise. I remember learning to speak the language, and being shunned for doing it wrong when I tried and being hated for not trying when I didn’t. I remember tight trousers on the native kids walking by, people rolling down the city streets on skateboards and roller skates, and beautiful women in clothing that cost more than most people make in a year. I remember planning my trips to the city around strikes, and driving through the tunnel to reveal a landscape of low built buildings that framed an enormous, steel tower.
I remember returning to the city of neon lights and busy streets. I remember how crowded it had become and how so much had changed without feeling any different at all. I remember walking through the streets and knowing that I was safe, of riding buses and taxi’s alone. I remember a school that treated me like an adult, even though I was not. I remember a man telling me I was a Third Culture Kid and not truly understanding what he meant. I remember making friends again, and I remember knowing for the first time in my life that one day I would say goodbye to them forever. I remember knowing that I would not stay here, that I would leave the city I loved and move to somewhere different.
I remember going back to the country of the proud. I remember university, and meeting a girl, and moving in with her, and having the first stable moment of my entire life. I remember how amazing it felt to be there, in one place, learning and being loved. But I remember talking about moving, about us having a family and taking them with us wherever we traveled. I remember her saying she would rather keep them at home, travel until we had kids, and then stay put. I remember not understanding what she meant by saying “stay home,” and I remember being scared. I remember the wedge that drove us apart, and the fear that I was committing to an eternity with someone else. I remember running away. I remember being free. I remember being inconsolably sad that I couldn’t have the life I had always wanted. I remember meeting the woman of my dreams, who lived so many miles away. I remember the long distance relationship feeling normal, only bothering me because it bothered her. I remember it pulling us apart. I remember loving her every day since then, feeling as though I lost something amazing for a reason I simply couldn’t understand. And I remember moving away, to another city, for another life, knowing from the second I left for this new land in a different state that I would use it as a stepping stone to the next. That I would never stay more than two or three years. And then I would be off again.
I am a Third Culture Kid, a TCK, and an Expatriate. My life is one built out of revolving doors and large metal planes. It’s a history of countless cities, of family always thousands of miles away, of girlfriends that have lived in different continents, of multiple cultures mashed into a single mind. I have two passports, officially a citizen of two different worlds. And yet, in both, I am an expat. I fit into neither, belong to none.
My home is airport terminals, new sites and city streets that I experience by never acting like a tourist but as a person that has lived there his entire life, even if I have never set foot there before. I capture culture and memories, never carrying a camera because I never have the desire to show people what I saw. Because what I see is not what others see. I see the people and their lives, the daily routines of everyone and everything. I taste the smells and remember the way the wind hit my face as I moved through the unknown.
I am not looking for the next great vacation when I travel. I am looking for life, for the living and breathing heart of a city that can only be found in the people that reside within it and the culture they have built through generations of development. I do not tell people stories of my travels, because there is no story they could ever understand.
Because where I remember a youth full of so many different worlds, everyone else remembers stability. They remember growing up around aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins. They remember boyfriends and girlfriends that they didn’t have to say goodbye to because of distance, but left because they had run their course and met an end. They remember traveling as a gift, as a treat to see something different before returning to the same house in the same neighborhood with the same friends they have had since they were born.
But I remember none of that, because like many other TCKs in this world, I remember the world in pockets of time. I am an expatriate, through-and-through, without a home. And I live to see more.
Post by: James R. Mitchener