That first day when I realised my third culture kid was global both in heritage and in mindset was when she was three. My mum and I were talking at the kitchen table, and the subject of China came up in conversation. My firstborn piped up, “Mama, did we fly over China to get to Canada?”
She’s referring to our move from Nigeria to Canada. And, no, we didn’t fly over China. But to hear the question come from a 3-year-old suggested she knew that it was both a country far away and that other places in the world existed outside of her familiar environment. We hadn’t spoken about China before but her exposure, we knew, already included an array of foreign countries.
My daughter began her awareness going to a genuinely international school in Lagos, Nigeria. Friends of hers hailed from all over – South Africa, Netherlands, India, Greece, America, England, Israel, Lebanon and of course, Nigeria. It was and still is normal for her friends to speak two, if not more languages and having parents of different colours/ races was no big deal.
We’re now living in London, England. And as my third culture kid becomes more aware, she’s also talking more about accents, vocabulary, geography and social norms. Having lived in 3 different continents in her 5 short years, my dd1’s own accent and vocab shifts according to whom she’s talking to. Like any child with access to an ipad, her favourite shows include BBC’s Ben and Holly alongside American cartoons Paw Patrol and Lego Friends. She’s savvy enough to realise the characters speak differently and that “Hi guys” is not common all over the world.
For her, asking Mama where the garbage is and saying, “Odaro” (goodnight in Yoruba) to grandparents via facetime is normal. For her, assuming “Nepa took light” (an affectionate way of referring to the frequent power outages in Lagos) when the phone cuts midway through phone calls with grandparents and cousins that are two shades darker than her, is normal. And showing off her collection of Shopkins to Canadian cousins three shades lighter, blonde and blue-eyed, where the 15 inch snow glistens off their window is also just as normal.
She doesn’t yet know that friends won’t know what she’s talking about when the day comes she proudly refers to her “Bababozorg” (Farsi for her maternal grandfather). Just as it came as a surprise to her recently when her friend asked her why she was referring to the ‘bathroom’. “What’s that?”, her friend asked.
Games every other day include role play as a waitress carrying a pizza. Not in her hand though. “On my head”, she insists, “like they do in Nigeria.” Dressing up as a princess includes a jewel-like ‘bindhi’ in the middle of her forehead “because it’s pretty.” And books at night spin riveting tales of African villagers, Middle Eastern parables and American kids playing on the ‘teeter totter’ and doing ‘somersaults’.
We didn’t set out to give our daughters such varied exposure. Sure, we both love travelling but we thought learning about the world came later, when children are interested in learning about their own history and culture.
But without our intervention, it’s just happened. Our daughter’s everyday exposure and experience is littered with variety. Whether we tried or not, her being is a mixture of colour, race, history, culture and language. As mixed race kids, our children were bound to be multicultural and perhaps there’s no getting around it these days.
So in that respect the term ‘third culture kid’ is perhaps outdated. Kids can’t help but be soaking up four, five, even ten different cultures blended into their little beings. So when their experiences span continents, their loved ones hail from different corners of the globe and their conversations are packed with different language, intonation and dialects bridging nations, well, it gives new meaning to the word ‘globalisation’.
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