‘Do I feel Aussie?’: What it means to be a third culture kid – RN


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September 08, 2018 07:00:00

Growing up in country New South Wales, Zoya Patel was asked one question on a regular basis: “Where are you from?”

“I knew to say that I was from Fiji, but I didn’t really understand what the question was implying,” Ms Patel says.

The query often came with cruel insults, she remembers.

One student, in particular, told Ms Patel and her sisters they were “brown like poo”.

“My sisters, who have always been very sassy, used to say to him, ‘At least we’re not the dried-up, shrivelled white kind’,” she says, laughing.

“It honestly didn’t occur to me that it was about race until I was much older.”

Ms Patel came to Australia as a three-year-old. Now 28, she’s lived here for most of her life.

Her parents are from Fiji, but the family is ancestrally Indian – this makes her a “third culture kid”.

Ms Patel tackles the cultural complexities in her memoir, No Country Woman, which was published last month. For her, “belonging” is state of being that’s only accessible for “moments in time”.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever feel at home in any one country,” she says.

“Ironically, when I was in Scotland in 2017 was probably when I felt the most at east with my cultural identity, because when people asked me where I was from and I said ‘Australia’, everyone just accepted it.

“No one asked me where was I ‘really from’.”

For third culture kids, identity can be a highly fraught topic.

Melbourne-based cultural consultant Tasneem Chopra is acutely aware of the nuances.

“I’ve always said I’m fifth-generation East-African born of Indian background, raised in country Victoria — with a bit of a pause there to let them absorb it all, because it’s a bit much to take,” she says, deadpan.

“That’s who I am in a nutshell. It’s all those three diasporic elements that make me ‘me’.”

Returning to one’s ‘homeland’

Both Ms Patel and Ms Chopra have travelled to their places of birth — Fiji and Kenya, respectively — as well as their ancestral homeland India, but their experiences couldn’t have been more different.

“I went back to India in ’88 — so gosh, last century — just once,” says Ms Chopra.

“But Kenya I didn’t visit until I was in my 40s, and that was something I was longing to do.

“I felt an instant resonance with Kenya, like, literally the minute I landed in Nairobi, in a way that I never felt with India.”

Despite warnings from “well-meaning people” that Kenya was unsafe, Ms Chopra says the experience deepened her connection with the African continent.

“There was just something about the atmosphere and the energy of the country there that didn’t feel alien,” she says.

“I felt a sense of pride that Kenyans felt for their nation. Even though I hadn’t been there for 36 years at the time, I still felt incredibly welcomed.”

When cultures clash

Ms Patel’s relationship with Fiji is far less clear-cut. As a kid, she visited the country with her parents and siblings on a yearly basis.

“For a long time, Fiji was just this farm that my grandparents owned and it was this hot, sticky place that you went to in summer,” she recalls.

But it was a trip Ms Patel took as an adult — without her family — that shook her understanding of the country, and her place in it.

“I was there as part of this white group of travellers going to a resort — which I never did — to have a wedding,” she says.

“I wasn’t in a great place with my family at the time, and so it almost felt like a betrayal to be in Fiji without them and be at this resort which is, like, the antithesis of the lives that they lived in Fiji.

“The minimum wage in Fiji is $2 an hour and we were staying in this resort where we were paying thousands of dollars a night, and waited on hand-and-foot by native Fijian staff.

“It felt really wrong.”

But the resort’s veneer of luxury and politeness had an unexpected effect — a glossing over of the tensions between Fijian-Indians and the indigenous population, known as Kaivitis.

“I started feeling oddly almost connected to this fake vision of Fiji,” she says.

“It’s always been so complicated and hard going to Fiji.

“As a teenager I felt caught between the Australian life that I wanted to live and all the cultural expectations that bubbled to the top when I was in Fiji.

“You know, you’d have to dress respectfully, you’d have to inhabit these pretty gendered roles most of the time, and then here I was in Fiji, frolicking in the waves … and hanging out with my white partner.”

Upon leaving the resort, Ms Patel recognised the man-made utopia was in no way connected to the rest of the country.

“I realised that mainstream Fiji is still a developing country [and] for my parents, that was the culture that shaped them,” she says.

“For me to try and live my Australian life and be in Fiji is actually a contradiction.”

The magic of ‘sheer mundanity’

While Fiji posed more questions for Ms Patel, India held answers.

“When we went to India, something just clicked for me,” she says.

“I think the thing was being surrounded by people who looked like us — every shade of brown, everyone totally different.

“Mumbai is … a melting pot of different dialects and cultures from around India, and no one could care less that we were there.”

Ms Patel says this sense of belonging — not “sticking out” — isn’t something she’s experienced in Australia, or even Fiji.

“When I’m in Fiji, even when I was younger, I could always feel this tension being there and being Indian and what that meant for native Fijians and for Fiji as a country,” she says.

“There’s a really ingrained racism within a lot of Indian communities towards Kaivitis.

“[My parents] have always had good friends who are Kaiviti, my dad speaks Kaiviti … they don’t believe in that [racism], but a lot of our broader family members did.

“And so, it never felt right being Indian in Fiji; it never felt right being Indian in Australia; but in India, the sheer mundanity of fitting in was the most heady feeling I’d ever had.”

Oscillating between identities

The journey of third culture kids is never a simple one.

For both Ms Patel and Ms Chopra, it took trips overseas to understand their cultural heritage and its impact on identity.

“I hadn’t really fleshed out what that meant for me until I said: ‘Well, do I feel Aussie? Do I feel Indian? Do I feel African?'” explains Ms Chopra.

“I’ve always been carrying this ability to oscillate between the three as my norm.

“And so, if [the title] ‘third culture kid’ means traversing all three — sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully — then that’s where I’m at.”

Topics:

religion-and-beliefs,

community-and-society,

women,

family,

multiculturalism,

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