I came across this quotation recently and the truth of it resonates strongly with both my personal experience of frequent mobility, but also with the experiences of many other travellers I have spoken to during my research.
Identities are elusive things. They are constructed from birth, delicately built upon the foundations our families set down for us… letting us know ‘who’ we are through reciprocal ‘mirroring’. Positive and negative reactions to our ‘selves’ gradually solidify for us a sense of who we feel are, and who other people think we are. If we are fortunate, there is some consensus between the two.
Peers are incredibly important in this mirroring as we grow up, and our field of reference expands from our immediate family to the cultural worlds that surround us. James (1993, pp.95- 6) describes a child’s peers as instrumental in the development of their identity, “…identities emerge slowly, to be tried and tested out in the company, largely, of other children.” For Third Culture Kids, expatriate kids, or others from highly transitory backgrounds, the instability of these peer groups can make it hard for a consistent sense of self to ‘stick’. As adults, our chameleon identities can be both blessing and challenge, as we navigate the cultural worlds around us, continued travel and/or experiments in settledness.
The quote above is a beautiful one, precisely because it perfectly captures what it is to feel a different self in different places. As our peer groups differ from place to place, so do our selves, as we adapt and respond to different cultural surroundings. Language always plays a significant part here… in one country I am fluent, and vivacious wit abounds. In another, my speech is halting, and my self responds to my peers with more hesitant; I am a more withdrawn or ‘shy’ version of my self. In America, my worldview may appear on a different end of the political spectrum than it does in the United Kingdom or Australia… my faith may have different expression, my sense of humour more or less mainstream, or ‘appropriate’.
Moreover, leaving a place is also often inextricably linked to the leaving of an identity role or status, for the taking on of a new one. Perhaps a career has ended, or job role is changing. Perhaps you are leaving an old relationship behind, or moving nearer a new one. Perhaps you are leaving a community in which you were a leader, for one that doesn’t yet recognise you as a valuable member. Perhaps you are leaving a place in which you were an outsider for one that holds the potential of reinvention and the hope of belonging.
Recognition of the many selves that form throughout the many places through which we pass is an important step towards settledness of Self. Settledness need not mean geographical stability, though for some this is a desirable element, but settledness of self holds tight to the notion that we can nurture a sense of a core Self that bends with change but does not break. A core Self can be nurtured, from which our different cultural selves may originate, so that our multiple expressions of self need not threaten our sense of integrity or authenticity but rather give full expression to the full complexity of our identity. In this way, we are able to miss the selves we used to be whilst remaining sure of the Self that remains.
James, A., 1993. Childhood Identities: Self and Social Relationships in the Experience of
the Child. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press