So… schools are back this week after the Christmas holidays, and normal life resumes… All my life I’ve struggled with the word ‘normal’.
The word was virtually taboo in the expatriate community I grew up in, being seen to be synonymous with ‘ordinary’, ‘boring’, ‘mundane’. As expat children growing up ‘among worlds’ (Pollock and Van Reken, 2001) we knew we were special, had special experiences, had special outlooks. Visits to our ‘home’ countries would be punctuated with comments from family, friends and ‘home’ communities identifying us as ‘mature’, with ‘widened horizons’, and ‘wiser than our years’. Indeed, the idea is neatly summed up by Sheard (2008) when Third Culture Kids (expat kids) are likened to ‘gifted children’, not a comparison I find to be especially helpful but one that expresses quite well the identities many expat children were attributed with.
This outlook can be a useful one growing up; it explains the challenges of relating to different peer groups in different cultures, renders unimportant the discomfort experienced in the numerous faux pas we make. After all, we are special, so it’s okay to feel different. If we feel like misfits, that’s okay, we have a privileged world view that compensates for not feeling ‘normal’. For many of use, not fitting in at ‘home’ is a small price to pay for the experiences of our childhoods… the travel, the safaris, the bustling world of the expat, the educational opportunities as well as the cultural jigsaw puzzles we learn to navigate with delight.
And yet many of us, at some point, often at the point of entering university or college, perhaps afterwards as we start careers and grow families, take on new responsibilities that reduce our opportunities for adventure and we begin to mirror the community around us. And then the uncomfortable question rears its head: “Are we becoming normal?”
Throughout my research I encountered Third Culture Kids who expressed discomfort as they realised that, over time, they were increasingly resembling the communities in which they had become embedded. Many actively sought ways to continue to express their internally felt differences to those around them. Some TCKs get jobs that allow for more international interaction, others avoid pop culture and orient themselves more globally. Others simply struggle in their increasing sense of invisibility and sense of perpetual uniqueness…
Feeling the extraordinary disappear and the normal creep in is a hugely uncomfortable feeling for those accustomed to living in the margins. It is a challenge that can be met in a couple of different ways, sometimes in combination (if you are feeling especially creative!)
First, as mentioned, we can find new outlets for our internally experienced differences… we can find ways to subtly but significantly distinguish ourselves to maintain our sense of self as ‘special’. This need not be a case of indifference to those around us, nor expressive of a sense of superiority, but rather a thoughtful response to a deeply rooted need to maintain an early identity as ‘special’ and ‘unique’. One interview respondent told me of her tendency to favour American over British writers when studying English Literature at a UK university. This bucked the curriculum’s trend, and offered her an opportunity to become knowledgable in a niche area amongst her peer group… It did not scream ‘I’m special’ from the rooftops, but at this time in her life it supported an important part of her self in setting herself apart in a small but significant way.
Secondly, we can practise finding joy in the mundane. This I think can be more of the challenge. We can choose not to despise the ordinary, or even being identified as members of the ‘normal’ but can instead find joy in the ‘average’ and the ‘ordinary’. When taken for a local we could feel flattered rather than alarmed, and could seek after ways to get involved in our local communities. We could take joy in increased understanding of local politics and even the dreaded playground politics (!) After all, are these not signs of a new skill set gained, that of belonging?
What if, heresy of heresies, ‘normal’ is the new ‘special’?
If you’d be interested in finding out more about the ways in which Life Story can help you explore your own history of belonging and support you in the future, get in touch. I’d love to hear from you!
Pollock and Van Reken. 2001. Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing up Among Worlds. Intercultural Press, London
Sheard. 2008. “Lessons From Our Kissing Cousins: Third Culture Kids and Gifted Children”. Roeper Review. Vol. 30. Issue 1. P. 31-38