Third Culture Adult

Before a couple of days ago, I didn’t know how to mail a letter in the US. I Googled it extensively but still ended up embarrassing myself at the post office, searching for the handle on the mailbox for five minutes, praying that no one in the apartment above me was looking out their window right at that moment. The lady who worked there was skeptical, like my lack of knowledge on something as simple as putting a piece of paper through a slot was a disrespectful prank. It wasn’t. I’m just a woman with the same accent as her and a completely different background who has now moved back to my passport country and doesn’t know how to mail a letter.

Growing up, I could find my identity in being a third culture kid—but I’m not a kid anymore. Being an adult who doesn’t quite fit in with the culture I sound like and resemble, I don’t get the same grace from other adults as I did when I was a kid.

In three weeks, I will be leaving my passport country of the United States to return to South Africa, the country I grew up in. I’m happy, I keep telling myself. Yes. I am returning to the place where I grew tall, where my bones thickened and skin stretched, where I outgrew clothes and wore a wedding dress. Why then have I not outgrown this feeling that saying goodbye to this passport land is final, or this lump that catches in my throat as I look blearily out the airplane window at the red and yellow lights growing smaller and smaller until they are tiny sequins on a black landscape? Life as a third culture adult looks a lot different than that of a third culture kid, but it feels a whole lot the same. The only difference is that when you're the adult, you make the decision about where you move in the world. And yet, maybe even then, you don't.

When your parents choose where you live as a child, they’re choosing where your heart grows, which people become family, which places you’ll always miss—in other words, the things you can never pack up and leave behind for good. It means that at 22, I’ve outgrown the prayers of strangers from a supporting church, but I’m still heartbroken as I say goodbye to my grandparents, watching them age between week-long snapshots throughout the years. It means that no matter which airport I’m flying out of, it still feels like I’m leaving home. Yet I cannot leave it—my host country—to live in the place that seems easier.

I grew up in South Africa, and I cannot leave it behind and pretend that it doesn’t exist. It is hard to live there. There is so much need and crime and unease. Sometimes it seems like a country bursting out of itself with too many orphans and criminals at stoplights and in tin shacks. But it is also the place I love, the place of gentrified coffee shops and big conversations and people immersing themselves in the country in an effort to better it.

I still feel tension in my chest when I hear someone from my passport country who has never lived overseas speak about global work. This grown child of the hybrid journey knows that living in two countries embeds itself in your DNA. It’s a change that you can never really shake. It is always lurking in your life and showing up at arbitrary times to remind you that you are different, even when you stop being a kid and start being an adult.
 There are things I don’t know how to do in South Africa. Sometimes I feel the shame of being an outsider coming in to a foreign land. It’s difficult, but I still cannot help but love it. So I am going “home” and I will continue Googling how to do things, and I will try to love the process well.