No one is ever a former third culture kid – Third Culture Kids: Growing up Among Worlds
I once entered a room full of school governors for a job interview. One woman looked shocked as I sat down.
“You don’t look at all how I expected,” she said
“You were expecting a woman from Botswana?”
“I was born there. I’m not from there,”
But I came from there a voice in my head insisted. I have no memory of Botswana. I can only go by family anecdotes and sepia photographs. I do not think of this place where I came into the world, although I am attuned to information regarding it. But being born there has not been without consequence. My father told me that a bureaucrat in the capital Gaborone was unsure whether I could be a British citizen when he went to organise my birth certificate and passport. It turned out I could be but with conditions:
British by descent: a person born outside the UK and is acquired if one or both parents are British citizens. This means that you cannot automatically pass on British citizenship to any child who is born abroad.
Some British are less British than others. As if I needed reminding! How British I am came into play decades later after giving birth to my daughter in France. My Venezuelan husband and I had decided not to get her a Venezuelan passport as Venezuela had brought in a precarious new law where children had to be granted permission to leave the country. She was eligible to be a British citizen but only once I could provide a myriad of evidence, including that I had spent 10 years living in the UK. My initial attempt was blocked as they wanted more proof. I searched my old files bleakly, desperate to prove who I was. I sent off my A-Level and university exam results. Thankfully, this was accepted. But the reality is, if I had not returned to England when I was 17 years old, I could not have passed on citizenship to my child. Not so if she’d been born in the UK but personal circumstance made this difficult. The legacy of my third culture kid upbringing is always there, intruding at the most surprising moments. My birthplace has left an imprint. The simple word descent brought back an old feeling of falling one step behind. But now the feeling was represented legally and finalised in black and white.
The British Home Office had my paperwork for 9 months before sending it back. And it took a further 2 months before I jubilantly handed my daughter’s passport to her. It was one of the happiest moments. We booked our Eurostar tickets for London. It had taken nearly a year and during that time I hadn’t been able to travel as I just wasn’t prepared to go anywhere without her. As a TCK, I am used to being highly mobile. So, to be grounded like that for the first time in my life had been frustrating. I felt a pang when I heard people cheerfully telling me of their holiday plans. My chest tightened when I passed houses and saw the shutters closed with no cars in the driveway. At one point, I even checked if my daughter could be French so we could go somewhere, anywhere! A documentary aired where an investigative journalist went behind the scenes at the UK Border Agency and I had to stop watching as I became saddened by the incompetency of the workforce and the general apathy with which they treated people’s applications. If they only knew how important their work is.
I had bouts of insomnia when my daughter was born, not from the night feeds, but from worrying about it all. I had no compass. Strange ghosts from my childhood surfaced. I remembered those who had never been outside of their city, state or country. It had not hampered their happiness in any way. I remembered a refugee, recognising my father on a street, accosting him, pleading with him. We did not speak his language but we understood him perfectly well. He could show no passport. His homeland unclear. He had no return ticket. No right to cross any borders. I was shaken by these visitations as they receded in the morning light. I recalled my husband struggling at customs in Caracas and elsewhere while I sailed through. I traced the inscription inside my red passport:
Her Brittanic Majesty’s Secretary of State Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.
Laissez passer it had read on my father’s United Nations travel document. But this is not true for everyone is it? Passing a port is no easy feat.
But in my arms was my daughter who didn’t care that we were largely immobile. The little, gentle details of daily life were a joy to her and became so to me as well. I took more notice and engaged with the beautiful, medieval French towns that surrounded us. My daughter taught me to wake up and breathe deeply. She stilled the transient inside me. Today, I look back on the year without travel with humility and gratitude.