I know what you tell yourself, you tell yourself.
Look in the mirror, look in the mirror, what does it show?
I hear you counting
I know you’re adding. Adding up the score. – Tell Yourself, Natalie Merchant
A few weeks ago I was reading The Three Billy Goats Gruff to my 3 year old daughter when she stopped me.
“No Mummy, that’s not Little Billy Goat Gruff, that’s Elizabeth Gruff.”
I paused. This was new.
“Oh? That’s you is it?”
“Yes, that’s me!”
The phase has continued. It’s not Humpty Dumpty I have to sing but Elizabeth Dumpty. Old Macdonald doesn’t have a farm but Old Elizabeth. Jack and Jill don’t go up the hill but Jack and Elizabeth. Her story obsession at the moment is The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids. When we came home yesterday, she wanted to be the menacing wolf at the threshold of the front door. She ordered me to be the distraught mother goat coming home and seeing the mess the wolf left behind. She used various incongruous props in the house to be scissors, needle and thread. When she helps me make porridge for her breakfast, she is really making it for the 3 bears. I read her lots of stories about The Netherlands, including Miffy in The Netherlands, Hello Holland and Katje The Windmill Cat. And when we walk about or cycle, she has now started to impose herself into the Dutch landscape, all the time giving me a running narration of aforementioned stories. She is a tiny third culture kid at the moment and I am moved to see her not in a country but ‘of’ it, inside it. She is a child and that’s what they do. They are not mini adults which makes the TCK experience so different from an adult expatriate one. I must have been the same once upon a time.
But I could never possess the countries that raised me though that doesn’t mean I am not possessed by them. I have wrestled with internal and external (international) validation. So, it was a welcome surprise to come across an article written by a psychologist in Utrecht called Feel Like a Fraud? Coping with Imposter Syndrome. TCKs, expats and immigrants can be vulnerable. Here is how imposter syndrome is defined:
Impostor syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.
I certainly felt utterly inadequate at the beginning of each new posting and it reached its peak in my 20s in London. And of course it returns with each relocation as an accompanying spouse. It is there even though I tell myself the opposite and so do my loved ones. It is hard to shake off what happens in childhood. But curiously, the rest of the descriptions don’t fit. I don’t have self doubt or feel I’m not smart. I am not worried about being found out, discovered or unmasked. Quite the opposite in fact and I’m frustrated by the effort I project to ‘know’ people not being returned. I felt this even as a little girl.
Here are some anecdotes. After getting married, my husband and I moved to China. It was in the days before Facebook. Imagine! I wanted to get our wedding photos developed. The man in the photo shop gave me a receipt with a date when I could collect them. I turned up on the day to see a huge party outside the photo developers. Lots of chattering, laughing and gasps of amazement. It didn’t take me long to realise that there were passing around my wedding photos. Inside the building, the owner waved me over and pointed to the walls where I smiled down with my new husband. I was an imposter to them and I in turn felt they had imposed on me.
There is a supermarket I regularly go to in The Hague. More often than not, I encounter the same checkout man. He always speaks in Dutch to me even when I tell him I don’t understand everything and to speak slower.
“I don’t understand you,” I told him, raising my voice somewhat. “You can keep on repeating but I still won’t understand you.”
He did stop at this.
“Well, you should speak Dutch,” he said evenly
“Fine, what time shall I meet you next week?”
I was joking but many a true word spoken in jest.
“If you want me to speak Dutch, I need to practise with a Dutch person.”
“No,” he said
That was a huge imposition to him. He can lecture me on not speaking a language but doesn’t want to be involved in my learning it. Same story in many countries all over the world.
The Magritte image I used for this blog was taken at the end of 2015 during a trip to Brussels. He used this theme of doubles or multiplication likeness in many photographs and paintings. They are unsettling but I still stood before them for a long time. It was explained as a way to de-personalise and be anonymous. To avoid detection and be a a saboteur. That is not who I want to be. This I thought as I strolled the streets of Brussels, where it looked like Paris but was not. Where I heard French but also what sounded like Dutch but was Flemish. Where the Belgian army stopped me from turning round a corner.
“Vous ne pouvez pas passer par la, Madame,” they told me.
Restrictions were imposed as they searched for the Paris attackers in Belgium cities and suburbs.
On the Thalys train coming ‘home’, I felt calm as I had discovered, had been discovering something about myself. I smile when I meet someone new. I am open and curious about them, a legacy from my upbringing where I was imposing for a brief time. But I won’t chase them. I no longer feel the need to explain myself or make something palatable. If it’s not returned, that’s okay. I will not throw my coins into bottomless wells. I’m no imposter, I am me. That has been a fight worth winning.
If you are interested in finding out more about identity and ‘imposters’, I recommend the film The Imposter.