I’ve sat down to write you this letter so many times and it just hadn’t felt right. A lot of my heart is going to be poured out, I hope this blesses or encourages you in some way and at the very least, shed some light on the complexity that I call my life story.
So many times we’re okay with ourselves until someone else tells us we aren’t. Many children discover their skin color because someone else points it out to them. Our identity is composed of things we identify with because others have told us that’s who we are.
I didn’t know my life was different until I was told. I have been told that I am one nationality despite of where I was born and on the same day, told that where I was born is where I should, no… am obligated to hold allegiance to simply because my mother delivered in a hospital in that country- not because I had lived there my whole life or relate to the culture, because I hadn’t and didn’t.
My story is a story full of love, acceptance and joy intertwined with a life-long overpowering identity crisis.
It begins as a two year old pulling up to our vivenda in Mealhada, Portugal. I vividly remember riding in a large white 9 passenger van, taken from the airport to the first house I remember living in. It had not occurred to me that my life was different than any other two-year-old. As much as a toddler could comprehend of life…I had simply arrived home.
Home to me, for the longest time, had always been the same and I held on to it not knowing any different or that it would be torn from me. As a young child I knew what home felt like and where I felt it. I knew when I was away from it and I knew that it’s where I belonged…or so I thought.
When the word home is used there as a general, cultural understanding of what that is and for many, something that can never be taken away. When someone is born and grows up in a location, that place will always be home and no one can take it away. For a third-culture-kid, home is expected to change. Because we are raised in a country other than the one in which we were born, there are expectations thrust upon us to both hold an undying allegiance to both and negate the other.
As my life’s journey continues and as I attended elementary school I began to understand that my life was indeed different. Unable to pinpoint exactly why, I simply moved on with life as an extremely happy child. The older I became, however, the more I noticed my extremely fair complexion, my height and being mistaken for a foreigner- until accent-free Portuguese reverberated from my throat in response to a question asked in English, that encouraged the sales associate that I was doing just fine. Still, despite these small discrepancies, home still felt like home.
As the amount of visits back to the United States under my belt began multiplying and my random chunks of time away from home began to build I started to notice that when I returned to Portugal with arms wide-open it was not always ready for my embrace. Life never stopped when I was gone and adjustment periods became a normal thing. Adjusting back into MY HOME, into my friend’s lives and into a culture that I claimed.
The amount of frustration this gives to a person is difficult to express and even as I write, this very instant, my typing has accelerated and my heart has clenched. It was here where I began to notice that home means something very different for a TCK it means something different entirely than the definition by which many cultures live.
Knowing where and what home is is crucial for one’s identity because of every human’s natural desire to belong. This is where this life-long identity crisis I mentioned earlier comes in.
As a young adult my parents moved my family to America and my identity began to unravel at record speed. I began latching so strongly onto location as my home that the fact that I was born in the United States, and not in my Portugal, evolved into a factor of shame in my story and not one that simply was. I began absolutely hating my appearance, my clothing had to be styled in a European fashion to perfection and if anyone even hinted at the fact that I was not 100% European, I would all but disown them.
I grew bitter and angry. From the ages of 17 to 22 my life was a living hell. My heart was broken because I felt like I had been stolen from my home, a home that I don’t even know if I was allowed to claim because my birth city is Akron, Ohio. Because my Portuguese proficiency was starting to crumble. Because I “speak with a perfect American accent”. Because I “don’t look Portuguese”. Because I “now live in America”. These phrases are quoted because I have been told these things from people who were simply trying to make innocent conversation, not knowing I was allowing them to dismember my identity.
Defining home as a physical location or a feeling changes the meaning of the word entirely and for years and years I allowed myself to dwell in the technicalities of home being the location. Whether I knew deep down that all of the physical details didn’t matter, I’m unsure. I allowed myself to negate and hate huge pieces of who I am, pieces that I had and have no control over. I began to, because of PARTS of my story, hate it ENTIRELY. I have heard and felt pressured all too many times that because I no longer live in my beautiful Portugal and because I have not lived there forwhat someone may have deemed a long time, that my loyalty needed to shift; that I needed to consider my passport country my home and my Portuguese mannerisms and cultural tendencies needed to shift because it’s simply no longer my home.
I wish I could say there was a breaking point, a specific time in my journey where I saw the light at the end of the tunnel where God hit me over the head with some huge life-altering experience – but I can’t and there wasn’t. God worked in me slowly, allowing me days to wallow in my pity and self-hate. He gave me time to cry endlessly and feel hopeless. He was working in my heart and mind through the darkest days to eventually pull me out of them.
Eventually, awful days turned into bad days. Then, bad days turned into okay days. Those okay days turned into fine days, and I saw my anger and resentment start to chip away.
God was patient and kind. I am a Christian, and I believe that God allowed me to return home five times in the first six years I lived in the United States. I believe He opened doors for me to grow and find relationships in the United States.
Most importantly, all the while He was teaching me that ultimately, my identity is not to be founded on a location. We can hold countries, cultural norms and people dear. We can claim home to be whatever and whoever we feel… my identity (and, really, everyone’s identity) is to be rooted in God. If this world is truly not our home and we are just passing through are we not all nomads in this life? From those who have lived in multiple countries to those who have lived in one? Christ’s place in my life is to be the designated keyholder of my identity, not just an aspect of a Portuguese identity. I need to have a Christian identity with an aspect of identifying as Portuguese. If home is where the heart is, then my home should be in God.
I can’t say I don’t miss the days of wandering the streets of Lisbon, going to the beach at any given notice and stopping by my favorite café for a meia de leite and a pastel de nata with my heart feeling like I was 100% Portuguese, knew where I belonged and wasn’t ridden with the complexities of this story.
I can’t say I have gotten to the point where I’m no longer angry or feel like my identity is in shambles. As a Christian as well, I can’t even say that I truly cling to Jesus Christ as the cornerstone and my identity- but I’m trying. And the patient and loving God I follow that got me through those dark times will see me through the times to come.