Eyeing the iced-tea, I wondered why in the world tea would ever be drunk, chilled and without milk. Lost in thought, I didn’t notice the blonde-haired woman stroll towards me. We poured soda and swapped small-talk. We complained about the humid weather. She complimented my cosmopolitan accent.
“Your name?” she inquired.
“Did you change it when you came here?”
I eye-rolled internally, of course I’d want to change my name to the most Little-House-on-the-Prairie name.
“When did you convert from Hinduism?”
“I never converted, my family has been Christians for generations.”
I was tempted to explain to her how religiously diverse India is, as well as how Christianity had spread (within Asia) to places like India before it ever touched Europe. However I spared her the history lesson. Slowly swirling my soda with my straw, I said, “I was born in India, but I’m not from there.” Perplexed, she probed, “Where are you from?”
There it was. The question. The one that sends my brain into a tailspin.
Which response should I offer?
The single-word answer or the confusing non-answer?
The country of my passport, or the land of my birth?
The nutshell version or the detailed dissertation?
When I first came to America, I would proffer that I was born in India but raised in Europe and East Africa. I was from all of these places and none of these places. People would stare at me as if I had a third eye and would then proceed to push me to provide a more palatable response, “But seriously, where are you from?”
To myself and anyone who considers themselves Third Culture, “where are you from?” feels like an interrogation. We often feel ambushed and occasionally whisper expletives.
The entire exercise feels existential, eerie, and renders us weary.
A sociological concept coined by Dr. Ruth Useem in the 1950s, Third Culture was premised on the idea that those that were raised beyond the borders of their parents’ homelands and who spent a considerable part of their childhood outside their parents’ cultures were neither fully part of their parents’ culture (1st culture), nor fully a part of the culture of their host country/countries (2nd culture/cultures). Rather they occupy a “Third Culture,” a composite culture particular to expatriates and diasporas. A demographic that defied definition, a demographic I am a part of.
While I have previously written about Third Culture, I broached it broadly as a concept that was relatively nascent. Globalization is resulting in its normalization. The Dictionary is “watching” it as a word. Whereas it was once relegated to academia, it is now laical, eliciting media attention, and captivating our cultural psyche.
The narratives of non-white Third Cultural persons however, remain non-prevalent. Since the Third Culture experience is one of access, exposure and itinerance, an experience of considerable privilege, it is the white Third Culture experience that becomes visibilized and canonized. This subsequently lends itself to a dearth of Black and brown stories, yet when Black and brown Third Culture is unearthed, its intersectionality is seldom at length explored. Barack Obama’s memoir “Dreams from my Father,” was perhaps the first to capture such a specificity so well. As a person of color, growing up all over, Obama’s memoir was like seeing a reflection of myself and realizing that between us, there was this “secret.”
The secret of infinite intersectionality, of contending with being a foreigner but also the added layers that cake on when one lies in the crosshairs of racism, colorism, texturism, casteism, classism, chauvinism, anti-brown-Christianianism.
While I grew up with privilege as a non-caste oppressed Indian, who travelled the world and had parents who had a slew of degrees between them, these benefits did not spare me from being shunned by other Indians—they rejected the presents I brought to their parties, wouldn’t even acknowledge me when I was in the room, sneered at my curlier hair, darker skin and non-designer attire. They enquired if I was a Tamil Tiger even. I was too Dravidian, too Christian, not as affluent.
It’s also worthwhile to point out that being an Indian-Christian was not akin to being a European-Christian. Like Buddhists, Sikhs and Muslims, Indian-Christians are religious minorities within the diaspora, they were thus treated as less than and if caste-markers were unavailable, given the history of proselytization, were presumed to be lower-caste as well. I was also the Indian that excelled with words and not as much with numbers, and my eschewing of the sciences for the humanities made them ponder my intellect as well as my pragmatism.
The Third Culture privilege also did not spare me from seeing my parents put down by imperious British peers who were the ‘authority’ on all things, including their pronunciation which they policed and jeered. Never mind their PhD in Demography, or their MA in Statistics. They were educated but they might as well have been “coolies.”
The British missionaries went so far as to question my parents’ legitimacy as missionaries, and wouldn’t invite my parents into their inner circles. As missionary children, we didn’t have those friendships that other white missionary children had with each other. We didn’t look like them nor did we smell like them. We whiffed of spices and coconut oil. We ate boldly colored and flavored food while they consumed whiter, blander kinds.
This brings to mind yet another microaggression, the sight of an American diplomat (so nauseated by the masala-smell of our Belgian flat) hightailing it after giving us a car-lift home. It was humbling enough to have to depend on car-rides from wealthy whites since we couldn’t afford a car at that time, but to have that sense of disprivilege be further deepened by this idea that our food, an indelible part of our identity, was fetid and inedible added trauma to the trauma. Death by a thousand cuts trauma. Trauma that wasn’t merely an amassment of subtle violences but of overt ones.
Overt ones like a teacher stripping and flogging my four year old body—I painted a painting that was “inappropriate.” But what was inappropriate was not so much the painting, it was my “shit-colored,” “sand n****” skin.
That story is deeply difficult to detail and eventually will be excavated and dissected. But for now, I leave you these bits and pieces of a brown identity in bits and pieces. These scribbles and etchings of one thrust and lost in the unending in-between. A narrative of grief and peripheries, of a cracked and complicated identity, of one who slides and shape-shifts to fit. Of one who navigates nuance with a fluency, finds commonality with almost anybody. And who is drawn to the Others because she herself is one.
Martha Snehalatha Chandran-Dickerson (@martha_snehalata) is a collegiate writing consultant and a freelance writer and editor. As a bridge-builder, she volunteers for @bethebridge, an international faith-based organization devoted to restorative justice and racial reconciliation, as well as for @bravebgoh (Black Rights, Activism, Visibility, Equity) a local antiracist non-profit organization committed to addressing the concerns of Black people in predominantly white spaces.
Martha is a global citizen who was born in South-India, raised in Europe and East Africa, and now lives in America with her African-American husband and two biracial Blindian sons. She speaks English proficiently, understands colloquial Tamil, and recalls faintly a little French. As a Third Culture Kid (TCK) who feels at home nowhere and everywhere, intersections of race, culture, faith and identity are issues she is seeking to explore more in her #BlindianProject editorial role.