Coming “Home” to America

^ spring blossoms at Sun’s Menlo Park campus

So I’ve returned to live (and work) in the USA. A number of people, particularly US immigration officers, have said: “Welcome home.” I am grateful for their friendly intentions, but “home” is not what the US represents for me. I’ve lived here only about a third of my life to date.

Having spent many of my formative years in Asia, I tried to come “home” to America once before, when I graduated from high school in India and entered college in the US. Like many third culture kids, I had felt out of place (though not unhappy) in the exotic countries I’d lived in, where I was very obviously foreign even after being there for years. I dreamed of returning to a country where I would feel wholly at ease and be accepted as a natural part of the scenery. It was a rude shock to discover that this homeland, for me and others like me, is a myth. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was a “hidden immigrant”: on the surface seemingly a local, but in reality a not-quite-native, which manifested in ways which confused and irritated the real Americans.

Not knowing how else to deal with the problem, I was relieved to go overseas again, to return to my familiar status as a foreigner: in 1991 I moved to Italy with my Italian husband and our daughter. When in 1993 I began travelling to the US for work, I had some cultural misunderstandings with my American colleagues. I didn’t realize at the time what was going on; I only knew that I found it easier to form friendships with non-Americans, or with other Americans who had lived abroad as I had.

Sometime during those years I attended a workshop by David Pollock at a Woodstock School reunion, and read his book on Third Culture Kids. Thanks to him, I learned that in fact I’m not quite American. Neither am I Thai, or Indian, or Bangladeshi, or Indonesian, though some aspects of those cultures (particularly Indian) probably inform my attitudes and behavior.

I also learned that it was my TCK background that had helped me adjust so superbly to my new life in Italy, absorbing the language, culture and history to an extent that sometimes startles Italians, including my husband (who doesn’t realize how much he himself has taught me). I’m not Italian, nor do I play one on television, but I’ve certainly been affected by my 17 years there. Among other things, Americans now tell me I have a “European” accent!

So this new American experience isn’t a homecoming for me. I don’t expect to feel like a native anytime soon, if ever. And that’s okay. I’m happy to approach this as an adventure in a new country, bringing to it the openness, curiosity, and tolerance for strangeness that have served me so well in other places and situations. And, though I’ve spent a lot of time in other parts of the US, Colorado and the west (east of California) are new to me – there’s plenty to explore and discover here.

I expect from time to time to feel frustrated, alienated, and foreign. Every culture has its baffling quirks and attitudes. I also expect that I’ll find much to delight in, as I have in every country I’ve lived in or visited. And I’ll photograph, film, and especially write about it all, because I’m glad to have you folks along on this new odyssey!

your thoughts?

9 thoughts on “Coming “Home” to America

  1. Rajeev

    Welcome back- even if not “home”! I remember after graduating from WS and returning to Seattle (where I had lived till age 9), I had the opportunity to meet up with a fellow Woodstocker (class of sixty-something). One of the first things she said to me was that, even if I hadn’t told her, she would have known I was from Woodstock because of my accent. She described it as being, “a mix of British, American, and Indian accents.” It has since evaporated and I guess I sound “American” now. I would guess yours will sound, “Italian-Indian-American”? Hope your time here will be fun & fulfilling- and we’ll be sure to read about every bit of it.

    Rajeev

  2. Susan Rossien Schwartz

    Thank you for introducing me to the concept of Third culture kids. It has explained my stranger in a strange land feeling . I also am more comfortable with non Americans and never fully understood. I have lived in the American South for 2 years and I feel that this is a culture I am not familiar with and I am happy again feeling like a visitor.
    Thank you for your blog
    If you ever want to visit North Carolina let me know.
    Susan

  3. claudia

    I just found this site. it’s really interesting to read about italians from the point of view of a foreigner that knows what she’s talking about…it doesn’t often happen to read about montalbano books in english 😛
    I’ll drop by more often.
    byee 🙂

  4. joy

    After a long phone conversation with a friend in Italy I wanted to check on some of her idioms. I found your site. Very cute! I lived in Florence, Italy for 20 years so I am familiar with some of the ones you have written. In Florence they said instead “non ha pelli sulla lingua”….
    As far as being back in the USA, I remember when I returned after all those years how much I felt more Italian than American (born and raised till 17). People always remarked about how dressed up I was. They did not understand for a minute (nor did they seem to care) that when you live and breathe another culture, you take on that culture. Americans do not seem to have a lot of self awareness either. Now, even after living back in the States for another 20, whenever I talk about anything Italian, I still say ” in Italy, WE do this or that… !” Italy WAS my country for those years. I only visited the States 4 times, all of my friends were Italian including my husband, and none of them spoke any English! It was great! Although there is a kind of love/hate relationship which many acquire with Italy, they DO know how to live and eat better than here in the USA. Last visit over there was 1997 and I am long overdue! Good luck.

  5. Rafael

    I’m definitely not a TCK, but I totally relate to some of that. My upbringing had a lot of US culture and English language, which was intensified when Internet came to town. The US is the third country I lived in, and I feel more like a citizen of the ‘western hemisphere’ than of any specific country.. Looking forward to that utopian place where passports and visas are things of the past 😉

  6. Rick Ramsey

    So true, Deirdre. I was born in Chile, lived there, in Argentina, and Peru, came to the US when I was six, returned to Peru when I was 11, the came “home” to America for my Freshman year of college. Although I looked different and had a different background than most people in Peru, I was warmly accepted there. Although I looked more American than most Americans, I was not accepted here at first. It was a tough adjustment.

    As you know, the Great Dilemma about getting through American prejudices is that, to get accepted, you have to pretend to be something you’re not. Once people stop considering you a weirdo, you realize it’s a big lie, anyway.

    I found the SF Bay Area to be the most tolerant of and, in fact, the most interested in diversity. It did actually become home for me, as did Sun Microsystems, until I had a family and could no longer afford to live there.

    I spent 10 years in Massachusetts, and it finally solved the whole problem for me. I made a few good friends there that I plan to keep, but in general Massachusetts residents are so hostile to anyone not in their inner circle that eventually I broke the “social contract.” Tore it right down the middle and tossed the pieces into the fire. If I were a homicidal maniac, I suppose I would have finally felt free to rain down mayhem on the world, but since I’m not, it simply freed me to be me.

    Today, I care what my friends and loved ones think about me, but I have absolutely zero interest in the reactions, judgments, criticisms, misunderstandings, prejudices, little social pecadillios, and the thousand and one strings that society uses to control us. I just don’t care. I have to be careful not to let that attitude show when dealing with the law (I really don’t care about speed limits, either – who are YOU to tell ME how fast I should go on this road?), I sometimes miss out on that sense of belonging that locals have, but in general I feel mostly … free.

    Thanks for posting your thoughts.

    Rick

  7. Deirdre Straughan Post author

    I’m happy with who I am and, in my social life, am happy to stick with people who “get” me, or at least don’t care if I’m weird – and you’re right, San Francisco is probably the most tolerant city in the world.

    The problem arises in the workplace, when I have to deal with more “typical” Americans, who sometimes have a gut aversion to me without themselves being able to put their finger on why. I don’t talk about my experiences in Italy or India to show off – I talk about it because that’s my life (to date); the alternative is to say nothing at all. And after all these years I still miss cultural cues in the US, and fail to be interested in some of the things that people around me find important (sports, TV shows).

    There are several other TCKs at my current small company, and with them the familiar TCK scenario played out: we immediately clicked and got each other at some deep level, without having to think about it. And there was an immediate sense of trust and “I like working with you”. It’s like discovering another member of our secret tribe.

  8. Kathy

    I totally “get” it. I have been back in the US for 10 years and still have information gaps and trouble relating to people in the workplace. Always nice to see the tribe is alive and well!

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