Perhaps it is easiest if I start with myself. Where am I from?
In the 1870’s the Belgian King Leopold II set out to colonize what was then named Kongo, and in 1884 Leopold’s claim was officially recognized by European powers at a Conference in Berlin. In the following 20 odd years the population of the now renamed Congo is subject to mass killings, decapitation, and forced labour. It wasn’t until 1908 that it was declared a free state under Belgian rule and only in 1960 does Congo gain independence.
Some 27 years later, a Belgian boy arrives on the continent on his gap year, oblivious to the fact he would never truly leave. By December of 1997, as civil unrest to overturn the Mobutu presidency peaks, he welcomes his first child with a Congolese woman in Liège, Belgium. Forced to leave eastern Congo as Banyamulenge rebels invaded, the couple has a baby girl. The following years are spent trying to return back to the continent, finding a safer more stable base for this now family of three. In 1999, the family finally settles in Tanzania, 2012 offers an opportunity for a semi-return to Congo for work as the family, now made up of two children, stays back under their mother’s care.
A Belgian man returns to the Congo whilst his Congolese wife and two children remain in Tanzania. I am one of the two. The baby girl.
Where are you from?
A question that is often used to spark conversation. In the past it was easy to answer, in most cases one would respond with a single country or city. This is still the case for quite a few of us. In the last 50 years however, there has been an increase in interracial and intercultural marriages that has led to a generation of multicultural families. Families are now formed across every thinkable boundary and come in, quite literally, every shape and size. Resulting in children and families being influenced by multiple cultures simultaneously. The concept of third culture kids has become more of a norm and will only continue to expand as globalization increases. A third culture kid is by definition – a child who has grown up or been raised in a country or culture that is different to that of their parents. The result is a household that has been influenced by 3 or at times even more cultural norms, changing the way we interact.
So, what is it actually like being a third culture kid? Let me summarize.
Being Congolese, I was raised to understand the importance of having a large family and considering all those around you as close family. It is normal for me to call almost any older male family friend ‘Uncle’ and any older female family friend ‘Auntie’. On the other side of this, it is imperative that I equally comprehend that there is some family we do not talk to for reasons that we do not talk about. Which sounds about as confusing as it feels. Furthermore, in the event of a ‘family’ gathering the role of food is not to be taken lightly. You are required to eat at almost every occasion and to eat an amount that would indicate the food was the best you have ever had. The food and beverages are handled and served by women whilst the men gather to speak in a separate space. All of us having a specific role to play in this larger group that is our collective home.
If the above seems like a large amount of information to grasp, we are only getting started…
Being Belgian, the importance of time has been engraved into my subconscious. It is rude to show up late or keep people waiting. Similarly, in the presence of company that is not family, one must take up a more formal demeanor. Even using different language (note that not everyone is family, only those that are related to you). I also learned that both male and female members of a family carry equal weight and thus both take care of the food.
How does one live in the in-between? Growing up inheriting both the colony and the colonizers' way of life. Well, it all depends on who’s house you are visiting, or which parent you are with. It is, in essence, a game. I try to blend in as much as possible, whilst trying not to carry out any actions that would, in the case of my mum, send a heart wrenching side-eye my way. An indication of my failure to act right. Game over. Start again. Change tactics. But I am not only Belgian and Congolese…
Being Tanzanian? I cannot strictly say that I am Tanzanian as I have no bloodline connections, but in the Tanzanian spirit, I will say that it is my home. Everyone is welcome, even a neighbour is an extended part of the family. Swahili is the core of being Tanzanian and thus I learned the language at a young age in order to be part of the greater community. It is very common to feel at home in almost anyone’s home, as we are all raised to be welcoming. I was also taught that life is to be lived. Hakuna Matata - a Swahili phrase that everyone has heard reflects the way in which we must never panic in the event of a crisis. Living in Tanzania you quickly become accustomed to a slower, more relaxed, way of life, where things happen at an organic pace and there are never problems big enough to cause chaos. Life is also run by the female head of the household.
Many things in my upbringing have caused internal conflicts that I often cannot describe in words. I am a firm believer that a woman is equal to a man and that she may occupy the same space as he, but I also understand that when it comes to family discussions, the men are looked to for guidance. This has led to me being frustrated throughout my life. I would say it is easier if you are only able to see one side of the argument. I happen to not only be a third culture kid but also a mixed-race kid. When you talk about seeing both sides of the argument, being perfectly in the middle gives you great oversight. There is however no argument in regard to which race or ethnicity is superior, any sane person (and most insane ones for that matter) would know that we are all equal and should have access to everything equally.
The arguments arise in how big a wedding should be. Or whether or not you can call a non-family member family. These arguments can never be resolved but only worked around, compromised, or avoided.
It all depends in where you are living then, or which parent has assumed the alpha role and therefore decides which traditions will be followed or if you’re lucky, killing two birds with one stone. Have two wedding ceremonies, address that non-family member as family in front of those that encourage it and simply by their name in all other situations. In short, play the game.
If reading the above was as extensive as it was writing, you now have a snapshot into the mind of a third culture kid as they try to explain their heritage.
If we go back to the phrase ‘Where are you from?’, this is where all the confusion starts. Perhaps it shouldn’t be about where you from but how did you get here? Using phrases like… what’s your story, what was your upbringing like, what has led to your being here today, tell me about you. But even I don’t know what the correct way to address the situation is but being aware is a start. Apart from being a walking cultural hub, a trained airplane sleeper, and efficient packer, being a third culture kid is to be continuously confused. I do not ever want to pick a side, as that would be denying a part of my identity.
So, I ask you please, do not make me choose.
By: Alizée Bollen
Alizée is a creative looking for a space to occupy. Graduating in 2019 with a bachelor in Industrial Design Enginnering, the next step has been setting herself up and launching her professional career. Innovation, change, and diversity are what drive her and what she works towards. She identifies as Congolese, Belgian, and Tanzanian.