Expatria · Florida · Repatria · Third Culture Kids

Born Liminal: The Internal and External Displacement of a Third Culture Kid Experience

Photo by xx liu on Unsplash.

Back in 2016 and thereabouts I had fallen into the quagmire of toxic positivity, something that at the time gave an illusion of healing when in fact it was pure avoidance and disassociation with my on-the-ground reality. It’s taken until 2021, when I resumed weekly trauma therapy, to look at essays like this one and see how hard I was trying to make things that weren’t acceptable magically okay through sheer force of pretending. As I’m going through all my old drafts, essays like this remind me of how much deeper I actually needed to dig in order to rise above the traumas I’ve survived, pun intended. Also, my aerophobia continues; I haven’t been on an airplane in almost 8 years. Magical thinking didn’t do shit to cure it.

In many ways I grew up on airplanes. Because of my mother’s job with UNICEF, airplanes shuttled me and my family several times a year on long-haul flights across the world from our homes in Sri Lanka, Zambia, Thailand, Pakistan, and India for home leaves in Milwaukee and Colombo. A 10-hour flight or longer was par for the course; layovers an expected hassle for as long as I can remember. And as a child I loved being up in the air. Everything felt simpler aboard a jetliner, stripped down to our basics and cut off from social contact other than those on board. These were the pre-Internet days where travel meant disconnection, and sometimes for days depending on how far you were going. As a kid it was enchanting being on a plane, ensconced in a loud mechanical bird flying far above the clouds, the perfect time to read and write in my journal. There was a magical sense of in-betweenness on an airplane, a feeling of neither here nor there, one for which I’d learn the word decades later in college: liminal—a transitional phase, initial stage, or occupying a space at/on the borders between several things.

That liminal sensation on an airplane comforted me in a way that life on the ground didn’t and often couldn’t. Being in between, being in transition, being not quite one or the other was the story of my life having been born to a white American woman and a Tamil-Sinhalese Sri Lankan man, a couple who for the most part didn’t live and didn’t raise their children in countries of their own origin. As a child, nowhere felt like home except for airplanes. Like many other Third Culture Kids—the blanket term used for people who spent their developmental years outside their parents’ passport countries—I was born liminal, born to exist in borderlands, and airplanes understood me and the kind of life I was living in a way that for many is still impossible to comprehend, including my own parents.

When I tell people I grew up all over the world I am often met with envy and the assumption of glamorous jet-setting. People are always surprised even disbelieving when I tell them that not only was it challenging being a part of a biracial and intercultural family before there was any awareness or education on how culture clashes in the home can psychologically affect children in developmental phases, moving every few years further instilled in me an ironic foundation of rootlessness, a perpetual sense of not belonging that included my own blended family. My father never hesitated to remind me that my independence, willfulness, feminism meant that I would never be a “real” Sri Lankan woman. My white grandmother in America also made sure I knew that I’d never be a “real” American thanks to my “Third World father,” bemoaning the fact that my mom didn’t even have the good sense to marry a Black American if she was going to pair up and breed with “a colored.” She used worse language but still, #TrueStory.

My displacement was not only external, from one of my mom’s international posts to the next, but also internal as I struggled to understand where a mixed race Third Culture Kid fits into a world that seemed to be built for black and white experiences, not the grey shades of mine. Also, when you’re cut off from your own cultures and heritage on all sides by your own family and aren’t permitted to engage with a guest culture on a deeper level, it creates a special kind of void that results in lifelong depression. Instead of a home or a culture being an anchoring point, a profound sadness was the glue that held me together. From as long as I remember, I was displaced from connecting with my own heritage in productive ways. Along with being denied even the idea of a stable long-term home, I was essentially denied an identity as well.

My sense of internal displacement had deepened exponentially in 2000 after witnessing a dear friend’s murder in a random robbery, and post-traumatic stress disorder entered my already-conflict laden inner life. I had to testify against the murderers in court over a period of two years, all the while dealing with the acute symptoms of PTSD including flashbacks, depression, suicidal ideation, digestive problems, insomnia, nightmares, and crippling anxiety that made even the simplest of daily tasks a Sisyphean hurdle. When in intensive grief and trauma therapy it turned out that the horrifying trauma of witnessing a murder had in turn provoked previous traumas from my childhood, as well as the sexual assaults I survived while in college. Every traumatic event that had ever happened to me came to the surface along with my friend’s death, the majority of these other traumas being things I had sealed away in vaults and most of which I’d never even shared with others until I was suddenly forced to confront dozens of old traumas anew. My sense of internal displacement was here at its peak, and lead to an actual suicide attempt along with a hold in a psychiatric ward. There is only so much a mind can take before it breaks, and I had reached that point long before my friend’s murder.

As the years have gone by and my liminal life has continued—from Los Angeles, to Berkeley, Geneva, Thoiry, Seville, Granada, Istanbul, Prague, Cologne, Boca Raton, and ultimately settling in Lighthouse Point, Florida—my enjoyment of those transitional moments of time up in the air lessened and lessened to the point where at 37 I now have crippling aerophobia that prevents me from flying at all. I haven’t flown on an airplane in almost three years, a personal record in my globally nomadic life. While plane travel has certainly become more and more problematic in the post-9/11 years, and the fact that we now live in a world where planes disappear into thin air for reasons unknown, my physical and anxious reaction to air travel has its own roots. My body has been balking at change after a lifetime of constant adapting to new places and cultures, and the extreme anxiety airplanes now provoke is accompanied by a whole host of other physical symptoms like insomnia, constipation, lowered immune function, and other physical, emotional, and psychological manifestations. I am no longer able to take comfort in these transitional phases, and my body wants nothing more than what it’s always wanted: to find a permanent home for the long-term. 

I’ve tried to spin my internal and external displacement with positive metaphors like the lotus, which carries its own roots and can thrive in the murkiest of waters. Or the self-contained tumbleweed that can decide on its own when to put down or pick up its roots and let the wind carry it off, like me for so many years riding in airplanes. Or mermaids, those enchanting hybrid monsters who straddle water and land worlds, or the fae folk who fly about doing the same. While these metaphors are comforting in small ways and have helped me produce some provocative performance art and writing projects, they’ve never quite been enough to bridge a lifetime of canyons that demarcate my experiences from one transition to the next.

In 2011, when my husband and I were forced unexpectedly to repatriate to the United States, we ended up in the corner of Southeast Florida where he grew up. I’ve never been more a mermaid out of water than here, in spite of living just minutes from the beach. Florida is hands down the strangest place I’ve ever lived, and its denizens continue to mystify me with their superficial nature, willful ignorance, and consumerist fixations. Even stranger is that of all the hostile places I’ve lived in the world, a state in my passport country wins the prize. Racism and sexism are rampant here; this is Trumpland after all.

My senses of internal and external displacement both were never so acute as when we’d drive past strip mall upon strip mall, the same but different iterations of supermarkets, restaurants, pawn shops and gun stores in each one, a landscape of indistinguishable billboards and highways melting together in a distressing watercolor spill. It seemed places like this are where culture comes to die. That sadness which had been my lifelong companion almost reached its deepest depths of all time here, and for my own mental health I had to begin finding positives in my Florida life if I was going to survive. For the sake of my husband, I didn’t want a repeat of why I left America the first time.

I began practicing daily gratitude, a wonderful Buddhist-inspired exercise that began alleviating my depression almost immediately. My husband and I began seeking out enchanting sites around Florida every chance we could get, like the eccentric island of Key West—a haven of cool weird just 4.5 hours away by car. And actual magic appeared in Orlando 3 hours away when Harry Potter World opened in Universal Studios. Frequent trips between my two new favorite places on the planet were punctuated by jaunts down to my third, South Beach, and its lively vibe and gorgeous art deco architecture. All these visits bit by bit proved that Florida wasn’t limited to my sleepy beachtown village and that there are indeed people more on my wavelength not that far away.

I gave in and began putting down emotional as well as physical roots into Florida’s sand, tricky because it’s always shifting, but doable if determined enough. I also turned inward and began the new challenge of unifying the pieces of my divided self into a cohesive unit that now works with me rather than against me. Through extended bouts of solitude, writing, and long visits staring out at the ocean I began forging complex internal bridges between all those ruptures and traumas both big and small. Thanks to my time in Florida, I have become the most whole I’ve ever been.

Even though Lighthouse Point is my home for the foreseeable future, since the American election results—and for the first time in years—I’ve anew been daydreaming about all the different places we could move, Frida Kahlo’s town of Coyoacán in Mexico being especially on my mind. When it comes down to it I’d prefer living on their side of Donald Trump’s wall, and I’ve been busy making all the logistical arrangements in my head. What things I would toss, which beloved books will make yet another international move, which art would I give away and what will come with me; I have a list of my favorite supplies I’ll need to stock up on before we go. I’m quietly preparing for no more high-speed Internet and the cable television shows on which I’ve come to rely for escape.

I’m dreaming about fresh tamal and taco vendors on the street; homemade mescal and tequila from the source. I’m taking comfort in the fact that even though I am anchored in Florida for the moment and for many good reasons, I am one of the privileged who in fact can always pick up and fly away. In this imaginary context of a future in Mexico my aerophobia abates, and I find myself welcoming a new liminal phase in my life. I see myself writing in my journal and drinking a margarita on the beach, looking out at the Pacific Ocean, speaking Spanish, and even thinking about where I might move to next after Mexico has revealed her secrets. Addis Ababa? Buenos Aires? Havana? Now that I’m not so internally displaced, it appears that external displacement isn’t so frightening anymore.

Lighthouse Point, FL
November 13, 2016

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