Summer Memories

By Martina Wolf

Going home
When the summer’s coming in
And the moonlight on the river
Shows me where I’ve been…[1]

Summer is a bittersweet time, a time of endings as well as beginnings. It is the end of the academic year, the end of yet another semester, the beginning of exam season as well as the beginning of festival season. As I’m sitting in the university cafeteria, watching the comings and goings of the students, my thoughts inevitably turn to other summers, other places, and a different university. Facebook is cruel in that respect; it shows me memories of a long-ago graduation and images of people I used to work with when the millennium was still brand-new.

Every July, I remember Scotland, the time spent there. Six years I’ve lived there, not much over the course of an entire life, but highly significant in determining who I am today. I’ve since moved half a dozen times, returned to my passport country, found a job, found love, started a second degree. And yet. I still consider Scotland my home, despite everything that’s happened since I left.

What is home? These students outside the cafeteria – would they consider Essen their home? Or is home still the place where they grew up? The international students I work with, are they at home here? What about the department of modern languages staff at the university, who’ve come from Spain, Britain, Canada, Latin America, the USA to teach the language and literature of their home countries to us students? Do they consider themselves at home here? What makes a place a home? A shared language, a similar culture maybe. Knowing that you’re here to stay, that you’re not leaving after a certain, pre-determined period of time. Living in Beijing in the ‘90s and in Riga in 2006-2007 felt different to living in Scotland or moving back to Germany. Beijing in 1996 was completely, utterly foreign. In Riga, I knew I was only ever going to stay a year or two; I had no intention of ever leaving Scotland. It made sense to make myself at home in Scotland, to fully integrate. But still, a slight sense of foreign-ness prevailed, my experiences of constantly moving, of having gone to multiple schools, of lacking certain shared childhood experiences meant I was never 100% fully at home. There is always something missing, no matter where you are.

In today’s globalised world, the numbers of people like myself are increasing. More and more children are growing up as so-called “Third Culture Kids”, or TCKs, cultural nomads, able to adapt quickly to new surroundings. We collect places, languages, cultures like other people collect stamps, but can we build a home with the same ease? Justin B. Hopkins, in his autoethnographic study Coming “Home”: An Autoethnographic Exploration of Third Culture Kid Transition[2] talks about the five stages of transition from culture to culture: involvement, leaving, transition, entering, reinvolvement[3]  and how they related to his experiences coming “home” to the US after having spent his entire life up to this point in Senegal. His experience sounds similar to mine: involvement in a particular culture, leaving this culture, transitioning and entering into a new culture before making oneself at home (reinvolvement). His observations at the end ring particularly true. Even after returning to one’s home culture, that sense of otherness remains. After speaking English for so long and hearing everyone use first names at work, suddenly being addressed as “Frau Wolf” sounds jarringly unfamiliar and working out when to use “du” and when to use “Sie” is a minefield. Instead of being a foreigner in the host culture, you are now the one who left and came back, bringing with you strange and foreign customs and habits. So you spend your life a wanderer between the worlds, at home and yet not at home. As a consequence of not truly feeling at home in either culture, TCKs often develop a sense of belonging to a group of peers with a shared history of moving places.

Growing up as a TCK has certainly made me the person I am today, but it was only after reading about other people’s experiences I understood why this was the case. The central question remains: What is home? Where do I belong? The question “Where are you from?” will get anyone who asks a very convoluted answer, along the lines of “It’s complicated…” This central question at the heart of the TCK experience can only be answered by each individual themselves. Some stay forever adrift; others manage the transition smoothly and fully reintegrate into their country of origin even after years of living abroad. I will probably spend the rest of my life looking at pictures of those long-gone summers, feeling a little bit nostalgic.

[1] Runrig. „Going Home“. The Highland Connection. Ridge Records. 1979

[2] Hopkins, Justin B. Coming “Home”: An Autoethnographic Exploration of Third Culture Kid Transition. Qualitative Inquiry 2015, Vol. 21(9) 812–820

[3] Pollock, D. C., & Van Reken, R. E. (2009). Third culture kids: The experience of growing up among worlds. As quoted in Hopkins, Justin B. Coming “Home”: An Autoethnographic Exploration of Third Culture Kid Transition. Qualitative Inquiry 2015, Vol. 21(9) 812–820

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