As mentioned several times again, my recent trip to Europe with my sisters was prompted by a Facebook connection of my sister with a former classmate and nostalgia over the best part of our life growing up in communist East Berlin in the 1980s.
In the 20 years or so since we left, we have often wondered about the people we left behind. So, I’m sure it came as a shock to my sister to hear from one of these people out of the blue one day last year. Actually, at first she thought it was one of us playing a prank on her. All of a sudden though, the often said line “we need to go back to Berlin” became more urgent. Now, there was a reason to “go back”.
This friend met us at the end of our week in Berlin. My sister quizzed him as to what he remembered of her, did he like her then, what made him look for her on Facebook, did they (classmates) miss her when she didn’t return to school that fall, what happened to everyone?
The next day we met up again for lunch. This time the friend brought another classmate and his brother (who was the classmate of my other sister). Again the same questions. Again a good time.
When it was time to say our goodbyes, my sister burst out in tears. For the rest of the day, she was subdued.
It got me thinking.
When I started this blog back in 2006 (goodness, it’s been that long), my first post was about identity and finding myself or being comfortable with myself. I had felt the need to begin in that way as a way to explain to readers why it is I say the things I say and do the things I do even though the post was all about how I wasn’t going to explain myself anymore. I had come to terms with myself. With my childhood. And I had passed the stage of wondering if my childhood was make-believe and wondering what if? What if we never left Berlin, our home?
In that blog post, I explored the concept of a third-culture kid, an individual “who has spent a
significant part of the developmental years outside the parents’ culture
building relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full
ownership in any”. You would think that the person who most understands a third-culture kid would be their sibling, but I don’t think that is entirely the case.
Just as siblings who grow up together in one place are different from each other because of their birth order and how they are treated based on that birth order, or because of their intrinsic personality differences, or because of age difference that therefore dictates different exposures in time, we too are different because we lived in these various parts of the world at different times in our lives. For example, the youngest of us was born in Germany and left at the age of four and therefore really has no nostalgic memories except that which we gave her. Having lived then in Ghana until age 7, and in the US since, she is essentially as American as you would expect immigrant American children to be and as clueless about Ghana, her “passport country”, as you would expect. She is not a TCK per say because that day when her parents would drag her back to her passport country in her years of awareness never came.
I on the other hand, as explained in my initial post, have had many identities to juggle with and still need to start considering the US home because it is since I’ve lived here 18 years already (longer than anywhere else).
I guess I was surprised with the line of questioning my sister was asking her former classmates and with her outburst of tears when we parted ways with them because as an out-going sociable person, I didn’t think she was stuck in the past. I started to wonder when upon arrival in Germany she would ask questions about the Berlin of today (especially questions of race relations) looking for something negative, as if it to say “yes it was good that we left after all”. It didn’t take her long to hear people call her “dunkel” (dark), or to feel that people were pushing past her in line at the grocery store because her blackness made her invisible.
I don’t think my parting Berlin was as painful as hers. Sure I wanted to stay as well. But unlike the rest of my sisters I went to school with British military kids. We were all foreigners in Berlin. Somebody was always leaving or coming and each term we would have an assembly that allowed us to say hello or goodbye to whoever’s turn it was so I knew that one day I too would leave. I didn’t wonder what are they doing without me? Instead I pondered where in the world are they now? And when we returned in Ghana, I just counted down the days to when we would move again, because I was that sure that sure we were not in Ghana to stay. But my sisters went to local German school with the same group of people from kindergarten up and probably if we hadn’t left Berlin would have gone through high school with them. So I can imagine how it must feel to be uprooted (all of a sudden and without warning) and wonder what are they doing without you. How could they continue to live their lives without you? Was your absence not felt?
Which brings me to the question is home a place or a feeling? And should that matter now that we are adults, now that we should know who we are and where we are from?
I can’t speak for my sisters but I know that I enjoyed my trip to Berlin and I would return there again (to visit) in a heartbeat. I would even consider living there if life dictated that. Although when we touched down in Berlin, we all exclaimed “we are home”, I guess I never considered Berlin home for what made it physically home were my parents and siblings and we all left together as a unit. Also, having gone to the British military schools, I was more culturally British than culturally German and it was made pretty clear to me that I was not British when upon leaving Berlin for good we spent a few months in London prior to going to Ghana. Hmmph!