While visiting her dad’s native village in Burkina Faso, Montreal’s Talata Sawadogo-Lewis met another Talata.


Originally published in the Montreal Gazette, Dec. 18, 2010.

When you’ve lived in four countries by the time you’re 10, it’s a question bound to trigger some angst

By Lindsey Craig

It’s never an easy question: “Are you going home for the holidays?”

For three young Montrealers in particular, “home” is difficult to define – because they’ve had so many.

“It’s hard to pinpoint,” said Shuvadeep Mitra, 25, who grew up in India and Thailand before moving to Canada. “I feel I don’t belong somewhere, but I belong everywhere all at the same time.”

Malki know exactly what he means. For all three, the well-meaning question cuts straight to the heart of something they constantly struggle with: Identity.

Sawadogo-Lewis, Mitra and Malki are what some sociologists call Third Culture Kids or Trans-Cultural-Kids.

Sociologist Ruth Hill Useem defines Third Culture Kids as those who have spent a significant part of their developmental years outside their parents’ culture. They build relationships to all the cultures they’re exposed to, but don’t have full ownership in any.

Mitra Jordan specializes in cross-cultural counselling in Victoria, B.C. She says little research exists on Third Culture Kids, but naming it is helpful. “It creates an understanding for an individual’s own experience or restlessness.”

Baby on board

Sawadogo-Lewis’s transcontinental life took hold at three weeks of age. That’s when she moved with her family from Montreal to Rwanda. By the age of 10, she’d lived in four countries.

“You lack a feeling of belonging,” said the 20-year-old McGill University science student, noting that, like Malki, she didn’t know the term Third Culture Kid existed until recently.

All three are quick to acknowledge there are advantages of having lived international lives.

“We’re very accepting, and we know a lot about the world,” said Malki, 28, a doctoral student at the Universite de Montreal, who spent half her youth in Morocco and half in Canada.

“You become a very open person,” Mitra noted. “I know I can go anywhere in the world and survive . . . I think I gained from it.”

But Third Culture Kids can also face depression, restlessness, isolation, relationship difficulties, identity issues and more, some research suggests.

Growing up in both Canadian and Moroccan culture was difficult for Yasmina Malki.

Born in Rabat, Morocco, Malki began a life split between two countries at the age of 3. That’s when her parents divorced and her father moved to Canada. Trying to fit into the two societies was hard.

For example, certain types of dress and behaviour were accepted in one place but not the other.

She remembers her first evening out with Québécoise girlfriends in Montreal: “They told me I dressed like a kid; I wasn’t sexy enough.” She was still dressing the way she had in Morocco, where the feminine clothing girls wear in Canada wouldn’t be socially acceptable.

“I didn’t know who I was,” Malki said. “It was painful for a lot of years.”

Once she began at UQAM, finding a group of friends was tough. With francophone Quebecers, she felt like an outsider.

But among Canadian-born Moroccans, “it was a total disaster as well,” she said. She felt immature in comparison; she’d had fewer freedoms and less responsibility than her peers in Canada.

Meanwhile, acceptance in Morocco hasn’t come easily for her since she grew up attending international French school and never learned Arabic.

When she was 16, she recalls one boy making fun of her. “He was like, ‘You don’t even understand what I’m saying. You’re not from here, you’re not from Canada. Where are you from?’” she said.

“It literally depressed me so much, because it raised the question that I’m a born Moroccan but I can’t relate to the culture.”

Says Jordan: “When we can’t connect to a place we can’t work out who we are.”

Talata’s Quebecois mom, right, with Talata’s grandma in Burkina Faso.

Sawadogo-Lewis’s childhood was even more culturally diverse than Malki’s.

In addition to Rwanda, she also lived in Mali, Burkina Faso and Montreal, with her teen years at an international French school in Washington, D.C.

Her “third culture” combines the influences of all five places, and family from both Quebec and West Africa.

When she was a child living in Burkina Faso, her grandma, who lived in a less-populated area of the country, came to visit.

“I remember she was actually surprised by electricity,” Sawadogo-Lewis said. “Having the light come on blew her mind. And my eight-year-old self was like, ‘Duh’.”

So varied are the cultural influences in the family that Sawadogo-Lewis couldn’t even speak with her grandma because they didn’t share a language.

Her grandma’s mother tongue was Moore (pronounced “moor-ee”).

Sawadogo-Lewis speaks French and English, and is the only member of her family (out of her two sisters, brother and parents) who is most comfortable in English, though French is her first language.

Her siblings are most comfortable in French, though they all can speak English. Her eldest sister, Agnes, 37, of Montreal, was born in Burkina Faso, and her first language is Moore. Sawadogo-Lewis’s father’s first language is Moore; his second language is French.

No small wonder that with a white, French-Canadian mom and a West African dad, identifying herself has never been clear-cut for Sawadogo-Lewis.

Colour vs. culture

With black people, she says she’s from Burkina Faso.

But with a white person, she says one parent is from Africa, and the other is French-Canadian, careful to emphasize her Québécois roots because white people often assume she’s an immigrant.

“Part of the problem with race is that it’s a false marker. Race is not culture,” said Morton Weinfeld, sociology professor at McGill University and Chair in Canadian Ethnic Studies.

One consequence of Sawadogo-Lewis’s global upbringing has been in the bonds she forms. “My interactions with people have an expiry date,” she said. “I have no problem leaving friends and breaking friendships…. It’s not good.”

Having lived in so many places also means “settling down” is a scary concept.

Searching for home

Burkina Faso will never be home, she said, because she doesn’t agree with the woman’s role in society.

“It’s wife and mother first above anything else,” said the soon-to-be university graduate, who’s pursuing a master’s degree.

At the same time, Sawadogo-Lewis says “home” won’t be in Montreal, either.

“I don’t feel Québécoise. I lost the accent, and I don’t get a lot of cultural references,” she said, recalling a time when she was at a comedy club with her Québécois friends. “They were all laughing at these jokes, and I was just sitting there like, ‘I don’t get it.’”

When she looks to the future, it’s difficult for her to say where she’ll end up.

“The notion of staying in one place kind of stresses me out,” she said, given that her entire life has been spent moving around.

“It’s all I know,” she said.

That restlessness is shared by Mitra, who works as a scientist in Laval.

Shuvadeep Mitra, far left, with his mom, dad and sister at his sister’s university graduation in the U.S.

He, too, grew up zigzagging across the globe, learning five languages along the way.

Born in India, he moved with his family to Thailand when he was nine, and ended up finishing high school in Ontario.

He then went to the University of Toronto before beginning graduate studies in Montreal.

He’s been here since 2008, and while he loves the city, he knows his feet will get itchy soon.

“I feel the need for change, to re-energize,” he said.

Does he have any attachment to the countries in his passport?

“I don’t feel anything,” he said.

A recent return to India demonstrates the disconnect.

At a local market, Mitra’s cousin insisted on speaking for him so vendors wouldn’t hear his accent and “jack up the prices.”

“I feel like a foreigner in the country I was born in, the country I grew up in, and in Canada,” he said.

Though he feels like a foreigner here in Canada, he’ll celebrate Christmas in Ontario this year, since his dad and sister are living there. His mom will travel from Bangkok to join them.

Mitra notes that his family can spend Christmas anywhere in the world – which is typical, said Weinfeld.

“Their home is wherever their family is – the family is a portable homeland,” he said.

This year, Malki’s portable homeland for the holidays will be in France. That’s where her boyfriend – also a Third Culture Kid – recently moved.

Yasmina Malki says she and her boyfriend, a fellow third culture kid, will likely choose to live in a completely new country.

She says they’ll discuss plans to settle in Brazil and start a life from scratch. That’s because neither feels comfortable enough in France, Canada or Morocco.

For Malki, Moroccan society is too religious and conservative, given the more liberal values she gained while living in Canada.

She also finds France too expensive and stressful.

And Canada? Too cold. She misses the Moroccan sun.

“I’m looking for somewhere I can have western values, but with a dolce vita life,” she said.

Spending the holidays in France, and not her current or native country, doesn’t bother her too much, she says, as long as she’s with someone she loves.

That’s the kind of attitude Jordan says is essential.

“You’ve got to recognize the advantages of having that identity, and to use your own strengths and resources to get through,” she said, noting that finding a way to stay connected to family and friends, even with the geographical challenge, is crucial.

This year, overcoming that geographical challenge won’t be too difficult for Sawadogo-Lewis.

Her parents, who live in Washington, D.C., are taking Sawadogo-Lewis, her two sisters and brother to Burkina Faso.

The trip will be to honour her dad’s mother, who died one year ago.

“It’s part of the culture to have the funeral one year after the person’s death,” she said, noting the event will be more a celebration of her grandmother’s life, complete with dancing until sunrise.

“It’ll be awesome,” she says of the trip.

But even though she’ll be with her family – in the village where half of her ancestors are from– it still won’t be considered “home.”

“Home is the walls around my parents at that current time,” she said, adding, “I’m at home everywhere and nowhere at once.”