The Trials and Tribulations of Egypt’s Third Culture Kids
By Ahmed Maged
Reprinted from ‘Daily News Egypt’ (August 18, 2008)
CAIRO: ‘Cross culture children’, ‘natty nomads’, ‘cultural chameleons’ are all around us. But away from what may sound like derogatory names, sociologists call them Third Culture Kids (TCK) — a term coined decades ago to describe the conditions of children exposed to the values and lifestyle of one or several cultures before returning to settle permanently in their homeland. In the process they manage to integrate elements of those cultures and their own birth culture into a third culture.
But as TCKs begin to mingle with their compatriots and attempt to adapt and share experiences, an inward conflict often arises, deterring them from joining the mainstream culture.
According to sociological research, regardless of nationality, TCKs tend to have more in common with one another than they do with non-TCKs from their own country.
Although popular sites like Facebook, Myspace, and TCKID have groups devoted to TCKs, the phenomenon has received little recognition by Egyptian and Arab researchers and expatriates alike.
Hilaliya, a weblog published in English by a Kuwaiti TCK, is perhaps the only channel from the region devoted to a group of Arab TCKs.
Dr Nadra Wahdan, a sociologist at the National Planning Institute in Cairo, warned that ignoring the issue could slowly lead to a different type of brain drain.
“The subject hasn’t been researched the way it should,” Wahdan told Daily News Egypt. “This is because the trend in Egypt is multifaceted and confusing. You might get people returning from Dubai dressed in tight jeans and others returning from Saudi Arabia wearing a ‘niqab’ (full face cover),” said Wahdan.
The same also applies to Europe and US-based Egyptian expatriates, she explained. “While some of them are Westernized from top to toe, others surprisingly adhere to the hijab and stringent Islamic values.”
Dr Ahmed Eid, a professor of psychology at Ein Shams University’s Education Faculty, believes that the foreign country from which TCKs hail is a factor that could either play down or accentuate the phenomenon in Egypt.
“Because the majority of Egyptian repatriates originally lived in Arab countries whose cultures resemble that of Egypt, aspects of adaptation among their children are totally different from those who were based in the West,” Eid told Daily News Egypt.
Generally Egyptian TCKs belong to the well-to-do class of diplomats, missionaries, mobile businessmen, employees of multinational companies, government agents based abroad as well as a broad range of privileged officials that tend to increase under the umbrella of globalization.
Because they are provided a lot of perks like posh houses, admission into international schools, memberships in classy clubs, free air tickets and package tours, they are often thought to be spoilt, but research revealed that TCKs, regardless of nationality, are adaptable, globally-oriented, multicultural in outlook and in many cases, multilingual.
They are also good observers, less judgmental and less prejudicial than their non-mobile counterparts.
However, the majority of them feel out of their element with their local peers. It is enough to access hilaliya.com to identify some of the locals’ reactions to them.
They might lack a sense of “where home is” but are often nationalistic. Some exhibit a desire to “settle down”, others “a restlessness to move.” Depression and suicide are more prominent among TCK’s.
In Egypt, analysis indicates that contradictions in Egyptian TCKs’ characters and outlook are a function of expatriate communities that are becoming more isolated as a result of complex social and political factors.
“Adaptation again?” says Hoda Badrani, a Belgium-based Egyptian.
A mother of three kids who were born and raised in Brussels, Badrani noted: “In Belgium we are bombarded with researchers’ questions about whether we’re adapting to their society. I don’t believe the adaptation question should be raised again in the children’s own homeland.”
Happy to spend the summer with their extended family in Egypt, Badrani’s children, aged 17, 15 and10, are dreaming of the day when they would move back permanently.
“I never thought what their life would be like if we decide to settle here, especially when they have never ventured out of Heliopolis,” said Badrani.
“But after they finish college it’s up to them to come back to Egypt or live like nomads.”
Badrani and others know very little about the tragedies and success stories of TCKs.
Laila Amer, 45, left Egypt in 1975 at the age of 12 when her father started a business in Dubai. A student at the French school and a swimming champion, moving to the then small town of Dubai was a big culture shock.
“There were only few activities for girls, no real entertainment channels, and no French schools. Imagine the impact of the change on a young girl,” she told Daily News Egypt.
“But I managed to survive. When it was time for college, I came back to Cairo. But I could only cope with it for a few months. The difficult college curriculum, busy streets and life without my parents all put me off,” recalled the Egyptian expat who continues to live in Dubai.
The experience left her unable to pursue a higher degree, so she married a French TCK, which she thinks was a wise decision. “I realized that living with a non-TCK would have created a lot of problems.”
But the experience of Samia Kamel, 75, a retired civil servant who was educated in the UK and the US, is another eye-opener.
“When I returned in the late 1950s, for me Egypt was a new domain,” said Kamel.
“Of course I cherished childhood memories but to live here was a totally different thing,” she said.
“My husband failed to understand my need to move around freely and the way I approached issues. At work I was admired for my language proficiency but I couldn’t fit into any key position because I was ignorant of cultural nuances.
“Regrettably, it was too late when I began to assess the problem, but I can’t blame it on my parents either, for at that time there was no shred of awareness about how to deal with a TCK. I doubt if people know about it in Egypt today either,” regretted Kamel.
Mona Saeed, 40 and Azza Nafee, 39, are the daughters of diplomats and are both divorced. They believe their divorces are the result of a dramatic difference in outlook between them and their ex-husbands.
“As a working woman I was raised in an environment where joining feminist societies and express your opinion on certain matters openly were the norm. I couldn’t fit into my divorcee’s model of a wife,” said Azza.
“A lot of non-TCKs are initially attracted to a cross-culture child for qualities like Western education, knowledge of languages, the status of his or her parents, the way they dress, but after marriage they begin to ask their spouses to conform to the model of a traditional Egyptian wife. This is impossible,” noted Mona.
Sociologist Wahdan points to examples where awareness about the issue has led some of the conservative Egyptian expats in the US to marry off their daughters to US citizens.
But Eid believes that such marriages are less prone to failure if the mother was not a TCK. “The mother always has a bigger role to play and however strong the influence of a TCK father is, it can never rival that of the mother,” he said.
But cases like that of Samer Hassan, 33, challenge his theory. An accountant, Hassan changed his major three times and broke up three engagements, after he returned from Qatar at the age of 19 to pursue a university degree.
On the other hand Mohamed Habib, 24, an investment banker, who spent his whole life in the UAE, seems to fit right in.
“I came to Cairo to find a job and this was easy with my qualifications and with Egypt turning global,” said Habib.
“But I’m on a journey of rediscovery Egypt. … The Egypt of my parents and black and white movies doesn’t exist anymore and I’m not looking for it. That’s why I’m happy to be here for now.”