Having parents from two different countries, and living in a city that happens to be literally on the other side of the world from those countries, is not an easy task. Being a third culture child is hard – it’s a feeling of never truly fitting in. It’s like being an oval piece in the game Operation. When you pick it up and try to put it in the circle hole, at first you don’t notice that it doesn’t fit. But when you take a closer look at it, you realize it’s not a perfect circle, or a square, it’s just a different piece all together – it’s an oval, a unique piece that is different from every other.
My mother is from Mexico, and my father is from the US. While I consider myself a citizen of the world, my passport says I’m Mexican. When I was 10, my mom moved my 8-year-old brother and I to Beijing, leaving Mexico City behind. At first I thought, "Great! I’m going to learn Chinese and go back home speaking three languages: English, Spanish and Chinese. What a great advantage!"
Little did I know, things would not quite turn out that way. My mom had a two year contract, so we knew we would stay here for that time at least. That I would forget what life is like in Mexico never passed my mind. When I arrived in Beijing, I felt like a typical Mexican girl in a foreign country. I compared everything to the way things were in Mexico or in the US. I didn’t feel like I belonged. I felt people stare at me on the streets. I felt watched, I stood out.
Naturally, as time passed, I learned Chinese. My mom kept extending her contract indefinitely and I grew closer to China. I started to feel like I knew how things worked. By the time I was into my second year, I could speak decent Chinese and started to get in touch with the real Beijing (instead of just going to Carrefour, Silk Street and Sanlitun Village).
I went to local markets to buy flowers, I started hopping on the subway and taking public buses all the time. I felt like I had so much freedom – a freedom I had never experienced before.
In Mexico, due to the lack of security, I was hardly ever allowed to do anything on my own. My mother would freak out at the thought of me going to the store across the street, let alone taking the subway or catching a taxi alone. In Beijing, asking: "Mom, can I take a taxi to Sanlitun Village so I can go and watch a movie with my friends?" is so common, and often answered with a: "Sure, honey, be back before curfew. Take care." In Mexico City, her typical answer was: "You know I wish I could say ‘Yes,’ but the streets here are not safe."
Now, when I go back to Mexico, I feel a little nervous talking to the locals because sometimes I forget sophisticated or colloquial words in Spanish. And when it comes to writing, my hands get sweaty and I instantly feel like I need to get a dictionary (my spelling is atrocious).
Since we are not planning to live in Mexico anytime soon, I don’t worry that much, but deep down inside it scares me to go back home; to be laughed at for saying the wrong word, or even worse: for not knowing the right, current version of the word.
Half of my summer is usually spent traveling around Asia, and the other half is spent in the US. So in some way, I feel like the US is my home as well. In school, I’m at a native-English level, but I make all these non-native speaker mistakes and grammar screw-ups. I’ve pretty much forgotten how to write my mother tongue; I don’t speak Chinese perfectly but I don’t speak English perfectly either. The way I feel about not having a country is the same I feel about not having a language.
Feeling like you don’t belong anywhere is temporary, because you actually "fit" everywhere after a while. You’re more sensitive to other cultures, and you adapt to situations, you have a high tolerance for other people. I believe this flexibility is what makes a better world. But in order to stay sane, don’t forget to keep your family’s traditions; or make new ones so your family’s personal touch isn’t completely lost.
Camila Tamayo is 14 years old and attends Beijing City International School.