I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about you that’s… different. Odd. Maybe even strange.
It’s the colour of your skin. Oh, no wait – it’s the texture of your hair. Actually, come to think of it, your eye colour is pretty odd, too.
And hey, your accent is funny. You’re not from around here are you?
What is that strange looking dish you’re eating? Try it? Are you crazy! Where I come from – we don’t eat so much parsley. Oh – you mean that’s not parsley?
We humans are social animals. The need to fit in and belong to some kind of tribe is primal and deeply ingrained in our psychology.
But for us third culture kids – that’s never going to happen.
Especially not in Japan where there are really only four kinds of people.
Japanese people and foreigners. Men and women.
“It doesn’t matter what colour or creed you are,” Aida said to me over beer and wieners at Minato Mirai’s Oktoberfest. “If you look different, you are automatically gaijin.”
Gaijin isn’t quite the politically correct term to refer to foreigners – which is obviously why everyone uses it.
I met Aida a couple of months back. She intrigued me. With her melodious voice, kind eyes and warm smile – I felt right at home in her presence. The connection was instantaneous.
I’ve only known her for a few months, but it feels like bloody forever. Since then we’ve had many girls’ days out. She’s one of the most incredible women I’ve ever met.
In Japan, I reckon you never quite know someone till you go for Karaoke with them. It’s when you get to see somebody let go. Dance, sing, that type of thing. White boy shuffles, shy people and show offs strictly not allowed. Aida and I sang: Michael Jackson, Pink Floyd, Oasis – as well as other more embarrassing song choices that I won’t reveal.
Aida, an American of Italian and Egyptian descent, came to Japan for love. She’s married to a hafu: a term used in Japan to refer to someone who’s biracial. Aida met her half-Egyptian husband in a gallery in Cairo: a city her own parents met in.
Her father was a pilot. Her mother: who speaks fluent Arabic was working for a cousin at the time. It was love at first sight.
Her great grandfather, Vittorio Guiliano, was one of the Italian architects involved in the building of the Abdeen Palace: the former official residence of the king.
Born in the US, Aida went to Egypt when she was 4 and would live there till she turned 22. But still, it never quite felt like home.
“I was an American in a British private school,” she said. “I spoke British English instead of American English. Arabic was my second language and French was my third. Italian was and is an ongoing attempt. It’s a language I’ve always dreamt of speaking. I regret not learning it when I was younger.”
But the difference didn’t end with Aida’s British accent. It extended to her Arabic: as it often does with third culture kids. Whether we like it or not – there’s always going to be something ‘different’ about the way we speak.
“Whenever I spoke to people in Arabic,” she said. “They’d think I was from the Levant region. Egyptian Arabic is very colloquial and I don’t talk like the man on the street. I spoke classical Arabic: like they do in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine.”
Growing up, Aida’s exposure to her Italian heritage was largely limited to her mother and grandmother. Italian was this secret language her grandma and her sisters would speak to each other in to keep the kids out of the loop. Aida always admired her tenacious and spirited nonna.
Nonna was not just tenacious and spirited, but she and her sisters were the life of Aida’s family. They were what held them all together, literally, near or far. The trio: Nonna, Sophia and Manini, brought them together. They were Aida’s idols.
In 2009, Aida started visiting Italy. She instantly felt at home, despite having spent most of her life in Egypt.
This didn’t surprise to me. Most people tend to identify more strongly with their mother’s culture than their father’s.
“English will always be that common language,” she said. “The one that gets you through and connects you to others. But I have no emotional relationship to it. English will never capture the depth and spiritual beauty that Arabic has. And Italian will always be that language for all the emotions I feel that I can never fully express.”
After Aida’s British private school education ended, she enrolled in an American University located in Egypt’s heart: downtown Tahir Square, where the pulse of the city resides. It was then that she started tackling the local of the Egyptian streets and began to really understand how different she was to regular Egyptians.
She started asking herself those two big questions: ‘who am I’ and ‘where do I belong’.
Fast forward some 14 years and Aida is living in Japan. Culturally, linguistically and geographically, it is the most isolated she’s ever felt in her life.
“Japanese people are intelligent and capable,” she said. “But it’s still a very closed society. Japanese people need to be more open. They just need to sit down on a table with people who are different and have a conversation.
“In Mediterranean cultures, people are welcoming. It’s easy to meet others and socialise. In Japan, it’s impossible to have a dialogue unless you fit into this ‘frame’.
“People are interested in my Italian heritage, but the conversation is always limited because of the language barrier. Even if I did learn to speak Japanese fluently, I wouldn’t be able to relate on the same level because Japanese people don’t know much about the world outside Japan. People also don’t express themselves openly. There are no new windows of dialogue. Everything is set in a frame that must be followed.
“Japanese people choose to be disconnected to the rest of the world. They are comfortable here and lead a risk-free life. Everything is just too safe.”
Italy and Egypt are both countries with thousands of years history that have both influenced and been influenced by many different cultures. These countries have had to let in difference and adapt. They’ve always mingled and evolved with other cultures.
“But the Japanese culture feels stagnant,” Aida said. “They take from another culture and create their version of it. Japanese culture is beautiful, but things get stuck because you have to work within those ‘frames’ that are going to take a long time to break.
“But who am I to criticise. I chose to be here. If I don’t like it, I should leave, right? As the saying goes.”
But in a world that’s constantly in flux and constantly changing; in a world that’s full of fear and uncertainly – this isolation and stability is a rare thing to find. It gives its residents that elusive sense of security.
“It’s a good thing to escape to,” Aida said. “Perhaps just not permanently.”
But even Aida knows, that it is this isolation in Japan that solidified her strong sense of self. No longer looking for external cues to define who she is, she’s finally connected with her core.
“Living in a collectivist society where I can’t connect with others has forced me to connect with myself,” Aida said. “My sense of self has grown. I love who I am and know myself very well.”
Despite how conformist Japanese society is, every culture always has its outliers. There are people in Japan not bound by cultural norms.
“They make up less than maybe 2% of the entirety,” Aida said. “They exist, the desirable crowd, but in sweet and small quantities. These are the people I care to pursue, to deal with, to collaborate with, and to develop with.
“I am targeting the brilliant minds who are not bound or afraid to identify or criticise their cultural norms.”
And then I asked Aida that question – the one that annoys a lot of third culture kids.
“Home,” she said, without a trace of irritation, “is when I am at peace with myself and my surroundings. Where there’s family. My parents currently live in the US, and the rest of my family is scattered all over the world, but it’s that sense of connection and closeness to loved ones. That’s home.”
We humans are social animals.
And although Japan is an island country – you know that old cliché right – that no man is an island. We simply can’t afford to be.
But all tribes still need leaders, innovators and people who are willing to take risks so that society can evolve. It doesn’t matter where you are – every tribe has its outliers. And although a lot of Asian cultures pride themselves on putting the ‘we’ before the ‘me’ – a stronger ‘me’ means a stronger ‘we’.
And with a stronger sense of self – we can contribute to a society that’s stronger collectively.
Yeah – so there’s something about us third culture kids that is… different. Odd. Maybe even strange.
We have funny accents and eat strange foods.
But for us third culture kids – we will find our place in the world no matter where we go. We will never truly fit in anywhere – so we will always adapt and make the most of our environment.
Even in Japan where there are really only four kinds of people.
Japanese people and foreigners. Men and women.
And with God’s grace, I also found Aida.