The Third Culture: Confessions of an (aspiring) academic from a War-Torn Country

A beautiful view from a café in KCL Strand campus.

Growing up understanding my privileges was quite strange. What do you mean by privileges you’d say – and I’d say the privilege to a Western, liberal education. Don’t get me started on why I put “Western” before “liberal education” – I don’t know, I’m still trying to find out.

There are many faults to Western education of course and that’s for another day. But what I meant was the sort of education that allows freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom to critique and before we understood where that was supposed to lead us to, we were put on a track towards a possible access to freedom of movement that many under the totalitarian ‘big brothers’ would not have access to. How strange you might say, for you have been borne into such an education. You loathe school at days, whine about reading George Orwell and Albert Camus. “Enough about these gloomy authors,” you’d say. I envy your liberty to discuss politics freely. I envy the right you have to exercise your freedom of movement. 

For most of us that is a luxury, that only few could afford. And those who do, have to constantly fight to maintain that freedom. I talked to students, academics and professionals like myself from around the world, with a history of coming from countries whose leaders decade after decade fail to pull the country together for what it’s worth, and the repercussions of that leave stains and scars, generation after generation, either for those who successfully left their countries for good, those who remained, or those like myself, the “in-betweeners”. As a teen, I appreciated my privilege and I held it dear, close to my heart, days where I got to discuss in class about the very own political system that despises the truth and the beauty of that discussion being done in allegories. I still appreciate my liberty every minute now still, as I write this essay. I think this is why it makes me feel very angry when I see kids here in the UK marry off so quickly, stop pursuing the education bestowed on to them, all of that many of us around the world fight so hard to get a taste of. It makes me furious when kids my generation willingly put a full-stop to their young, tender lives when there is so much the world has got in store for them. It makes me at times angry to the point where I find it even difficult to even look them in the face and speak to them. Sure you can say, “well Anna, I have the liberty as well to take this liberty for granted,” and I say, well sure you do and I wouldn’t mind if that puts an end to our conversation. But I daresay we shan’t have any more to talk about in the future.  

There is that persistent number of people who blame our demographic for the “brain-drain”. With my parents left behind, I feel reluctant to cut ties off completely with a fragile nation that keeps on proving, every single day, of how incapable it is to offer me and my compatriots any kind of a safe future. I find it perplexing still, why the same people fail to understand that if the brains did not feel constantly threatened and predated upon, they wouldn’t have drained in the first place. They would not have left a country after all the skills, the talents, the education that they have worked so hard for and took years to gain, will never get to be exercised and amount to nothing if they stayed. They cannot remain to try to ‘help’ or ‘contribute’ to a nation that tries to hunt them down and punishes them for any sort of objective criticism, something that is the foundation of academia and any sort of political progress. Nations with fragile egos and nations that operate on factoids. Nations with a majority that is incapable of taking any constructive criticism. Nations that stand by the notion that somehow denying something long enough can provide them with a loop-hole out of law itself, out of science, out of a world system whose operation prevails through the truth and the facts.   

Coming to England to fully exercise my right to academic freedom was not easy at all. The very privileges that gave me access back at home still put me in a disadvantaged position in many ways. Third culture students are forced to balance that conflicting number of impositions placed on us, the whole “you have the right that most of us don’t have, therefore don’t ever think of complaining“, the generational, cultural and linguistic gap between our parents and ourselves, their concern of having to worry for our maintenance of liberty they never got to taste, the institutional and social colonialism we face when we meet “first-worlders” feeling somehow threatened (?) by our capabilities (“they’re taking away our jobs”), and the constant, everyday-racism we face, whether it be through subtle, conversational aggression (“so are you also planning to stay here in the UK too?” as a conversation starter, the “I love your zeal for academia, but don’t just do it for the visa”, the “oh don’t bother about looking for jobs, my kids are British and they rarely got one”) to downright, up-in-your-face aggression (“I’m not going to read your essay – it seems like it’s likely to be a problem with your English” – strange especially when you sometimes find yourself politely correcting the English of certain native speakers). All of that on our shoulders we carry on, we “stiff up our upper lips”, manage sociability, amiability and professionalism because our lives really do depend on it. We can rarely afford this “I ain’t gonna take any shit” (please excuse my French) sort of extravaganza that most white people enjoy and get to exercise. I envy that too. Ask that to any first generation (especially Asian) immigrant and ask why they hardly spoke of workspace discrimination and racism. You’ll hear the same thing – “we were too busy trying to make a living”.

This is an emotional essay to write, as I type, I could feel something heavy stirring up in my heart. We carry the conflict of hoping for justice, peace and liberty to prevail, while being fully aware of the vagueness of the consequences, the ramifications that could possibly follow during the process of bringing this about. Amongst us we share the common answer to the question most of you ask us many times –

“Do you ever feel lonely?”

To that we say, 

“We have no time to feel lonely. Or to be offended. Or to be sad or be in pain. All we care about is survival. And that keeps us completely busy.”

Imagine doing all that whilst trying to maintain a healthy sense of pride and integrity at the same time. No, I doubt that you could but of course, it depends on who you are. I never intended to write this to achieve such an idealistic goal. For most of you, dignity is mostly a birthright. For others it’s more of a constant, daily battle, that everyday drive of pushing ourselves way past our limits so somehow our careers and our education compensate for the predicament of our precarious, domestic politics and nationalities.

I’m not trying to throw a pity party either – I’m too busy to feel sorry for myself. I still have a lot to be thankful for. I’m just trying to give a little perspective, so we can have a little more empathy to each other. A little more thinking to go on in there before you speak. To be a little more gentle. To have little more kindness. 

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