In a school cafeteria in Dhaka, a girl sat alone at a table next to a window. Everybody else sat with their respective groups, and the girl–who was nervous and hungry, and not in the least bit immune to the kind of inevitable isolation that usually afflicts new students in their first few days of school–briefly considered the scene around her and went on to eat her lunch. The noise surrounding her picked up its volume as she choked and coughed at the heat of the bite she had just taken. She reached out for some water and upon realizing that it only worsened the heat, gagged and looked up at a boy who appeared to be handing her a carton of milk. A few more seconds of painful awkwardness, and the cafeteria spectacle had finally reached its predictable conclusion.
With the milk finished and the heat extinguished, the boy asked: “You Filipino?” and smiled as the girl responded with “Oo. Ikaw?”
This is a scene from the novel All My Lonely Islands, which won the Grand Prize for the Novel in the 65th Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature. Its author Victorette Joy “VJ” Campilan recalls attending an international school in Dhaka as an adolescent with kids–young nomads, really–from different parts of the world breathing and interacting, competing and empathizing, and who were sometimes cruel to each other, but who ended up being the people who taught her to be compassionate.
Third culture kids and multiculturalism
Born in Misamis Occidental to parents who were both missionaries, Campilan has lived a nomadic lifestyle for the most part of her life. At age five, she and her family had moved to Manila, and by the time she was in her early teens in the late 90’s, she found herself in Bangladesh. Her parents had been assigned there, and for an adolescent, the whole process of moving to another country, settling in, and grappling with the idea of home and stability was definitely a struggle. “As a person undergoing adolescence at that time, it was a struggle to deal with both the changes in my mind and body, and my physical environment,” she shares.
But she wasn’t alone in that. She attended the American International School in Dhaka with kids who–although of different ethnic backgrounds–shared the same unconventional lifestyle and along with it, a tacit understanding of the fact that they all needed to accept each other. Campilan considers attending international school as her first introduction to foreign affairs, one that was far from the Western high school stereotypes she had in mind as it turned out that they were all practically on the same boat. “In the end, we were just a bunch of kids trying to find our own identities,” she explains.
Campilan has since resided in two countries, three provinces, and five houses. She has attended ten schools and has since learned to speak five languages. Ceaseless movement, a constant need to adapt and reinvent, fleeting friendships, and the ever confounding question of stability, or worse, identity: What does a young person make of all this? Would it be fair to resort to the word multiculturalism and say that people like Campilan (third culture kids, as they are called) are simply living emblems of a multicultural world?
“To say that they [third culture kids] are multicultural is to undermine the word,” Campilan says.
A customized identity
In his profile of Barack Obama, the American journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that Obama, a third culture kid himself, could have easily grown into a “raceless cosmopolitan”, someone who, while grounded and moved by the problems of a home not technically his own, feels the emptiness of his identity. Growing up in Indonesia, there weren’t many people of his race, so it would have been easy for him to equate this lack of representation with alienation; to worry, with reserved concern, about a country and its problems he didn’t embody. This wasn’t the case for Obama and a lot of other third culture kids, however. Campilan says that most of them go through a process of synthesizing different cultures into “one customized identity.”
Campilan was exposed to Bangladesh’s horrors. She visited halfway homes for survivors of acid attack victims, and seeing these women and hearing their stories made her realize “the disparity in this world, of how one country can respect its women and the other can deny them of their basic rights.”
Even if she currently resides in the Philippines, she admits that Dhaka will always be in her blood. “I feel such a profound grief when I hear of troubles in Dhaka, particularly the ISIS attack in a Gulshan bakery last year wherein an alum of my international school (American International School Dhaka) was killed. These kinds of news feel very raw to me, as if I’ve never left.”
Transient and free
Like Campilan, 22-year old Sophie Caraan was exposed to the same predicament at a very early age. At just four years old, she and her family moved to Thailand meant friends from different cultures, a university town where everything seemed accessible, and an opportunity to be able to immerse herself in the variety of cultures that the place came with.
In high school, Caraan was once again on the move as her family moved to Hong Kong, where the Filipino community was bigger and the city was a whole lot safer. “Everybody knew each other through another person, even if they lived on the other side of the island,” she mused, also mentioning how the public transportation made her only a station away from Disneyland.
For her, attending an International School was another opportunity to expose herself to different cultures, mostly Chinese or Filipino, but students from Kazakhstan and Sri Lanka were there as well. However, as plans for her future were starting to present themselves, the instability of moving around and being a citizen of the world started to catch up with her.
“I [thought] I was going to stay [there] until I finished college, but that belief of mine changed as I grew older,” she shares. “When it hit me though, I became more open and less sensitive to saying goodbye to people because I realized that distance can only strain your relationships with people if you let it.” Her best friend currently lives in Canada, but with smartphones and a strong will to keep the friendship, they are able to greet each other happy birthday constantly.
Going back to the Philippines was a whole other thing for Caraan. “The convenience Hong Kong offered also made me less patient with how things worked in the Philippines, but I think we can all agree that moving from a first world to a third world [country] would make everyone feel the same,” she says. Although considering the Philippines and Hong Kong both her homes, her identity is still deeply rooted in Filipino roots.
Being exposed to cultures, places, and environments vastly different from the place she was born into has given her the ability to adapt quickly, a skill useful in her academics and in her career. Still, moving around has been ingrained in her through and through. When asked if she was willing to stay in the Philippines permanently, she responds, “Staying for a long period of time isn’t something I see myself doing,”
She declares that she is, in fact, homeless.
Home on paper
Campilan, on the other hand, has a different take on the idea of where her home is, saying: “Home is where you can be yourself and still be unreservedly loved.” It took some time before the Philippines became that place for her. “I was the oldest in my freshman class. I wasn’t aware of local celebrities, jokes, lingo. It felt like I was a stranger in my own house. I hadn’t read the staples such as Noli Me Tangere and Ibong Adarna.”
What she did then was turn to the one thing that she had always loved, and had thus saved her so many times: books. And so she read. In a dark corner in the Filipiniana section of the UP library, she pored over local literature and rediscovered her Philippine identity. Reading helped for a while, but it wasn’t until she began writing about being a third culture kid that she found catharsis in representation. She currently resides in Cavite and is now working on her second novel.
Books, she says, have the power to save us.
“[They have] the power to make us back away from the ledges we might be thinking of jumping from, to make us see and feel hope, to make us think about how we want to live the rest of our lives.”