From listener to writer: The power of storytelling for Third Culture Kids
The stories we tell, the stories we learn, & the stories we hide.
By Naina Chhiber, Contributor
Weekends growing up in Delhi were earmarked by sitting in traffic on the Nizamudin bridge. Oftentimes, my sister and I were driven to spend time with my Nana-Nani at their home in Noida. Malls hadn’t taken over our lives just yet, cinemas weren’t as mainstream, and an expanding city with less child-friendly spots meant that we weren’t the only children spending the weekend with their grandparents. It was somewhat of a norm for those of us who weren’t living in joint families. We lived in South Delhi at the time, and the vastness of the capital region is only realized when you spend hot days in cars and traverse the landscape from Lutyens’ Delhi, to Mughal architecture in Old Delhi, to the dissipating Yamuna, and finally enter the green residential colonies in Noida.
Those weekends, car rides and meals were filled with stories from my grandparents. Stories about their lives pre-Partition in what is now Pakistan, stories about our family, stories about my Nana’s time in the army, stories about my mother and her sisters growing up, and stories about how the city has changed.
At my Nana-Nani's house on one of those weekends
Till today, it is their stories that remind me of Delhi and what I perceive to be home. It is these stories that somehow ingrained the culture I try to emulate in everything I do, far away from home.
It is these same stories that shaped the unspoken parts of South Asian culture in me.
They return suddenly as flashbacks: Sometimes when I see a mango in a grocery store and remember that I must smell the mango to know if it is ripe enough to eat because that is what my Nana was taught when picking mangoes as a young boy, sometimes when I hear a certain tone of voice or intonation of my mother tongue, the lulls sound like home. The power of stories seems just as strong through the storyteller, even if I wasn't there to live the experiences.
Although many stories were about the South Asian experience, there is something soothing about the universality of these stories. Elders across cultures often used the spoken and written word to share stories with the next generation regardless of which language it was being done in.
At the age of 7, I left India and moved to Seychelles, a small island in Africa.
For the next 8 years, my experience as a Third Culture Kid (TCK) started defining what it meant to be Indian, separate from what my parents experienced. My Nana-Nani, Dadi-Dada, and their stories no longer made sense to the amalgamation of cultures I was being exposed to.
I was one of very few Indians from India; other kids who looked like me were from the island as part of generations of Indians that the British brought to Seychelles. I was learning new stories from my foreign teachers and friends, and it was the stories about my own identity that I craved.
My diverse class 9 in Seychelles (2005)
Bollywood filled the gap for a while, but a 3-hour long movie with shiny outfits and over-acting hardly felt like the Indian stories I had heard from my grandparents when I was in India. Somewhere along the way,
I became compelled to create a whole new definition of what it meant to be Indian, to be South Asian, and to create my own stories.
During the pandemic, I gravitate toward these familiar stories across cultures.
After spending hours rewatching modern-day classics to self-soothe, both in English and Hindi, I craved something new. Something that filled that void of wanting to be home but also wanting to travel.
As a Third Culture Kid, home is often a fluid concept.
—and a lockdown felt like the longest I had gone without being exposed to a new culture. From Korean dramas that told the story of forbidden love between South and North Korea, to the age old story about star-crossed lovers trying to gain parental approval in Pakistani and Turkish dramas, I was drawn toward the same kinds of stories I grew up listening to — but now in new languages. I followed Latin American movies and shows that contrasted the typical urban vs. rural tension I was used to hearing from my own grandparents and French series about friends trying to make it in their 20's resonated with my current stage.
Why was it more soothing to read the stories through subtitles rather than watching a show in English?
There is no good reason why I over-complicated my TV-watching, aside from the fact that I was homesick and was trying to distract my mind from the world through a little bit of travel while sitting on the couch. Whether that was watching the interactions between elder parents in Provence and their child in Paris in Call My Agent! (Dix Pour Cent in French; which reminded me of my visits back to Delhi from college when I would trudge into my teenage room), or the montage of North Korean soldiers infiltrating South Korea and being amazed by the variety of food they could choose from in just one grocery story in Crash Landing on You (which I felt the first time I went into a U.S. grocery store), the simplicity of these very mundane scenes warmed my heart and made me curious about what else they will depict that will resonate with me.
Turkish dramas and their extreme love stories and family dynamics, felt very relatable as I recalled friends or people I knew who experienced similar interactions with their families and the series became educational, teaching me how to handle the same human experience.
Being a tourist in Delhi
Call me a sentimentalist, but there is something endearing about non-Hollywood or Bollywood films that highlight the most everyday human moments through the kind of storytelling that I experienced as a child, especially after a year of lockdown. Just like story-time with my grandparents at their home on weekends was an educational experience, being able to watch a variety of stories from around the world and learn about our similarities vs. just our differences has felt like a continuation of my childhood tradition.
Being a Third Culture Kid, stories have been my strongest tie to my identity regardless of how biased they were.
The ability to flick between different cultures on Netflix has helped my identity as a TCK, a mix of many cultures itself, embrace this identity in a simpler way.
Surprisingly, it was emails and letters exchanged with loved ones from afar that put me in the shoes of a storyteller.
Calls were still expensive and “computer time” was spent wisely, ensuring details were told in an interesting way that would make my recipient want to read on and respond. It was the sharing about the simple adventures of my weekends in boarding school or even just my test grades to my Nana with embellished language that showed me that I, too, could tell a story. Once I returned to India to finish high school, I realized my story didn’t necessarily overlap with the other Indians in my school, regardless of our shared nationality and that shone a light on how even my silly stories were different enough to warrant an audience.
When my Nana-ji visited us in Seychelles
As globalization took over,
The TCK experience was becoming more common and our stories were dimensionalizing another way of being South Asian or Indian that broke stereotypes.
There were few stories about being the tormented TCK that I resonated with, but there were also few stories about how our elder family who identified as only Indian could handle the complicated culture we were navigating. Stories don’t only educate the young but also help older folks empathize.
Far away and years later, I've joined the group of immigrants who write to save these stories.
Whether it is through movies, TV shows, books, songs, podcasts, and even food, I try to stay glued to these stories. However, despite how tightly I hold on to the stories I see or listen to, I question myself many times before being able to share a story myself.
Even though the media shares stories from around the world, the empowerment of storytelling feels clouded in anxiety.
Sometimes, it is the fear of judgement, another deep lesson that these childhood stories taught me; and sometimes, it is the fear of probing, something our cultures teach to only do in secret.
Despite the importance of stories, somewhere in modern times, these stories took a backseat. There was a sudden shift from sharing to hiding, from commiserating together, to pretending alone, and to ignoring the stories of strength that brought us this far. Sharing on social media came with a caveat of what part of your story you should publicise and what part you should conceal and just how easy it was to put your story out there.
When did the word “storyteller” take on a dirty meaning, abducted by all but rarely honored in the same way that we associate with our elders? The ubiquity of platforms that encourage storytelling have put pressure on one person’s experiences becoming the depiction of entire cultures, entire histories and entire generations.
That’s the thing about a story, it isn’t set in stone. And that in itself, makes it sacred.
About — Naina Chhiber (she/her) is a consumer insights and marketing strategist in the beauty industry. Originally from New Delhi, she grew up in the Seychelles and came to the U.S. to attend college at a small liberal arts school in Iowa. As a history major, she loves exploring all kinds of stories and psychologies that form part of South Asian history from volunteering at the 1947 Partition Archive to being an advocate for the multiethnic consumer in her organization. She loves to travel, learn new languages, read, take care of her plants, cook and drink copious amounts of chai from her home in NYC.