Why I Don't Remember That One Commercial From 2003... and Other Thoughts On Growing Up Overseas
I was never unaware that my family’s life wasn’t the norm- and I think that’s what made me so insecure. I didn’t see it as cool, I saw it as different. I literally thought everyone in the US had tan skin and stayed out late playing in their neighborhoods (where everyone spoke English) and taking late night trips to the mall and Sonic. American life was the OC and 7th Heaven and Lisa Frank.
I lived around military bases in both Japan and Germany from the time I was 5 to almost 17. Everyone wore the same clothes and had the same stuff from the only shopping center on base, nobody saw commercials (so no, you’ll have to send me a youtube link if you want me to understand why your reference to that 2003 Budweiser commercial was so funny) only public service announcements in between TV shows, we had one channel that played kid’s shows for 3 hours a day, we barely texted ever and no one in high school could drive. Surprisingly enough, now I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.
It almost seemed strange when we moved back to the US to see how absorbed everyone was in media, or clothing, or that the four thousand television options made deciding on a show to watch a 20 minutes decision. Sure, my sister and I had gotten tastes of this when we flew back every summer. We watched kids we didn’t know playing with friends they had grown up with all their lives hang out in parking lots and gas stations, and we watched from a rental car with our parents and never really had a friend that didn’t move after a year or two. Our glimpses into American life seemed big at the time, but they weren’t.
In Germany, we knew our friends would move soon always, and the pressure was on to fit a lifelong friendship and memories into two years. This meant we formed bonds that literally never stopped- 10 years later and most of my best friends from middle school I talk to on a daily or monthly basis. We hung out at the food courts, even if they weren’t malls. We got into wholesome trouble without many drugs or alcohol (none were allowed to be brought into base) like making too many copies of our faces on a school copier and carving our initials into the skatepark. Then they all left or we left and we had to find someone to hang out with all over again.
I feel like I was lucky to grow up in kind of a socialist system- the military being more socialist than any community I’ve yet to experience in the States. Lucky, but growing up in a bubble. Everyone’s parents had jobs. They wouldn’t be able to live there if they didn’t. None of them lived in poverty, everyone had health benefits, and there wasn’t a giant income disparity between everyone- something that shocked me when I moved to an American High School with a homeless student demographic and those living in houses I’d only ever seen on MTV Cribs. We hadn’t been exposed to that. When moving here, we saw classism with fresh eyes instead of something we had been brought up in like most people.
We also were able to travel- I can tell you stories about museums in France, or boat rides in Amsterdam, or pretending to be famous in Belgium- I just can’t tell you about that fucking episode of that one show that you and your friends loved. Which seems small now, but in an American High School and not understanding many pop culture references or how cell phones actually worked was a nightmare. I remember staying up late on the computer and talking to my friends who had moved back to the US about how lonely it was. They all understood. It took us a lot longer to make friends. We finally lived in a neighborhood where everyone spoke English and it wasn’t anything like I imagined. Bringing up anything about living overseas made us sound really privileged or unrelatable. Which I get- no one could really relate and we were afforded those privileges, even if they didn’t come from money but just opportunity.
There’s a name for people like me, we’re called third culture kids. We don’t really know our culture- I’m not Japanese or German, but I don’t have any emotional or cultural ties to America. Now it’s been my home for 8 years, so I have an arsenal of non-obscure references and have finally learned how to work window blinds, but I still feel a disconnect and might always.
Especially with a son myself, I can think of nothing more magical than giving him the experiences I had and letting him walk around in a safe and protected community making magic and fitting lifelong friendships into a couple years. I’ve looked into what it would take to move back, but it probably won’t happen.
For now, I’m just excited to keep exploring this country and hopefully being able to take my family on a European vacation one day to see where and how I grew up.