Ties That Bind – What makes us ‘belong’?

The Congress of Freaks from Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey's Circus in 1922

The Congress of Freaks from Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey's Circus in 1922


[dropcap]M[/dropcap]y last post touched on issues of Identity, a large part of which is tied up with a sense of ‘belonging’. I often hear people talk about feeling comfortable where they ‘fit in’, they mention places where they ‘belong’ or ‘feel at home’. I even came across this blog post that matched countries with Myers-Briggs personality types. So how do you know where you belong?

What makes us ‘belong’?

Today I glanced at the calendar to schedule an appointment for next week and spotted Remembrance Day on Monday. Despite its international importance, a rush of love for the bravery and blitz spirit of the British made my heart contract. But why is this?

We didn’t cover the World Wars in history at school (though if it’s the Industrial Revolution you’re into look no further, I can discuss Humphrey Davy’s safety lamp, the Enclosure Act and Josiah Wedgewood til your eyes glaze over – oh, sorry…) so where did this feeling come from? Is it a sense of loyalty? I’m Irish – why doesn’t Eire spring to mind? When, how and why have these tentacles of filial allegiance come about? Familiarity, indoctrination, genuine admiration, a sense of shared identity, homesickness – or a mix of all of them?


Diluting what makes you ‘you’

I’m not particularly patriotic or nationalistic (not uncommon in *TCK’s) but a recent conversation had me pondering if perhaps I should be, at least a little. My husband spoke of teaching our children about our heritage as a way of helping it endure, but here’s the rub: I left Ireland at eight. My knowledge of its history and culture is sparse.

In terms of language, I know no Gaelic beyond uisce (pronounced ishka – ‘water’) and bainne (pronounced bonyeh – ‘milk’), yet at one time I was so fluent in German I thought in it, and could get by in Punjabi/Urdu too. Does that make me less Irish? It certainly didn’t make me any more German or Pakistani.

I have a sound grasp of UK culture and history but don’t hold a British passport. What exactly is my heritage? What do I pass on to my children? Should I educate myself about my background in order to better inform my children? Does retrospectively learning something help me better reflect my identity or am I ‘cutting and pasting’ an artificial self?


The glue that holds us together

I understand connection to be at the heart of all human existence – in the words of John Donne, “No man is an island” – and I suppose cultural ‘glue’ helps us feel we have a place in the world, so long as it’s not to the exclusion of others and an obstacle to further interaction between groups.

But nationalism, with its total lack of acknowledgement that cultures have been mixing for centuries, just leaves me bemused. Ireland became home to settlers from Norway, Scandinavia, England and France, to name just a few. Canada, where I live now, is a melting pot of different races and cultures. Such exclusive affiliation to one nationality seems stubbornly myopic.


Letting go in order to grow

For all the gains we make when we embrace the expatriate life, we have to make room for them by letting go of things – ideas, stereotypes, pre-conceived views. It’s normal to try and build a world-view with what little material we have but the real test of learning comes when new experiences cast our old in a different light, our paradigms shift, focus is reset – we don’t see things the same way anymore.

Suddenly, an insular, egocentric perception seems immature and stunted instead of strong and celebratory. We hear the other side of the story and develop a greater understanding. The identity of an expat doesn’t become diluted – it becomes more complex.


There’s more to life…

It’s futile to limit experience to a label or view that we see differently as we develop. Belonging isn’t about figuring out which group you fit into or which clique reflects your views. You’ll be forever questioning and searching as your understanding expands beyond their boundaries. While it’s positive and reassuring to celebrate common values and achievements, the real revelation lies in understanding that, beyond our differences, we all belong to the same group.

It’s difficult to keep this at the forefront of our thinking when brands, bureaucracy and governments constantly thrust an adversarial, ‘better-than-our-competitors’ mindset at us. Transcending difference is a harder concept to pull instant self-gratification from but it’ll make you invincible in the long run because it’s an undeniable truth that opens the door to vast possibilities in our otherwise fast-shrinking world.


So… Tell me about you – where do you belong?

*TCK’s – “A third-culture kid is an individual who, having spent a significant part of their developmental years in a culture other than their parents’ home culture, develops a sense of relationship to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Elements from each culture are incorporated into the life experience, but the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar experience.”

Dave Pollock & Ruth Van Reken, 1999 –  “Third Culture Kids: Growing up Among Worlds”

By Aisha Ashraf

An autistic Irish immigrant in a cross-cultural marriage, Aisha Ashraf is the archetypal outlander, writing to root herself through place and perspective. Published in The Rumpus, The Maine Review, River Teeth, HuffPost and elsewhere, her work explores the legacy of trauma, the nature of being an outsider and the narrow confines of belonging. She currently lives in Canada.


  1. Wow, I have so many thoughts on this post I don’t know where to begin. I feel like a TCK in a similar situation with what and how I teach my (mixed race) children about their heritage and culture. It’s tough but the starting point has to be the love and security of the home unit. As long as that base is strong and your children always have a ‘home’ in you they will immediately have a foothold on the world.

    As you ripple out from the home unit it all gets more complicated. We all want to know where we came from – give them what you know. Your security in yourself as a part of the world will inform your children. If you’re cool with it, they will be too. Give them the facts and maybe let them help you find out more and take the journey together.

    A very well written piece that would like to refer back to.

    Thank you

    1. Thanks for such a calming and encouraging comment. We all agonise over things we can ultimately only have a finite influence on – a reminder to ‘go with the flow’ is always helpful and brings to mind Bruce Lee, whose words of wisdom regarding what water can teach us are occupying my mind a lot at present.

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