We moved to Brussels, Belgium when I was 10 years old. I was a happy, friendly little tow-headed girl. My hair was so curly, my sisters called me “fizz-head”, but I didn’t care. My mother braided my hair every morning, and I had a complete wardrobe of ribbons for my hair that matched my clothes. By the time I got home in the afternoon, little tendrils of curls would surround my head like spaghetti. I never met a stranger, I made friends as easily as I breathed. In 5th and 6th grade I had my little coterie of best friends, each one just as “best” as the others. We had sleepovers at each other’s houses. One night I remember walking through a cornfield behind my friend’s house; she lived in Waterloo. Yes, the Waterloo, as in Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington. There was a huge monument to the battle that we used to drive by. By then it was just a residential suburb of Brussels, and I never thought about the significance of the place until I was older.
In school I was an extrovert. In the 6th grade I was selected to be a “prefect.” The school used a conglomeration of American and British traditions, and a prefect in British schools was a student who had good grades and showed leadership qualities. It was an honor to wear the little red pin that said “prefect” in gold letters. We were the safety patrol. We used to stand on the stair landings and tell people not to skip stairs, to stay in line and be quiet. And they listened! In the yearbook that year, a group picture of all of us prefects was on the inside front and back covers.
I never saw this picture until recently. I remember being sick on the last day of school, or the day they distributed the yearbooks. At any rate, I never got my book. We moved back to the states soon afterwards, which is a whole ‘nother story. I did go back to visit Brussels after my junior year in high school, but everyone had changed, especially me. A couple of years ago, through the magic of Facebook, I reconnected with one of my girlfriends from those 6th grade days. She sent me a scan of the yearbook picture of the prefects. It was a shattering emotional experience for me to see it.
In the picture, the other kids were posed, scattered on a jungle gym of sorts. Right in front, standing with feet apart and hands on hips, was me, like a little Mod Squad. I was the leader, unafraid, unashamed, out in front in every way. That was that “me” that I left behind when we left Brussels. Never again was I that self-assured or uninhibited. Five months after we moved back to the states, my sister was killed in a car accident, and my family was never the same. Who is to say that if we had stayed in Belgium I would have continued to be the same outgoing person? Maybe it was the accident and my sisters’ death that caused my personality shift, or the combination of the move, the accident and puberty. Who knows? At any rate, I was never the same. I became painfully shy, depressed and adrift. It was as if that prefect girl had died along with my sister. After that, making friends was painful for me. It was as if I wasn’t willing to take the risk of giving myself to anyone, because they would probably leave, or I would leave them.
One weird thing about being a Third Culture Kid (TCK) is that there are so many manifestations of who you are, that you stop recognizing yourself. With each move you have to recreate yourself, or by the circumstances, you are recreated. I look at pictures of myself at different times and I appear physically different. You adapt to each place like a chameleon, absorbing the colors around you, perhaps so you’ll disappear and you won’t have to exert the supreme effort it takes to start over.
Even as an adult I find it hard to make friends, to feel completely comfortable with anyone. I watch as groups of women drift towards each other and became fast friends. Perhaps I put out vibes that said, “stay away” even though I want so desperately to be friends like that. I don’t know how. On the other hand, I do enjoy my solitude, a skill I probably developed due to lengths of time alone in hotels, airplanes and new houses. Luckily, I have met people who decided they wanted to be friends with me, and I have welcomed their friendship. I mourn for that girl in the yearbook picture. It makes me mad that she wasn’t allowed to continue to blossom. I guess everyone wishes their lives had followed a different track, but even though I do relish many of my experiences living overseas, (more about them later), I grieve for that version of myself that stopped existing in 1972.