“Kathryn?”…”Kathryn?” she called out repeatedly, lightly shaking me by the shoulder, trying desperately to snap me from my glassy gaze.
In my head I was making the most of the cruise control feature of some old Chevy that I’d acquired and heading west from Flagstaff. This was my coping mechanism – my means of taking myself out of a reality too difficult to face. I was sixteen, freshly returned to British soil from a life – a good life – in the United States. I was completing compulsory education within four, bland walls with no idea what I was headed for afterwards.
I grew up living a rather different lifestyle to what could be considered the norm; I had a father whose work took us to various parts of the globe and with each move I was immersed in a new culture, a new way of living. Friends were on timers, houses novel, accents constantly being shaped, taste buds transformed, exotic sights seen and my collective feelings about mankind evolving.
Focussing hard on the past, I see intermittent panic, dispersed amongst excitement and joy. From the outside, my life was perfect; I got to experience travel since the day I was born, make friends all around the world and learn about new cultures. But from the inside, I was part of an unhappy family experiencing the core themes of anger, manipulation and torment.
This numbness that I was experiencing as my logical self attempted to stir me from my daze was different; it was a feeling of the end. Throughout all the years and the moves, even if I knew that my home life was unhappy, I had travel and adventure as my salvation. It was an escape that I knew I could depend on; an outlet to breathe hope into when I was unhappy with my present.
During childhood, you have a pretty good idea of where you’re going; a pretty good idea of what lies ahead. If you’re fortunate enough to be in a part of the world where schooling is a priority, that future is going to be an education, most likely. But once you’re big and strong, you then make the choices and design the future. For me, I had ‘the next move’ always looming on the horizon, so when it was suddenly no longer on the cards due to a combination of my parents’ nasty divorce and my racing towards adulthood, reality had it that I did not know how to cope. I was a third culture kid in a one culture town and I didn’t know how to interact with any of it.
When you’re an ex-pat, you get so used to the intrigue of locals enquiring where you’re from and what you’re doing and wanting to learn all about the motherland. I must admit that I used this very much as a means of defining who I was: the girl who travels; the nomad. It was as if that was alluring enough and my actual personality didn’t matter, didn’t hold any significance. That all changed when I returned to the UK after sixteen years abroad. Suddenly I was a sort-of Brit living on home soil, except this time treated with scrutiny for having an American accent and speaking fondly of our allies across the pond.
This was the first time I’d seriously experienced bullying. I was ripped apart for my past and for sticking out like a sore thumb. My unique upbringing was suddenly a hindrance, rather than a help. I couldn’t understand how peers had always been so welcoming and understanding in the past, only to now find that my tales of faraway lands were deemed dull and devoid of any worth.
So what was a kid to do, other than keep her head down and persevere with undisputed determination? The end of my time in school rolled around eventually and I leapt like a frog from its ice-cold clutch onto a plane headed for heat across the Atlantic to thaw out. I wished I could tell my friends how great it was being back in England; how cute everyone was with their tea and crumpets, but in reality I was miserable, pale and deficient in both vitamin D and the magic of multicultural surroundings. It felt so good to be back in Virginia hearing people speaking Spanish or Korean as I walked through the mall. Then there was the excitement of being able to eat pho again, because there was a Vietnamese restaurant or any other possible cuisine well within easy-reach. It was so good to hear about high school and summer’s lifeguarding and plans for college. I was refreshing to have a change of lifestyle.
The few years that followed were spent in further education, befriending all the international students and squeezing in as much travel as possible. It is this means of mixing with other cultures that makes me feel most alive. At the moment I find myself in a diverse city of artists and thinkers, where I’ve still been able to gravitate towards the foreigners and it is that aspect that keeps my spirits high. But is this where I’ll forever rest? No. Because once a traveller, always a traveller and it is as vital to my bloodstream as the cells that both nourish and defend it.