The Loneliness of Being Unknown

By Iona McHaney Marcellino

I am an expat in the land I call home and a foreigner where I was born.

Loneliness. That pesky, ever-present accompaniment to loss and change. For the third culture kid, it is not a loneliness born out of lack; rather, it is born out of too much change. Too many pieces of ourselves scattered across an ever-shifting world. 

At times, I hardly feel it. I can imagine myself into an individual who belongs, who has deep roots and is unswayed by the constant upheaval around me. 

And then there is the persistent question that starts the same conversation, bringing that niggling loneliness back to the surface over and over again. 

“Where are you from?”

“What do you mean?” 

“Where did you grow up?”


“Oh… where is that?”

“It’s a country in Sub-Saharan Africa.” 

“Ohhh—wow! What was it like? What was living there like? It must have been so exciting!” 

“It was… different.” 

I struggle to piece together words that validate a much-loved home against a devastating history. 

“We moved there during the civil war, so I grew up with the sounds of war all around and the long-lasting effects of that war. We didn’t have a lot of electricity. We didn’t have internet at first. I heard gunshots a lot. We were quite isolated in our compound. I saw a lot of beauty, and—”  

“Wow, that’s amazing! Sounds like a fun adventure. I’m sure you have lots of cool stories.” People always say that after I bring up the war. I wonder if they know what the wreckage of war looks like. “I bet you’re glad to be back in America now, though!” 

Back? I’ve barely lived here. They’ve misunderstood. 

“Angola is my home.” 

“Well… it’s not really, is it? You’re American.”

After conversations like these, the inevitable loneliness sets in again. Loneliness not from being alone but from being unknown. A loneliness drawn from belonging to a broken home, a home I cannot explain, a home I have no right to call my own. 

Except that I lived there. 

I breathed there. 

I grew up and skinned my knees and wailed and learned to read and dreamed there. 

The sun-soaked cement blistered my feet. The rising smoke from the market and the cowbell-timed hymns became the background to my childhood. I clung to it and it held me. Amidst the concrete blocks and the gunshots, I grew up—out of place, yes, but I still belonged to the home and it belonged to me. 

And when we left, pieces of me ripped off, fastened to the land that was never mine, to the war that was never mine, to the loss and the guilt and the sorrow that was never mine. I was an outsider from the beginning and I’d begged to be let in. 

Now, many years and countries later, I stay on the outside. I have left too many pieces of myself across too many homes that were never mine. And all it has brought me is far too much loneliness. 

I am an expat in the land I call home and a foreigner where I was born. 

It is exhausting to keep up with these identities and to learn which parts of myself to share when and with whom. Who will have the understanding that we all have complicated relationships with the place we call “home?” Who will understand that we can belong to another country without a matching passport? Who will believe that civil war is not an adventure for tourists to gawk at and ogle? 

Few will understand, few will believe, and even fewer will create space for my loneliness so it can rest, so it can expand beyond the boundaries of my body instead of breaking my bones and poisoning my blood as it seethes within. 

My loneliness is resurrected when I remember the pieces of me packed away in various basements and attic spaces—my childhood books on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, my school memorabilia reduced to one, overstuffed box in Mississippi, my current flat in Cambridge with hidden bits of an old, unreachable life. I still cling to them all because these bits of myself, scattered and scrambled and nearly lost to dust and time, help me feel whole.  

I keep Portuguese books in the hopes my child will know the language I love. I keep Scottish artwork on the walls and Oor Wullie comics on the shelves because I must not forget where I first called home. I keep my pens in a traditional Middle Eastern coffee pot, a Jordanian lantern on my bookcase, and desert sand rose decor in my living room—because I belonged in the Middle East too, even if just briefly. I make Texas-style fajitas because I want to feel like I belong to my grandparents, and I don’t know another way to tell them I miss them. 

I try all of this in a single day and I find myself exhausted at playing the part of cultural kaleidoscope—never knowing which role, which costume, which story really fits me because they are all a part of me while I’m barely a part of them. 

I find myself exhausted at playing the part of cultural kaleidoscope.

My life is full, and still there is so much of me that cannot be known or understood. There are memories I will never know how to share, there are places I can never revisit, there are points in time that seem to belong to a different person altogether. 

And while, I have good friends and a kind family, I’m carrying these shattered pieces, with no place to put them, no room for them to be laid down, protected and safe but not forgotten. I often find I carry them all on my own and that, in itself, is quite lonely. 

Visual art by the author

Iona is a nurse and an avid writer. Born in Scotland and raised in Angola, she is now living in Cambridge, UK, with her husband and daughter. Iona enjoys connecting with other TCKs and global nomads and discussing the nuances of this varied life. Visit her blog to learn more.

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