Columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang has invited a member of the up-and-coming generation of talented Adult Third Culture Kids to be her guest this month.
Welcome back, readers. This month’s guest is Mary Bassey, the first ATCK interviewee for this column whose talents extend from writing all the way to biochemistry! Mary is a self-described multiethnic (Efik & Igbo) Nigerian-Canadian-American. She was born in Nigeria, grew up mostly in Canada (the West Coast) and Kentucky, and currently resides in Southern California.
Mary has a talent and a passion for storytelling and writing, particularly when it sparks cross-cultural discussion and helps to effect change. She contributes to The Black Expat, a site that features first-hand accounts, personal narratives and key advice about cross-cultural living from members of the Black Diaspora. She has her own site, Verily Merrily Mary, where she coaches writers in how to have an impact, and she recently started a new blog on the Huffington Post. (Her first post was about the need for millennials to always be hustling, to the detriment of self-care.)
Mary received a prestigious TCK award to take part in this year’s Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference, in Amsterdam, where she spoke on a panel about storytelling as a means of communicating the experience of a global or Third Culture Kid lifestyle.
I met Mary on Twitter at #TCKchat, a bimonthly Twitter event for which she is one of several co-hosts (@verilymary). I found her so interesting, I decided I had to learn more of her story.
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Welcome, Mary. Please tell us all the places where you grew up and why your family moved.
I was born in Ilorin, Nigeria, a city mostly populated by those from the Yoruba ethnic group. My father is Efik and my mother is Igbo and I fluently spoke both Yoruba and English as a small child, so even before leaving Nigeria for North America, my early childhood was already quite multicultural. My sights were set even further along the global cultural landscape once my father landed jobs as a physics professor in various cities and my mother, siblings, and I moved along with him. Our first move was to Victoria in British Columbia, Canada (on the Southern tip of Vancouver Island), for nearly three years. Then we moved to Kentucky for about seven years. Our last move was to Southern California, which has been my home for over eight years.
Were you happiest in a certain place at a certain time, and if so, why?
My life in Victoria was by far the highlight of my life. Growing up, my siblings and I were involved in the activities of the city’s community center, which catered to the needs of kids living in the city, providing parents with time off while giving us the opportunity to play and explore the outdoors. I had my first camping experience in Victoria and actually saw a moose in person at around age six (one of the most Canadian moments of my life!). Hiking, swimming, and wading in the lakes and beaches were normal, nearly everyday parts of my life. Victoria opened up a new world of outdoor life, and I absolutely loved it. I was so carefree.
“Being in a STEM field has given me another avenue to put my mind to use.”
What drew you to studying biochemistry?
I decided to get my bachelors degree in biochemistry because science was something I have always liked, especially the life sciences. I couldn’t choose between biology or chemistry so I decided to pick biochemistry. My task now as a graduate is to figure out how to merge my intellectual curiosity in the sciences with my love of culture and storytelling.
The world could use your combination of gifts! Speaking of storytelling, which makes me think of writing, what made you decide to work as a writing coach in California?
When my family moved to California because of my father’s job as a physics professor at a university here, I was entering my second year of high school. I’m now in my early 20s and am still here. I decided to become a writing coach because I knew that I had something to offer to those who are struggling with their writing voice and/or need guidance in order to effectively communicate their message. I have been helping people with their writing since middle school. I decided to make my services more public and created an online platform to do so. It has been a blast working with so many brilliant and smart writers.
“I never thought of myself as a global citizen because I am not a citizen of the globe; I am a citizen of two countries.”
Do you identify most with a particular culture or cultures?
I only partially identify with the cultures that I have grown up in. When I say that I am Nigerian, Canadian, or American, there is an invisible asterisk attached to each nationality because they each require a bit more of an explanation. For example, I am Nigerian, but I have spent most of my life living in North America. This may cause some people to question the validity of my Nigerianness because it is inevitably in juxtaposition with my Canadianness and my Americanness. Regardless, I know that my being Nigerian is valid.
Did your TCK upbringing inform your choice to become a writer?
I think so. With so much of my life in transition and in flux, writing has been one of the few constants. Paper and pen is readily available in every place I have lived, and nowadays, of course, we also have laptops and tablets. When you are living a cross-cultural life, you become introspective by force. As a kid, I had plenty of those moments of introspection—though I may not have taken them to heart or perhaps was not yet able to understand my feelings fully.
Has writing helped you to process your TCK upbringing?
I only found out about the term “TCK” four years ago! It has helped me put words to my childhood experiences and write more about my TCK life. Finding other TCKs in the blogosphere and via social media encouraged me to be more confident in making my stories and experiences public on blogs and other kinds of publications. But even with the various opportunities I have been given to write on public platforms, I do not neglect writing for myself (journaling, etc.). I am such a strong believer in people—writers especially—journaling privately. It’s like the socially acceptable version of talking to yourself.
“How many of us millennials are more concerned with growing our ‘Countries I’ve Been To’ list instead of having in-depth interactions with the citizens of those countries?”
As an ATCK, do you have “itchy feet”?
One thing I like to say is that I find instability in stability. My obsession with wordplay aside, the statement rings so true for me. The fact that I can say I have been in the same spot (here in California) for over eight years is mind boggling—and makes me feel a bit anxious. The idea of being anything close to 100% established and settled in a place is not a source of comfort for me at all. My upbringing was not like that. I liked looking forward to my next plane, ferryboat, or long-distance bus ride during school holidays as a kid. My childhood was indeed nomadic. However, already this year, for the first time in five years, I took two international trips, giving me a whopping total of 10 planes already taken this year. That constant movement has kept me sane. It’s the madness of travel that keeps me centered.
Do you prefer to travel for business, pleasure, or both?
I would not mind a lifestyle that affords my moving frequently. And, while vacations are fun, I would not want all of my travel to be rooted in pleasure alone. My latest trip to Amsterdam was around the middle of March of this year. As you mentioned at the outset, I traveled there to attend the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference and I was one of five ATCKs to be awarded the Pollock Scholarship, which covers our cost of attending. I was also one of the conference presenters! I was on the plenary panel led by Julia Simens, called “Stories You Need to Tell.” There was a strong sense of purpose and duty with my going to Amsterdam. While the city was gorgeous, it was not just a vacation for me. That is the kind of thing that I want to happen regularly in my life: traveling with a purpose beyond pleasure.
I can relate and I’m sure it will continue to happen for you. Per your site, Verily Merrily Mary, you’re involved in many worthy causes: you’ve worked with organizations that aim to encourage grade school kids to get excited about STEM fields, especially children from underrepresented groups. You also support and volunteer with organizations that empower cancer patients and cancer researchers. Last July, you received the title Miss Efik USA, and you advocate for the Nigerian Efik people who live in the United States as well as in Nigeria. Congratulations on these contributions and achievements! Is there anything else you would like to share?
I had the absolute honor to be published in the book The Worlds Within: An Anthology of TCK Art and Writing: Young, Global and Between Cultures, which was launched in 2014 as a way of giving children and adolescents a voice regarding their TCK experience.
Editor’s note: The Worlds Within made our Best of Expat Books for 2014.
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Thank you, Mary. Readers: you may learn more about Mary, her writing, and her various projects at her Verily Merrily site. If you have any questions or comments for her, please be sure to leave them below.
Editor’s note: All photos were supplied by Mary Bassey or are from Pixabay, with the exception of the two FIGT conference photos, which are from their Facebook page. The quotes are from Mary’s posts on Verily Merrilly.
Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is a prime example of what she writes about in this column: an Adult Third Culture Kid working in a creative field. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she is an actor, writer, and producer who created the solo show Alien Citizen: an earth odyssey, which has been touring internationally. And now she is working on another show, which we hope to hear more about soon! To keep up with Lisa’s progress in between her columns, be sure to visit her blog, Suitcasefactory. You can also follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.
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