Of all my travels over the years, no destination has matched the Baja California Desert in Mexico, which I visited in 2004, in terms of the sheer beauty of the land—pristine sandy beaches hugging a rugged, uninhabited (sorry bighorn sheep, you didn’t make the census) desert, beyond which lay the majestic mountains of the Peninsular Ranges. With no electricity, running water, or any sign of civilization within eyeshot and well beyond, the region also was the most remote location I had ever set foot in, on top of being new to me (it was my first visit to Mexico) and an ocean away from my home country. It would therefore have stood to reason if my city-boy self felt a little out of place and homesick as the blazing sun beat down on me and my fellow sea kayakers during our week-long expedition to the Baja wilderness. Yet, I did not; in fact, I felt quite at peace.
I’m a so-called third culture kid (TCK). Having been raised abroad and developed a unique identity, I don’t have a place that I can truly call home or whose people consider me a fellow local. Americans will see me as Japanese and vice versa, and to be fair my values and worldview are probably too different to “qualify” me as being fully one or the other. In other words, I’m an outsider wherever I go. That’s the life of a TCK, and I’ve long accepted that I won’t be accepted as a local anywhere. In the desolate Baja desert, however, I felt a paradoxical sense of comfort. The desert certainly didn’t feel like home to me, but, being uninhabited, it wasn’t home to anyone else, either—which meant that unlike just about any other place I had been to, there were no values or cultures or ways of life attached to the place. It was just you and the land, so when I walked on it, it didn’t feel like I was encroaching on someone’s territory. The absence of a local culture rendered the “TC” in “TCK” moot, and I was on equal footing with everyone else. I knew I was a visitor to the area, but I didn’t feel like an outsider there.
Although I did not make much of these observations at the time, it is ironic in hindsight that I felt so comfortable half the world away from home, arguably more than I do in my home country. Besides bringing back fond memories, my experience in Baja also raises questions about identity and related topics. What does it mean to be an “outsider”, and what is it that often makes me feel like one? Is TCK a relative concept? How would a non-TCK have felt in that desert? Would I have felt the same way on Mars? I don’t have the answers, but I know one thing: Under the cloudless Baja skies, I felt relaxed and free. And it wasn’t just because of the idyllic beaches.