When he talks about his childhood, Gary Barnes is no longer a 63-year-old therapist. He is a gem collector, sharing his treasures. He holds each memory to the light. The manicured street he grew up on. The stores he visited in the neighboring town, where he’d get Superman and Richie Rich comic books. When he was done shopping, he’d stop by a little market, where a store owner gave everyone a free Pepsi on a hot day.
The memories exude Americanness, so much so that it’s hard to believe Barnes grew up elsewhere, in a region most would associate with strife and geopolitical unrest. But to him, the eastern Saudi Arabian town of Dhahran was home.
When Barnes, the longtime executive director of Maps Counseling Center, grew up in Dhahran in the ’60s and ’70s, it was an American enclave of about 3,000 people, run by the Arabian-American Oil Co., or Aramco, for short. His father, Larry Barnes, a Long Island native, worked for Aramco, as did most of the adults in town.
“It was kind of a fantasy land,” Barnes said of his hometown.
But dig a bit deeper and you see that Dhahran, a fenced-in community in the middle of the Arabian Desert, was a careful mix of Americana and something entirely different. The town’s American inhabitants preserved their identity with an intensity reserved only for foreigners away from home, but other influences prevailed. Their children trick-or-treated on Halloween — Barnes was always a pirate — but the candy they got was British. At school, they recited the pledge of allegiance in rooms with both American and Saudi flags. They spoke English and Arabic, and their churches congregated in a movie theater or another hall, not steepled structures. Barnes remembers waking up to the melodic sound of the muezzin, calling Muslims to prayer. At Christmas time, the compound was awash with tinsel and life-sized holiday displays.
Santa Claus, too, it seemed, adapted to Dhahran’s ways, swapping his typical reindeer for a camel — and one time, a helicopter.
Barnes embraced it all in the way children do — wholly and without question. It wasn’t until much later that he realized that though he was an American citizen, he didn’t exactly belong in the United States. He visited the country throughout his childhood for extended vacations, marveling at its abundance of toys and commercials — he’d always record them to share with his friends back home — but he didn’t know the country well.
“There was very limited selection of candy in Saudi Arabia, so we always would come back with bags full of Tootsie Rolls,” he recalled of these trips to the U.S. “So for about a month or so, you’d be the most popular kid in school because you’d be coming to school with bags of Tootsie Rolls.”
Years later, he realized: He was a citizen-foreigner. His knowledge of the U.S. was limited to things a visitor might notice, but he didn’t truly understand his country.
Barnes didn’t know it then, but there’s a name for these experiences. Children who spend a large part of their formative years in a culture that’s different than their parents’ are called “third culture kids.” They exist in the space between their home and host culture, in an amalgam of both. According to a 2009 book “Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds,” the term was coined in the 1950s by two social scientists who studied American workers in India. They noticed that expatriates who lived in enclaves there formed a distinct third culture that was different than their first “home” culture or their second “host” culture.
When children who grew up in third cultures return to their home countries, they can have trouble fitting in, according to the book. It was a lesson Barnes first learned in New Hampshire.
‘Learn how to be American’
Barnes was 15 when he came to the Proctor Academy, then an all-male boarding school, in Andover. New Hampshire was a stark contrast to his desert town, not only because it lacked palm trees, but because he couldn’t quite find a place in the social fabric of his new school.
He lacked cultural currency that helps forge relationships — he didn’t know who the Red Sox were, and he couldn’t name any football players. And that alienated him from his classmates in “a million little ways,” he said. After what had been a lonely school year, Barnes went home. He convinced his parents to send him to the American School in Switzerland, where most of his Dhahran friends went.
When he graduated from the Swiss school, he followed his older brother, Dean, to his father’s alma mater — Syracuse University in upstate New York, where again, he didn’t fit in. He transferred to the University of California, Santa Barbara, to finish his degree because he’d heard many Aramco kids went there. For the first time in his adult life, he felt like he belonged somewhere in the United States.
He’d chosen to study psychology because he wanted to help people, following his mother Marion’s advice.
“She said to me, ‘Your job is to make this world a better place.’ ”
By that point — the late 1970s — Barnes’ mom and dad retired to Peterborough.
In many ways, Barnes said, life in academia was similar to life in Dhahran — it felt safe and protected. He extended that feeling for as long as he could, obtaining his master’s in psychology from San Diego State University in 1980 and then a Ph.D. from the University of Maine in Orono.
At the University of Maine, he met his first wife, Laurie. The two married during that time and had their first child, Christopher. In a way, Laurie helped Barnes feel like he belonged. Later, she got a job as a psychologist at Cheshire Medical Center, and the couple moved to Keene, where they bought their first home. Barnes started keeping a garden and planting roots, literally and figuratively. New Hampshire began to feel like home, mainly because it was where his wife and children were.
His father, Larry Barnes, summed up this process: His son “had to learn how to be American.”
And when Laurie was gone — she died of colon cancer in the ’90s — he felt as though his life had crumbled, Gary Barnes said. He threw himself into work and into caring for his young children. Around that same time, he happened upon an Internet group for people who’d grown up in Dhahran. The group held reunions every couple of years, and Barnes attended one of them in the late ’90s, at a hotel in Chandler, Ariz.
“It preserved something that I was afraid I’d lost,” he said.
It was a “profoundly supportive” experience at a difficult time in his life, according to Barnes. The reunion put him in touch with his old friends.
“You dig up your rusty yearbook, and you see old friends, and you spend time and for a while you pretend that you’re back home for another summer,” he said.
Barnes later got married again, to Janice, who is a nurse. The two still live in Keene, which Barnes now considers home. For the past 11 years, he has been executive director of Maps Counseling Services, an agency with offices in Keene and Peterborough.
Barnes said he likes the position because it allows him to continue to see patients while leading a vital mental health service in the region.
The agency’s Keene offices recently relocated from Federal Street to a larger office in back of the United Church of Christ. The move, along with an expansion of the Peterborough office, will allow Maps to hire more child therapists and counselors who specialize in substance use disorders, two areas of high demand in the region, Barnes said in June.
Back to his roots
Barnes returned to Dhahran in 2009, as part of an Aramco-sponsored reunion, for the first time since 1977. What had been a town of about 3,000 people had grown into a metropolis, absorbing nearby Khobar, where Barnes’ shopping excursions had been. The house he grew up in was gone, and the fence that once surrounded the tiny enclave had been replaced with a bullet-proof wall. As he passed through the gate, he noticed the machine gun. In his absence, Dhahran had become a favored target for terrorist attacks.
At first, this new city seemed foreign to him. But over the course of the two weeks he spent there, Barnes began noticing that though Dhahran had changed, it was still the same in many ways.
“Gradually, the culture came back to me, the lifestyle came back, the feeling of being there came back, and by the time I left I felt like I’m home,” he said. “This is still my home.”