It sounds innocuous, and it’s often the first thing a stranger asks.
It helps new friends identify you, and establishes commonalities between you.
It’s how you are categorized and characterized.
It’s the question: “Where are you from?”
Those four little words are enough to send me into a spiral of self-doubt. They accelerate my heartbeat and propel my mind into a vortex of uncertainty, leaving me incapable of stringing more than a few words together.
Simply put, I don’t understand the question.
Where are you from? What could be simpler?
I heard it again last night. Yes, you, by the buffet table, the one in the pale blue shirt with the elegant red and navy tie despite the summer heat. You, so at ease in your Scandinaviousness, so clearly, so unequivocally Nordic, each singsong syllable stretched to breaking.
What you meant as friendly interest was to me a hailstorm of little barbed queries, a complex steeplechase of potholes and pitfalls just waiting to swallow me up.
I’m not being obtuse, I’m just… not sure what you mean. Are you asking… Where were you born? What ethnic group do you belong to? What religion are you? Where did you go to school/college? Where did your parents come from? Where did you grow up? What passport do you carry?
If you’re being polite, you’re putting me through hell for no good reason. If you’re truly interested, bear with me; my stomach will eventually untwist enough to release a coherent reply.
You see, I can’t answer you. Really, I can’t.
I was born in Paris, raised in Spain, Italy, Canada, Algeria and Iran. I have a French and a Canadian passport, and I’m a citizen of Turkey. I could probably claim Israel too. Growing up I changed schools nearly every year and each one was in a different country. I even managed to attend four universities (two of them online) before getting my little pieces of paper.
My mother’s family was Jewish and Catholic, my father’s Muslim.
Each of my grandparents was from somewhere else: the Netherlands, Turkey, France, Jordan. So you see, I can’t tell you where I’m from because I don’t really know myself.
I grew up speaking French and Turkish and eventually Spanish. Now I’m most comfortable in English so I can’t even claim a mother tongue.
When I eat Serrano ham or churros, I think in Spanish. Foie gras and a baguette? I’m French, naturellement. Baklava and dolma? Oh, bless my Turkish roots!
And that’s why ‘that’ question terrifies me. It reduces me to a label that keeps coming unstuck as though the glue beneath it had dried.
That may be why I hate small talk, because you’ll think I’m an idiot when my face turns pale at your most innocent and well-meaning of questions.
I’m not imagining things. In fact most of the world’s people have never left home. According to Pew Social Trends, four in ten Americans still live where they were born. The United Nations says only 3.2% of the world’s people live in a country other than that of their birth: of the world’s more than seven billion people, a mere 232 million have crossed a border to live somewhere else.
We may be uncommon, but someone told me we had a name: Third-Culture Kids, or TCKs. (A third culture kid is someone who has spent a significant portion of their developmental years outside their parents’ culture.)
Now I would love to claim this tribe as my own. It would soothe my rootlessness and give me a sense of community. I could finally answer that question. “I’m a TCK,” I’d say. And leave it at that.
But no. I grew up outside my parents’ culture – cultures which not even they could comfortably claim. My father may have been Turkish, but he spent his childhood as a nomad, the war in Britain and was stationed as a diplomat in Paris when he met my mother. My mother may have been born in Paris but she grew up in Cairo and Alexandria, where her father lived, returning to France only after the war.
So what does that make me? A sixth-culture kid, perhaps. Or maybe an eighth-culture kid.
Does the question even have an answer?
At some point I decided I’d have to craft an answer, ready to thrust at any unsuspecting stranger brave enough to ask. The answer would be well-fashioned, conclusive and clear.
“Actually, I was born in France but left when I was five weeks old on the Orient Express to go to Greece and Turkey before moving to Belgium and then London and sailing to Canada at the age of one.”
That didn’t go too well. Let’s try again.
“You see, my parents were brought up in the Middle East and you know how things are confusing in that part of the world and my father was a Muslim although he didn’t practice and my mother was a Euro-Egyptian – oh, wait, you don’t know what that means??”
Back to the drawing board.
“Well, I went to school in Spain and Italy (and Iran and Canada but only for a bit) and to university in Canada and Switzerland (although I did my Master’s online in the UK and Australia)…”
I can’t explain myself intelligently to a casual questioner.
And then I joined the UN and went to my first social function (aka ‘the place where most of the work gets done’). I observed as people introduced themselves to one another, avoiding them all by mimicking a deep conversation with a nearby wall.
“Hello, I’m Pumphee Andersson, I was born in Bangkok but grew up in Chile and Korea and have worked in Geneva since I returned from Cameroon.”
“Hi, I’m Mari Carmen Takashima, I’m from Spain but grew up in Paraguay and Rwanda. I’ve been going to school in Japan, trying to reconnect with my father’s culture.”
“Pleased to meet you, I’m Humphrey Okegwe-Ferguson, my mother is Scottish, you know, and I’m from Nigeria although I’ve never lived there. I love it here in Geneva, don’t you?”
I had found my tribe.
And I instantly understood I could never belong to a place so I stopped trying.
Home was, simply, wherever I chose to make it. It was nowhere, and it could be everywhere.
Like a diet that finally works I felt light and liberated, the liberation tinged with the slight sadness of knowing that what I had sought had been with me all along.
My search for belonging led to what I’ll discreetly call “an unruly youth”. It passed. I became accustomed to constant change and developed two qualities I treasure: adaptability and resilience.
I learned to make friends instantly because I’d be moving soon.
I learned languages easily and no place ever felt foreign, just new.
Over the years I began to articulate a sense of self.
I wasn’t a TCK. Nor was I a foreigner or an immigrant. I wasn’t even an expat, since that entails actually being from somewhere.
These days, Mr Scandinavian with the glorious tie, your question no longer makes me cringe. Just know that each time you ask, you’ll get a different answer.
I’m not from anywhere. I’m just from… here.