Day 13: answering the question “where are you from?”

April 18, 2015

Such a seemingly simple question. For most it’s as simple as answering “what’s your date of birth.” But for me, it’s not quite so clear. Over the last few years, I’ve perfected my answer depending on the person asking. If it’s someone I will likely never talk to again, I just say “Illinois” and specify the city if prompted. If it’s someone who I’ll work or become friends with, I say I’m “originally from Illinois but grew up in Beijing” and leave out the rest.

Since coming to college, I feel like I’ve been ignoring the complexity of that answer. The long version even more so — that I was born in Fargo, North Dakota (cue disbelief, see above) and lived there for three years, lived in Illinois for the next five years, and my family hasn’t permanently lived in the States since. I lived in Geneva, Switzerland for a year, then Singapore the next year, and finally Beijing for the last eight. And just to make things more complicated, my family bought a house in Illinois in 2008 but it remains empty most of the year because my parents moved to Shanghai a year after I graduated high school, I go to school in Chicago, and Katie lives and works in San Francisco.

So where am I from? Good question. I wish I knew the answer.

On a day-to-day basis now, none of this ever comes up. The vocabulary of expatriate life (residence permits, health insurance, moving companies like KC Dat and Allied, international school acronyms like the International School of Beijing (or Bangkok) and Singapore (or Shanghai) American School). The fact that I only came back to the States twice a year for ten years (summer and winter, so I never tried a pumpkin spice latte until college) and was collecting frequent flyer miles by age eleven. I’m American, as are most of my friends here, so I don’t talk about my experiences living overseas often. It’s easy to forget that I did IB instead of APs and didn’t learn how to drive until two weeks before I started college.

I had dinner with my friend Misha last night and it was really nice to be able to talk about all this stuff with her (she’s from Singapore). I think because both of us have primarily American/non-international friend groups, we lose touch with a huge part of ourselves. The formative experiences that are just fundamentally different because we grew up overseas. I spent my prom night seeing the flag raising at Tiananmen Square. We ate fake Chipotle (“The Avocado Tree”) and our field trips involved camping on the Great Wall or spelunking in Yangshuo caves. I spent a friend’s seventeenth birthday riding tandem bikes around Houhai and drinking legally. And I think because I am very American too and that this is also my home, it sometimes feels like a switch I turn on and off. When I’m in school here with American classmates, I don’t discuss the expat bubble or Third Culture Kid experience that just happened to be my childhood/teenagehood.

Sunrise over Tiananmen Square (May 2012)

In a lot of ways, I’m afraid to talk about my time overseas. We laugh and scoff about how some college kids come back from a quarter abroad and feel their worldview has shifted — “that time in Paris when…” or “in Japan they actually do it this way…” Because people are, at the very least, annoyed by it. But if you think that three months in a foreign country is life-changing, imagine what ten years will do. It’s sad to realize that my perspectives and opinions — my very identity basically — were molded by experiences that I’m reluctant to talk about in fear of being judged or being seen as too different.

Sometimes I forget how different a childhood I had from most of my friends. I try really hard sometimes to find common ground with them, but I’m realizing now that that’s a little dishonest to myself. I didn’t spend my entire life in the same house in the same city around the same people. I think it’s a luxury to be able to visit your friends and family at the same time. I didn’t understand homecoming or lifeguard at the community pool in the summer. We had sports practice canceled because of pollution, went off campus during lunchtime to get 煎饼 (jianbing), lived in housing compounds with guards, and spent weekends exploring the city and navigating the subway (that transfer from Line 15 to Line 13 is the longest in my life). It’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for the world, but it’s a little like being from everywhere and nowhere.

I don’t want to say I’m suppressing those formative experiences growing up in Geneva, Singapore, and Beijing, but it sometimes feels like they don’t have any place in my life anymore. It feels especially hard because I’m not just international — I’m also American, and I feel like I vacillate between those identities but haven’t yet found a way to reconcile the two.