Hello, I Am “Not From Here”

For one of my Architecture History courses, the very first exercise we had to do was to write down all of the identities we associate ourselves with and then discuss them in class. I remember when the professor asked me which country I identified with, it was one of the few times where I realized that that wasn’t something I felt like I was qualified to answer.

In the simplest way I can explain my background, I was born in Toronto, Canada from parents both born and raised in Moscow, Russia and lived in the United States from two years old up until now where I alternate from being in Canada for school 75% of the year and then back in my hometown in the states for the other 25%. Honestly, this whole identity-confusion thing only really started when I began going to university in my birth-country (not that there’s anything wrong with that, I absolutely love my school) and answering where I’m from seemed more complicated than before.

Growing up in the United States, my peers seemed to unanimously put me in the “Not From Here” category because of my Russian-speaking family; it sounded like an appropriate label at the time, especially when at that age the labels were as simple as “Here” and “Not From Here”. Throughout high school I always felt a sense of not-fitting-in, and whether that was attributed to my angsty-scene-grunge-whatever phase or my unchangeable national and cultural identity I had been given, I’m not too sure. Regardless, I wasn’t happy through most of my high school years, and going to a university 800 miles away seemed like both a dream and a relief; I would start from square one and I could change parts of my identity to make it into something that I wanted to be.

School in Toronto, Canada had instilled a lot of emotions in me. My mother pointed out that the hospital I was born in was nearly five minutes from my university residence and that gave me a feeling I probably could never put into words even to this day. There was a sense of fear and anticipation signing papers for my OHIP card and social insurance number a day after moving into my room. The excitement from meeting my roommate to donning a shirt with the colour of my faculty for orientation week gave me so much to look forward to during my first year of school.

I remember during that week I told everyone I was from New York when people asked and, I mean, I wasn’t wrong, I did drive 800 miles from there. People had put me in the “Not From Here” category again which, again, I was pretty much fine with, because it wasn’t an incorrect label to put on me at that time. It wasn’t until I began to start feeling a sense of home in Toronto weeks or so of being there that I started to feel differently about my identity. I even remember telling a friend this, that I started to feel like Toronto was part of my identity, and it felt good to vocally affirm that.

Their response? “Lol but you’re not from Canada though.” Now I’m not accusing anyone of being defensive about their country, but what an odd response to a feeling I had at the time. I wonder if I could have taken a quiz or something around then, one of those “Which are you, American, Canadian, or Russian?” buzzfeed-like questionnaires, so I could have confirmed or dismissed those feelings.

It wasn’t until over the summer I had noticed my answer to the “Where are you from?” question differed depending on where I was at the time of being asked; if I was in Canada, I would say I was from the states, and Canada if I was back in New York. Maybe I felt that that was the simpler explanation than answering the follow-up questions:

“Then how come your accent sounds different?” It’s interesting, I’ve also noticed I don’t really have a concrete accent coming from anywhere; knowing English and Russian, the way I say things probably sounds different from the get-go, sprinkled with “y’all”’s and “eh?”’s and other isms and slang I’ve picked up from talking to different people with different national identities.

“Then why can’t you vote here?” Long story made short, I have a dual citizenship with Canada and Russia and permanent residency status in the states, so while it’s cool I get to avoid the infamous jury duty, I can’t vote for the next president of the United States. Some people say that being able to vote is a huge part of the national identity, but what if someone’s lived in a country for more than ten years and just never got the citizenship at the cost of the dual citizenship? Is their identity immediately invalidated simply because their parents preferred option A over option B?

“Then why do you go to school in Canada / why don’t you go to school in the states?” Okay, if you had the choice of being painfully in debt from in-state universities for the rest of your life or pay a reasonable ~$8k a year for tuition you happen to be a citizen of, you’d go for the same as I did.

This whole ordeal may sound trivial and unimportant; truthfully, I could think of a hundred things about my identity that are just as great and make up for what I may lack in nationality and culture. Do I feel jealous that most people have a more concrete idea about that part of themselves? Often times, yeah. Do I want just once be able to relate to those “You know you’re from XYZ when…” articles? Of course. No doubt everyone wants to feel like they belong somewhere, whether that’s on a larger or smaller scale. And maybe one day I’ll be labelled “From Here” and finally feel a sense of belonging. Who knows?

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