Thursday, October 18, 2007

When you're not actually from anywhere

I've recently been in touch with a guy who went to the same high school as me, although he's younger and we didn't know each other then. But I knew his sister, and we have tons of friends in common, and such similar experiences that he feels like I've known him for ages.

Aside from how much fun it is to talk to someone about Delhi, and reminisce about our lives and friends, there is something so lovely about talking to someone who grew up the same way I did.

For starters, there's no explaining the moving every two to four years, and how it's a great way to grow up but really fucks you up in some ways as well. Like when you try to figure out life and how you fit into it in the country you're supposed to be "from" - when you don't feel any sense of belonging anywhere.

My entire growing up we'd come home to the US every summer. Home meaning the Midwest, to visit relatives. But we didn't live in the US until I was ten. And then that was only for four years, until we headed back to India.

I knew for a fact I wasn't from North Dakota or Minnesota. But I also knew I wasn't from whatever country we happened to be living in at the time. And so, until I was really quite old, if someone asked me where I was from, I'd say, "I don't know."

"You don't know where you're from?"

"No." And clearly, I wasn't being rude or evasive. I was sincere.

They would invariably ask the following questions, to try to get at the fromness of where I might be.

"Well, where were you born?"


"Where do you live?"

"Egypt." (or Bangladesh, depending on the year)

"What on earth are you doing in Minot, ND?"

"Visiting my Gramma Lillian."

You see what I mean?

Now when someone asks I say DC, because it's easier, and because in many ways I feel comfortable here, feel like I've got some roots. But if they delve, it becomes a big long cumbersome explanation.

"Where I'm actually from? Oh, god. Pull up a chair. Want another beer?"


  1. My brother and sister-in-law talk about this a lot given that they're raising their kids in Moscow. They've identified with a whole group of kids called "3rd culture kids" - because they don't feel American (though they spend every other summer and Christmas here) but they're not Russian either. I think it's a challenge on the individual identity front - but all I know is that many of the kids that grow up abroad end up doing amazing things - they have a very different perception of limits and possibilities which I've always envied.

  2. Hi Megan! It's true that there are great things about it, and it does give you a much broader sense of everything. I think for kids now there's a greater awareness of what it means to be a "third culture kid" - and that's really helpful, too. I wouldn't trade it for anything. But meeting other people who grew up the same way and not having to explain anything is like settling into a comfy chair with a soft blanket.

  3. oh i totally know what you mean! i remember coming back to the US every summer and going to camp in Georgia.
    "where are you from?"
    "um well i LIVE in pakistan."

    and i agree that it is much easier to say "oh i'm from DC" because chances are the person doesn't REALLY want to know all the details. "well first i lived here and then i moved there blah blah blah...."

  4. Interesting perspective, and one I never thought about. I come from a small town where everyone knew everyone else. Although we traveled internationally when I was a kid and still do for work, that little town is a touchstone for me. At the time I thought it was boring although I've come to appreciate it more as time has gone on. But you've had experiences that most people can only imagine. Hey, there are pluses and minuses to everything!

  5. Wow, I relate to this a lot. Especially the 20 minutes to explain where I'm from. The worst part, I think, is the sense of community we miss out on. I can say I'm Brazilian, but never quite fit in with most Brazilians and same applies for Uruguay and the US. I guess as you grow you learn to make your life where you live and -make- your own community.

  6. You are a very insightful and intriguing person. I feel like I know you from this blog. I look forward to it on a daily basis.

  7. H - Wow - the leap from Pakistan to Georgia is a huge one! I'm sure they really didn't know what to make of you.

    Riley - I've always envied people who have a very strong sense of belonging and a place to go back to.

    Jo - Yes, I think you are absolutely right. I miss that sense of community, and I think I've built a bit of one for myself here.

    Anon - Thank you so much! What a lovely thing to say.

  8. Lisa, I totally know what you are talking about. I didn't spend as much time overseas as you did, it was mostly bouncing around the US and the year we were in India together. I usually use NJ as where I am from only because my parents were High School Sweethearts and most of my family is there. Oh by the way....I have a grandmother named Lillian too:) 22 years and I love that I still learn stuff about you!

  9. I'm a lurker on your blog, and don't generally feel the need to comment on your posts (other than the nod, giggle or snort to self, while reading). Today's post struck a chord though. You mention the feeling of not really being from anywhere, and I think it's very similar for most of us that grew up in two cultures. We don't fit seamlessly into either, and yet both (or more) are home to us. Thank you for expressing so eloquently, what most of us can only attempt to explain to outsiders!!

  10. H: Wait! You lived in Pakistan? Why do I no know this? I blame either you, or my friend Scotch.

    Lisa: You don't really have to move very often to feel "home"-less. There are enough people around who remind me that I'm not an American that I don't quite feel at home here... and I'm americanized in the wrong ways to fit in in India...

    I have no idea where I'm from...

  11. And I think I have a hard time answering the question "So, how long has your company been open?"

    Compared to you, that's nothin'.
    I'm quite poorly traveled. I was born in New Jersey, went to college in... New Jersey, moved to New York, lived in New York, and now I live in a suburb of... New York.

    Want to swap about 10% of our histories?

  12. DD'sD - That's one of my favorite names! If I ever have a daughter, that's what I'm calling her!

    Susan - Thank you for delurking and for saying something so very kind.

    VVK - Yah, you have two cultures to balance and that's very hard.

    Rich - You have that very strong sense of place that I envy. But we could swap 10% for sure.


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