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Where are you from?

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Those of us who live outside of our ‘home’ countries are family with the conundrum presented by this question.

For my part the answer is relatively simple. I say ‘well, I’m from England, but I live in Indonesia’. It’s simple because I have a defined ‘home’. I was born in England to English parents, and (apart from living in Oman between age 6 months and 3 years) I spent my formative years growing up in England. I went overseas to live at age 24, so by then my ‘Englishness’ was firmly established.

My children, on the other hand, have a much tougher time answering this question. Their responses (if they are honest – which sometimes it is easier not to be) go along the lines of ‘well, I was born in Saudi Arabia but my mum’s from England and my dad’s from France, and I’ve lived the last 7 years in Indonesia’. Complicated, but an answer typical of many students at BSJ.

So when my kids ask me where they really come from (and they still aren’t sure about this one) what can I say?

I could say ‘you are third culture kids’ and then explain the well-known definition of kids living outside of their parents’ cultures becoming more like one another and so creating a third culture. Or I could say ‘you are international’ and leave it at that. But neither of those answers would satisfy the curious ‘where are you from?’

And of course, it is much more important than being able to answer the question of where we come from. Because where we come from is so tied up with our identity. It is part of us and we are part of it. Being English is something I share with a few million other people and although living overseas may have changed my experiences, it hasn’t changed my fundamental ‘Englishness’. But, my children share their origins basically with each other. Or at least, they haven’t yet met another half-French, half-English, born in Saudi, raised in Indonesia friend. On one level that makes them unique, but on another it can be the source of an intense loneliness of not being able to connect on this level with anyone else.

But that can’t be changed, so how do we define ourselves and form an identity and affiliation with social groups without this sense of national identity?

I think in part we have to redefine the concept of ‘home’. Home can be where you are, where your family is, even temporarily. But I think about this as I reflect on our Year 13 students – about to complete their exams, about to graduate from BSJ and head of to universities and places that are not ‘home’. How can they find their groups? It seems to be that international students in universities tend to group together and that third-culture kids tend to find their best friends in other third culture kids. But I think it’s important to remember what we can learn from the cultures we move into and rather than to be fearful of these differences and seek solace in those like us, to embrace the enriching experiences we can have with those who haven’t lived the international lives we have.

So Year 13, as you prepare to leave us, go with an open-mind. Find out about the cultures you are moving into by interacting with people from all walks of life and all places. Ask questions, be curious and don’t be afraid of ‘not knowing’ the way things work or how people are. Know that your lives and your experiences as an international school student are incredibly interesting, but then so are the lives of those who have a firm national identity, who have lived all their lives in one country. Embrace difference as a learning opportunity – you’ll meet all sorts of people and can be friends with those you would never imagine, as long as you are open to it.

When you settle in to a new place, ‘culture shock’ is inevitable. Recognise it and recognise that it is temporary. And then get on with making your ‘home’.

I would be really interested in comments on this from the student or parent perspective. How do you address the question of where you are from? What do you find helps in forming your identity when you aren’t sure of the answer to this question?

Author: Ann Lautrette

Head of Sixth Form and IB Coordinator at BSJ.

One Comment

  1. Identity? Who am I? Where do I belong to? Tricky questions, indeed.
    I like very much your questioning, dear Mrs Lautrette, and it immediately brings me back to the book of Amin Malouf, “In the name of identity: violence and the need to belong” (translated from the original in French “Identités meurtrières”).
    A book worthwhile to read, especially for the 3d culture people you mention but I would like to add to the 2d culture people as well and … even the 1st culture people as there are no two people fully alike…
    I just give two quotes from this book because they offered me almost an instantaneous answer to the questions I had myself.
    I’m Belgian, from the Flanders, speaking Dutch, having lived there until my twenties (apart from being born in the Netherlands and having lived until my four in South Africa), I got married to a French speaking man from Brussels, moved to Wallonia, the French speaking part of Belgium, adopting French as home language and having the children going to school in Dutch by crossing the “language border” (before moving just a couple of years ago to Paris and Jakarta and having our children in the British school system).
    Belgium is such a tiny little country, hardly visible on the European map, and still has three (!) official languages (German as well in an even more tiny little part) and mainly two absolute different and completely separate if not opposite cultures, simplistically said, the Latino-Mediterranean one in the South and the Deutsche Gründlichkeit in the North. For a long time, I felt being part of both and -even more- of none of them, until I came across this book that could phrase it so much better than I could for myself.

    1st quote:

    “Each individual’s identity is made up of a number of elements, and these are clearly not restricted to the particulars set down in official records. Of course, for the great majority these factors include allegiance to a religious tradition; to a nationality, sometimes two; to a profession, an institution, or a particular social milieu. But the list is much longer than that; it is virtually unlimited. A person may feel a more or less strong attachment to a province, a village, a neighbourhood, a clan, a professional team or one connected with sport, a group of friends, a union, a company, a parish, a community of people with the same passions, the same sexual preferences, the same physical handicaps, or who have to deal with the same kind of pollution or other nuisance. Of course, not all these alllegiances are equally strong, at least at any given moment. But none is entirely insignificant, either. All are components of personality – we might almost call them “genes of the soul” so long as we remember that most of them are not innate. While each of these elements may be found separately in many individuals, the same combination of them is never encountered in different people, and it’s this that gives every individual richness and value and makes each human being unique and irreplaceable.”

    2d quote – and this one maybe especially for people with an outspoken combination of different elements, like most of us @BSJ and like our Y13 students even more when they will enter a new world after their graduation:

    “(…) they live in a sort of frontier zone crisscrossed by ethnic, religious and other vault lines. But by virtue of this situation – peculiar rather than privileged – they have a special role to play in forging links, eliminating misunderstandings, making some parties more reasonable and others less belligerent, smoothing out difficulties, seeking compromise. Their role is to act as bridges, go-betweens, mediators between the various communities and cultures. And that is precisely why their dilemma is so significant: if they themselves cannot sustain their multiple allegiances, if they are continually being pressed to take sides or ordered to stay within their own tribe, then al of us have reason to be uneasy about the way the world is going.”

    So, yes I believe like you, Mrs Lautrette, that our home is where we are and where we fully can accept and integrate all aspects of our personality and sustain peacefully our multiple allegiances. And with the open eyes you describe we can even play a role in bridging … And indeed, the British School of Jakarta will continue to be a Bridge to the World….

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