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?