Tuesday, March 1, 2011

where are you from?

"Where are you from?" For most people, it's a fairly straightforward question. "I grew up in ______."

Not so for us third culture kids (TCKs). We are:
...individuals who, after having spent a significant part of the developmental years in a culture other than that of their parents,develop a sense of relationship to all of the cultures while not having full ownership in any. Elements from each culture are incorporated into the life experience, but the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar experience. (from Third Culture Kids: The experience of growing up among worlds by David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken)

...people who root themselves in ideas rather than places, in memories as much as in material things; people who have been obliged to define themselves - because they are so defined by others - by their otherness; people in whose deepest selves strange fusions occur, unprecedented unions between what they were and where they find themselves" (Salman Rushdie in Unrooted Childhoods)
Growing up, my answer to the hometown question depended on who was asking. When bargaining with Kenyan vendors at the crafts markets, I came from Kilimani (a Nairobi neighborhood). When traveling in East Africa, I was from Nairobi. To friends I made at youth group while we were on furlough in Georgia, I was from Kenya (though I often had to identify the continent for them as well). I embraced my TCK identity, and made sure that every new person I met knew where I grew up. It was a source of pride.

In college, that started to change. When swapping introductions with classmates I began dreading the standard "so where are you from?". My answer would usually either shock my new acquaintance into an overly-broad question ("So what was that like?") or provide a launching point for an enthusiastic description of his or her life-changing two-week trip to Zambia and subsequent "heart for Africa".

And in the last two years, I've found myself hiding my background. Once upon a time I eagerly shared my overseas upbringing, particularly with those from other cultures. I figured they would appreciate my global perspective and cross-cultural skills. And yet I've found something less than affirming in the responses of the Somali refugees, the undocumented Mexican farmworkers, and (most painfully) the Kenyans. There are polite questions about what my parents were doing in Nairobi, followed by silence.

Why? Because while I might have places or at least cross-cultural exposure in common with my immigrant friends, our experiences of change are entirely different. For me, moving between continents is easy. There is no walk through the desert, no wait in a refugee camp, no years-long visa application process. While our international lifestyle means I see my family members less often than I'd like, there are no legal or bureaucratic barriers to visiting them. And when I travel, money, med-evac insurance and white skin insulate me from the lived realities of the locals.

As my work has brought me closer to the poor in the US, I've realized that my TCK background can hurt rather than help my efforts to relate cross-culturally by highlighting my economic and social privilege. I've taken (somewhat ironically) to hailing from the Chicago suburbs.

So how do I now answer the question: "Where are you from?"

It still depends on who's asking.

No comments:

Post a Comment