Walking down the unfamiliar halls, I surprisingly find homeroom. Math. A sigh of relief. I’m good at math, this shouldn’t be hard. It was the first day of 6th grade. Not for anyone else- just me. I moved halfway through the school year again, how typical.
Opening the door, I feel every pair of eyes on me. This isn’t my first time as the new kid. The teacher finally met my glance as the bell rang.
Hi, I’m Nicole, I just moved here from Italy- how’s that for an introduction.
Ushered toward my seat, I sat and surveyed the room. I notice the girl seated in front of me turns and whispers "No way, that’s so cool you’re from Italy"
I nod. I’m used to people making that conclusion. "Oh I’m actually not from Italy, I just lived there," knowing what I’m going to be asked next.
"Oh, then where are you from?"
I always freeze up when people ask me where I’m from, which is unfortunate considering it’s one of the most common conversation starters. I genuinely never know how to respond— moving 16 times has that effect. Sometimes I simply say "honestly I don’t really know" but I’m sure you can imagine the reactions I get. So, nowadays I settle on the pity reply of "oh I’m from Arizona" to satisfy any small talk even though it’s not really the truth.
Have you ever thought about what this question actually asks? Or what the responses truly say about someone?
Does "where are you from" mean "where were you born"? If so, then I’m from Miami, although I hardly remember living there.
Does "where are you from" mean "where were you raised"? If so, then I’m from Dubai, Italy, and Arizona.
Does "where are you from" refer to your nationality? If so, then I’m from Austria, although I’ve never lived there.
No matter where I am, I feel like the outsider. In Austria, I don’t feel "Austrian" compared to the rest of my family who all have perfect German accents. In Italy, I didn’t feel as "Italian" as my other classmates who grew up together, forming the bonds I could only imagine having myself. And I don’t feel as "American" as my friends who couldn't possibly know my backstory from a sole glance. My childhood abroad has to count for something, right? So, I’m in a position where I feel stuck.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m even from anywhere at all. What does it even mean to be from somewhere?
Living in such diverse places, I’ve met people with even more complex backgrounds than me. I’ve learned that most third culture kids and immigrants struggle with finding the true meaning of this question. As a third culture kid myself, I’ve carried this ambivalence my entire life. Having left the US at only 6 years old, I never fully identified with American culture.
Me and my sister Caitlyn in Dubai, UAE (2007)
Do you remember most of your life before you turned 6 years old?
I identified more strongly with the cultures I was raised in because I never had a solid foundation of what made up my own cultural identity prior to moving abroad. At the same time, I didn’t fully associate myself with European or Middle Eastern culture either. In Dubai, even as a 6 year old, I often felt out of place wearing my go to spaghetti strap tank top and pleated skirt look amidst a sea of abayas and dishdashas. However, I didn’t view myself as fully American or Austrian either, though my birth certificate and dual citizenship may have indicated otherwise. Your cultural identity should extend far beyond the confines of any documentation. Many external factors, like the diversity in religious, political, and social beliefs I was exposed to, helped to sculpt me into who I am and what I believe.
Growing up, I felt like I never belonged anywhere. I was convinced that everything in life is temporary. When you live the life of an expat, it’s almost impossible to establish strong attachments to people and places alike. Outside of my family, no one has consistently known me for more than a few years.
How long have you known your closest friends? Did you grow up together? Experience different stages and phases of life with each other?
I was the outsider amongst friend groups who had spent their whole lives around each other. Even though I was surrounded by so many different people, I often felt alone.
Connecting with places can be just as important and difficult as connecting with people. Envision all the memories you have of living in your childhood home. There’s a sentimental attachment most of the time to even the smallest of things like the furniture, the height markings on the wall, the pictures hung up on the fridge. Your home forms who you are. When I envision my childhood home, I see apartment complexes, gated communities, and condos full of different rooms with different walls and different furniture. The attachment and sentimental feelings just aren’t as strong.
My family’s house in Genoa, Italy (2010-2013)
So, to put this question to rest in my mind, I did what I do best... my research. No seriously, I conducted my own research on this topic, and here are the results. In a survey with 112 respondents aged 12 to 61, I found how different people define the question "where are you from".
When prompted with the question In your opinion, what does "where are you from" mean? Does it suggest/imply place of birth, place of long term residency, ethnic/cultural heritage, etc.?
33.3% of participants responded with place of birth
48.1% responded with place of long term residency/where you grew up/lived the longest
11.1% responded with ethnic origins
18.5% responded with other
The most popular response being place of long term residency, closely followed by place of birth. Well, what do you do if you don’t have a place of long term residency? This question is subjective and has room for many different interpretations, making it difficult for people to answer who don’t feel like they have one specific place where they truly belong. Is there really a right or wrong answer? To me, these results further prove my point that there isn’t.
In my opinion, "where you are from" doesn’t mean "where were you born" or "where were you raised", rather it implies "where do you call home"? But what if home isn’t a specific place? Growing up feeling alienated from people and places alike, I have learned to value the few people who have been consistent in my life. No matter where I am, whenever I’m around them, I know I’m home.
We know it’s human nature to seek out a sense of attachment and belonging (and there’s plenty of studies to prove it) but honestly sometimes I think to myself... what’s the hype? The experiences I gained from my international lifestyle outweigh the negatives. Though I see the value in forming close connections with others, and feel like that area lacks in my life, I wouldn’t trade how my life has gone thus far for anything, and I hope to continue a very international lifestyle in the future. Ultimately, I do see the value in forming strong connections and finding a place to call home, because as humans we innately crave that sense of belonging. I aim to find a way to achieve such connections while continuing to live and travel around the world.
All things considered, I believe that movement and change is a good thing, but only when you have a home to return to. Because if you don’t, then are you ever truly moving? To me, home isn’t just wherever you happen to be born, but where you become who you are and find true meaning and purpose. Life is about finding and building a sense of belonging, whether it’s a certain place that brings comfort and familiarity or a group of friends and loved ones to share your life with.
Fly high, Nicole
AUSTRIA OVER THE HOLIDAYS
Read about the 5 different ways I celebrate the holidays in Austria!