Where are you from? - The, sometimes, unanswerable question...

Monday, February 08, 2010

Posted by Hilda


I’d like to talk about something a little personal, if I may, because I’m curious about what the rest of you who have experienced this in the past or are experiencing it now feel about it.
I’m sort of a third culture kid, although even that doesn’t really describe what I am. I didn’t go from one culture to another and then form a third culture out of that mix of experiences; I was born in one Iran, raised the first half of my life in France and spent the second half of my childhood in the US in California. I’ve often been described as being like an onion, my core is Iranian, my mid-layers are French, and my outer layers are American, though the skin is Iranian based on my looks, and I've described myself as a cultural mutt when asked "what I was."
I married a Pakistani who was born in Lahore but who, in terms of education, was raised in the United Kingdom, and in terms of vacation time was mostly in Saudi Arabia or sometimes back in Pakistan. He and I have funny arguments about the meaning of various words in American English as opposed to British English. I have two step-children, one who is half Pakistani-one quarter Kuwaiti-one quarter Swedish, and the other who is half Pakistani-half American. My ten month-old daughter, who is ethnically half Iranian-half Pakistani, was born in London, entitling her to a British passport to go with her various other passports and residency permits.

Where am I going with this? Well, I’ve always had an easy and a hard time fitting in. Easy because there were few ways in which to be entrenched, my parents not being big sticklers for tradition, hard because I could always see what the other side of the argument might be, or the way that those “foreign” people might interpret the situation. I think of everywhere as home and nowhere as home if that makes sense. Wherever I am, if I am there for a while and haven’t traveled, I start to feel antsy and homesick for another home. It’s disconcerting sometimes because I can be in a room of people who have very strong opinions about their country or their part of the world and it feels like this brings them a sense of security in something permanent that I have never felt.
That isn’t to say that I haven’t argued for my various countries of origin, as I actually did most of my life though I didn’t begin to realize it until I was in my late teens.
My French childhood friends would sometimes refer to me as “l’Iranienne” (the Iranian); to my American schoolmates I was a French “frog” first but became Middle Eastern when the Middle East would come up in the news which then often translated to my representing terrorism somehow; to my French friends I became “l’Américaine” who could understand the way Americans thought and behaved and probably was betraying French culture and tradition by assimilating somehow; on the round went until eventually there were so many arrows pointing from one place to the other on so many different subjects that I stopped trying to defend one culture to another as a function of where I was geographically. If people didn’t want to understand, that was their own problem, not mine, but the feeling of not belonging was only delineated more sharply by the ever-growing impossibility of taking one side and sticking to it.

So the question is, how do I raise my daughter to feel a sense of home that is, pardon the pun, foreign to me. The saying is that “home is where the heart is,” but that’s a bit trite and nebulous, isn’t it? I can certainly agree with the idea that my home is where my family is, but even though family is immutable, one still goes through life in one’s own head and is, in a way, alone. It’s likely that we will be traveling a fair amount as she grows up, partly because that is our wish and partly because our personal and professional lives require travel. Is the answer simply to make sure she has a thick skin?
You’re probably wondering how my stepchildren have fared so far, and my answer would be quite well, but I don’t know what it was, or perhaps wasn’t, that has resulted in their faring so well while being pulled in so many different directions. I haven’t had a long discussion with either one of them about this because I don’t think I was fully cognizant of the source of my discomfort until I was in college, so I don’t think it fair to bring this open-ended question into their lives, until they start to feel it for themselves, while hoping that perhaps it will never enter their consciousness.

I know that many of you who read the Daily Tiffin are expatriates in your own right, some having children and raising them in completely foreign cultures from your own, but wonder which of you were brought up in a couple or more different places, as I was, and feel like they have no country but, also, every country.
And, if you have children, are you finding that their experience of several cultures is similar to yours or different, or that they are affected in ways you couldn’t have imagined because their experience was not, in the end, what you thought it would be based on your own understanding of the nomadic life? Why don't you step into my office...



This post was written by Hilda

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9 comments:

I truly feel for you. I thought I didn't need to grapple with this as I lost my identity, but having found a place to "file myself", i find myself needing a place still. Physically, this place can be anywhere, but a place nevertheles... and like you said, people who have not left their own home will only have a narrow point of view, in which case it'll be almost pointless to try to explain to them.

i guess as much as home is an internal state of mind, you still need to park it somewhere until it's rested and ready to be used again. that's as clear as I can write it...

Shang Lee said...
February 9, 2010 at 4:51:00 AM GMT+1  

There are times whenmy 17 yrs old daughter feel like you. She is bron here in belgium, her dad is belgian but then I am Indian.
She is not white as her dad or dark as me.
Here they say she is like black coffee mixed with milk :-)
But then when they have discusions in her cals her firends say kids from mixed marriage are more clever and beautiful and much more open minded , whcih ofcourse make a feel happy.
If I comapare my daughter with her friends or kids from normal same race family i think she is far more open minded in various ways.
And in a way I am happy that she is having parents from 2 different culture.

Happy Cook said...
February 9, 2010 at 9:22:00 AM GMT+1  

I am the mother of a three year old daughter, and am a similar cultural mutt between culturally very different regions in India and now the US. For me, home is where my computer is - so much of me lives there. The only physical places that call to me are some cities that I grew up in.

I am not too worried about what my daughter grows up as, Indian , american or whatever - I will be there with her every step of the way watching her blossom.

I can understand that hollow feeling that comes from belonging everywhere and therefore nowhere - I hope you find an anchor somewhere or in somebody.

ms said...
February 9, 2010 at 6:45:00 PM GMT+1  

I can empathise with you at some level. Even though I am Indian, I spent the first 21 years of my life outside India in various countries.

We were "Indian" at home, but we had rather broad minded parents. Outside the home I had to deal with being a "foreigner" and being asked questions about lots of things, including Hinduism. I didn't know most of the answers and had to go looking for them!

In a nutshell, when people ask me where I am from today(India is a like a country with countries within it!), I just say I'm Indian.

My family comes from one place, they were settled in another, I was born outside the country, lived in so many other countries and now live in Goa! Today, my family lives all over the world!
I may feel rootless occasionally, but I feel I am more tolerant and accepting of others as I am more well informed about other cultures and their ways of life.

So I'd say you are a citizen of the world and richer for the cultural variety in your life. Pass this onto your daughter, bring her up to be a good human being and show/ teach her the culture and tradition that exists in both her parents' families.
She'll probably find her own place in the world, eventually. :)

Aparna said...
February 10, 2010 at 3:43:00 AM GMT+1  

I come from a multicutural family and married someone who does not share my background. I can only hope that it will become a much less talked about thing in the future :)

Raaga said...
February 17, 2010 at 12:43:00 PM GMT+1  

While I am a California girl (3rd generation native, a rare breed), I completely understand where you're coming from... My husband was born in India, but left before age 2 to live in the Midwest, US and then lived in Taiwan from about 6-18, and then back to the Midwest for about 10 more years before coming to California. He told me when we started dating "I am Indian, but I think like I am Chinese and I act like and American."

It's hard for me to get a handle sometimes whether my in-laws didn't spend much time instilling Indian culture (beyond food - my husband LOVES Southern Indian food) or if it didn't interest my husband, because we've got none of it going on with our 5 year old son.

My sister, on the other hand, married an Armenian from Lebanon and has over 20 years learned to speak Armenian fluently, cook superbly and feels comfortable in groups that are almost completely Armenian. She's still a tall, blond California girl, but she is comfy in both sides. Her daughter, who feels the "being Armenian" most as a girl, is a combo of looks from both sides... her oldest son, complete tall blond clone of his mother... and the little one a complete Armenian clone of his father.

The beauty of living in California for all of us, is that as we look around there's such a variety that almost nothing stands out as unusual - whether it's a combination of cultures or ethnicity or language or religion.

Jill said...
February 24, 2010 at 5:36:00 PM GMT+1  

Hilda, this is a question that Jean-Pierre and I have discussed and dissected back and forth for years. As the granddaughter of Russian Jewish immigrants and growing up in a rather homogeneous white, Christian town I always felt foreign even though you may argue that I wasn't. I left the country as soon as I could and married a man who, though entrenched in a society where his family had lived since the earth cooled he felt foreign in an intellectual way. So together we had our sons and early on moved to Italy. So now our sons, half-American, half-French, mostly Jewish were growing up in Catholic Italy. And they felt like animals in a zoo. It caused a lot of problems for them. JP and I, like you, have to move every 5 years or we get restless. There is no home which only reinforced our feeling of being our own island, our own country and culture unto ourselves. No on understands us. For our sons it is worse. They crave a home culture, home country. They have spent years trying to blend in with their surroundings/friends becoming blander than bland in order not to stick out. Simon is now off to the US where he hopes to find himself. There has been a lot of pain.

Raise your daughter to be true to herself and comfortable with who she is. That's the best you can do. I do think it is a great advantage that our kids can change language, culture, countries like they change shirts and one day they'll find their place. Until then, it may be a confusing ride, but easier with your unconditional love and openness.

Jamie said...
March 3, 2010 at 9:36:00 AM GMT+1  

I can understand your confusion...In India each state is very diff from another. My family hails from one state but I was raised in another, with very diff culture. My parents did a wonderful job of teaching me the culture of my homestate. Now I am married to a man born and raised in my homestate.

I have decided to raise our daughter in the culture of my homestate. I will hold back imparting the rich experience I gathered while growing up. This may sound weird but she needs to know of a place as home..

Anonymous said...
March 9, 2010 at 9:46:00 PM GMT+1  

Thank you for bringing this up, Hilda. I got a little teary reading it because I have felt those things so much myself. Raise in Canada to a Danish father and Canadian mother, moving to the very, very different US at 16, living in Russia, Portugal, Germany, New Zealand. I so identify with being antsy after not traveling, feeling strong ties to many different places yet not belonging to any. Thank you for being so open. You've been a comfort today.

Rambling Tart said...
May 2, 2010 at 8:17:00 PM GMT+2  

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