Where are you from?
If you’re anything like me, answering that question begins with a pause and a deep breath. For years I have pondered the best way to answer, yet each time I get asked, I brace myself for another recount of my entire life story.
Whether it is in my love life, my identity or simply experiences of being treated or looked at differently, living the way I have, with a foot in each place, as a third-culture kid, has shaped every facet of my life and is the reason I am who I am today.
(In case you don’t know what a third-culture kid is, a quick google led me to this definition: a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture. In other words, someone who grew up in a country their parents didn’t identify with.)
Until I was 18, I lived in a small German town with just a few thousand people, a Filipina mum and a British dad. If that wasn’t enough, I’m technically ¼ Spanish, but we won’t go into that.
So what.. I’m German? Nope. I don’t think so anyway.
When I was about 4 years old, I came home from preschool in tears because my skin was darker than everyone else’s. You can tell I went to school in Europe because I’m pretty white! Looking back, I think the story is quite funny, but I do feel bad for my younger self, feeling out of place at such a young age – at that age it’s hard to appreciate that being different can actually be a blessing.
I went on to surround myself with people of all nationalities. My high school best friends were Japanese, Swedish and Pakistani, so from a young age I learnt all about different cultures. Funnily enough, the first time I truly felt culture-shocked was upon moving to England, where the vast majority of people I met only spoke one language.
A Chronic Foreigner
I don’t openly admit it but I had a hard time fitting in when I moved to England. Having lived in Germany yet technically being English made it hard to relate to those who had spent their entire lives in England. I didn’t understand the British jargon and inside jokes and found myself gravitating towards other “foreigners”.
Alternatively, whenever I visited the Philippines, I could see even more clearly that I was different. When you’re young it doesn’t really matter because kids just play with each other. Language barriers don’t exist. As you get older though, things like language and cultural differences become more obvious. I didn’t learn Filipino until fairly recently and before that, whenever I visited the Philippines for Christmas, I couldn’t even properly communicate with my relatives.
My being from everywhere didn’t help my love life either. Most people couldn’t relate but more than that, it meant I never knew what country I’d end up in. I still don’t know – and that doesn’t help when you’re trying to work your life around someone else.
The struggle of not knowing who I really am has affected me my entire life. Maybe it’s not so much who I am but rather, where do I belong? Where can I feel like I can be myself truly?
Being half white and half asian means that wherever I go, I look different. In England and in Germany, people see me as different – they usually think I’m Latina or Israeli! When I’m in the Philippines, people see me as different too, usually “Americana” haha. In England, I feel British and in the Philippines I feel Filipino. I’ve lived in both countries and yet somehow, I always seem out of place.
As much as that can be hard, I wouldn’t change it for the world. Here’s why. Everything that is beautiful about my life stems from having grown up in multiple cultures. I was lucky enough to have a stay-at-home mum, which isn’t too common in Germany and I grew up surrounded by Titas and Titos (Filipino for aunties and uncles), mostly Titas and had friends from just about anywhere. But the best part about growing up the way I did is that I was able to experience the best of both worlds. I get to experience life on opposite sides of the globe and learn about the different cultures and people. I don’t register the colour of people’s skin. Of course I see if someone is a different colour but I don’t retain that as being relevant. Living as I have can sometimes feel like a superpower, like I have this innate ability to identify with different cultures, like I can wear different masks and be different people. It opened my eyes and enabled me to see the world as a bigger place than I think I would have thought it was if I hadn’t had the chance to experience so many sides of it.
So where is home?
Having an identity is attached to having a feeling of belonging, having a home where you have deep family ties or emotional connections. I guess in that case, my home is the house in a little town in Germany that I grew up in. My home isn’t one country. I don’t think I’ll ever find that one place where I feel like I completely belong. But I’m ok with that. I have learnt to be ok with that. I just feel so blessed and privileged to have been able to experience so many cultures the way I have.
Having roots tied to one place is a blessing, and if you grew up in the same country your parents are from, you are so lucky in so many ways. But I have learnt that in my life, not having roots has given me so much more than it has taken away. Do I still wonder what it would have been like to have one home, a “normal story” and easy answers to the simplest questions, sure! But I am grateful for my story. I am grateful for my experiences and I am grateful for the opportunities that come about because I am different.
I don’t belong to one particular place. But I choose to belong to many. I don’t have one home, but I choose to feel at home wherever I am. That is who I am. My many masks are the many different pieces to the puzzle that is my story, my life. I get to choose who I want to be, wherever I am. And maybe that is my identity.