Where(s) are you from?

Why is it that home is expected to be a single location, rather than a series of familiar experiences?
Why is it that home is expected to be a single location, rather than a series of familiar experiences?

Written by Himaini Sharma, 4th year Biochemistry/Psychology major.

How many of you know what Third Culture Kids  are? It’s very possible there is one sitting next to you in lecture right now. They sound like an outlandish species, don’t they? An exotic, privileged, strange breed of hybrids?

Well, they’re not your typical international students, but they want to fit in just as much as you do.

Before reading my lengthy process of self-reflection, please read the article that led to me finally being able to voice my thoughts to understand the plethora of emotions that have been in turmoil in my mind since 2012: http://denizenmag.com/2008/11/the-white-lies-tcks-tell/.


My name is Himayini Sharma, I’m a 20-year old Science student, and I am a Third Culture Kid (TCK). I was born in Stockholm, Sweden. Since then, I moved to a new country every three years: Turkmenistan, Texas, Mexico, India, Croatia, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Zambia, and now, Canada. My father is Indian, my mother is part Mexican and part Sri Lankan, and we speak four languages at home. But, where am I from? That’s the problem. I don’t know.

Coming to terms with this problem after moving to UBC gave me a hard time. Before coming here, I’d always been at international schools (and if not, I was in a country like India where nobody questioned my ethnicity/identity). After moving to a place where the majority of people aren’t third-culture kids, however, all of this started happening really fast…

Let’s start with the white lies I personally told and tell on a daily basis as a TCK. When I’m in India, I say I’m Indian and I’m never questioned. Likewise, I say I’m Sri Lankan in Sri Lanka and Mexican when I’m anywhere in Latin America. Sometimes I get a slightly confused “are you fully actually this ethnicity?” look when I’m in those places – maybe because I look a little different – but not too often.

When I’m in an African country, I immediately say I’m either from Zimbabwe or Zambia, because I’ve lived there recently, feel a part of the countries, and just don’t want to have that “but if you’re from those other countries what are you doing here” conversation because it’s too exhausting.

When I used to live in Europe, which was from birth till grade 8 – with a couple of years elsewhere in between – I used to say I’m either Indian or Mexican because, although I felt very much at home there, I didn’t speak any of the local languages (Swedish, then Croatian), and I obviously look (and sound) like a total foreigner.

Prior to moving to Canada, whenever I was on vacation somewhere, let’s say the US, I, again, either said I’m Indian or Mexican – leaning more towards Mexican in the US because that way people ask me fewer questions about what I’m doing so far from home.

Heaven forbid I actually meet a stranger (or another international student) from India or Mexico or Sri Lanka who gives me a suspicious or disapproving look just because I don’t look or sound Indian or Mexican or Sri Lankan enough – i.e. don’t speak English with an Indian or Mexican or Sri Lankan accent or don’t completely immerse myself in Bollywood or Telenovelas or don’t particularly choose to majorly associate with people of the same ethnicity as me the way many foreign students tend to feel comfortable doing when in a new country. That was one thing that always made me uncomfortable – not “looking” or “sounding” like I belong to my countries of origin. Belonging yet not belonging to the community that is my identity at university – the international student community.

After moving to Canada, I still haven’t gotten used to being an international student in a predominantly domestic population. It’s enough cause for (although usually pleasant) surprise that someone at UBC is from a foreign country, so you can only imagine the panic I feel when someone asks me where I’m from: “it’s not only because we’re unsure ourselves, but also because we’re unsure of the reactions we’ll get.”

In first year, I would proceed to answer that question with my typical “Half Indian part Sri Lankan part Mexican” answer. Little did I realize that people who haven’t been around TCKs have a hard time imagining how someone can be from more than one place. I distinctly remember a turning point – when I answered someone’s question with my typical answer, and the person laughed at me and responded with, “no, I mean, where are you really from?” – possibly expecting to hear a typical answer like “Vancouver” or “Kelowna,” to which I just responded with a blank look of confusion and annoyance and an eventual “no, I’m an international student.” That didn’t mollify the person who continued to look incredulous. “Riiiiight,” they said with raised eyebrows and narrowed eyes. I began to sweat.

Did I really sound that outlandish? I started to feel self-conscious about my origin and avoided answering the question whenever I could. From then on, if someone asked me where I’m from, I would just say “India” or “Mexico,” and add “international student” after that, to which I got surprised yet accepting nods.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t always get the same reaction. Sometimes, people are genuinely curious and I’m glad to explain the TCK lifestyle to them. But there are other times, like the one I described above, that just leave me feeling more awkward than ever.

Come second semester of first year, I realized a second thing. If you say you are from somewhere, people will automatically assume you were born there and have lived there since then. Now, that’s totally typical and fine of many, many, many people I have met and befriended and gone to school with throughout my life. However, it added an extra layer of discomfort for me, because I could meet someone, tell them I am Indian, only to have them bring up the topic of high school… Riiiight, I didn’t go to high school there, I went to high school in Zambia and Zimbabwe. Which brings us back to square one.

Or hometowns. Like the “hometown” section on Facebook. What the heck am I supposed to write there? I was born in Stockholm, Sweden, but I was so young when I lived there that it didn’t significantly impact my life! Right now I practically have no affiliation to the place (unlike my parents’ cherished memories of the beautiful city) – but how do I explain that in a few words!? Do you now see how messy this gets? At this point I would just panic whenever someone asked me where I’m from. Why does it matter anyway!? I’m in the here and now and that’s what matters to me!

Facebook constantly reminds us that it will always help us remain connected to the rest of the globe. However – ironically – we can only list one hometown on our timelines. Once again, the fact that society expects us to call one place home is reinforced.
Facebook constantly reminds us that it will always help us remain connected to the rest of the globe. However – ironically – we can only list one hometown on our timelines. Once again, the fact that society expects us to call one place home is reinforced.

Once sophomore year began, whenever someone asked me the dreaded question, I would just say “Zambia.” It’s where my family lived at the moment, it’s where I graduated high school, and it’s ONE country. Little did I (then) realize that would set off a whole new series of questions regarding race and ethnicity. “If you’re from Zambia, why are you like… Not black?” Or, “Oh, I thought you were black.” One thing I have heard countlessly in the past year: “Your English is perfect.” Dear God, would the questions, assumptions, and incredulity never end?

Not that I mind explaining demographics in the slightest to people I am having a decent conversation with. It’s just… what do I say to a person I have just met, e.g. a stranger sitting next to me in a lecture or on the bus? I can’t say anything without taking up 90% of the conversation and getting typical reactions. And that makes me anxious.

I told myself I was done with these white lies. At a campus as small as the Okanagan campus, people who have me as a mutual friend or coworker are bound to come across confusion regarding where I’m from while I’m not there. I didn’t want that to happen because that just leads to more anxiety-inducing questions. Or worse, people could think I’m lying. I started saying, “Indian/Mexican by origin, grew up in Europe and Africa.” This worked well enough for me – until people asked why I have moved around so much and I had to explain the fact that my parents are diplomats.

Many people don’t know what diplomats are, and many who do assume we are beyond rich because we are “practically on vacation forever.” This thought has crossed my mind more times than I would like to admit: “I think people assume that I am uppity or like to brag about myself when it was just the truth.” I hate this assumption. I’m dying of nerves and anxiety at being accepted yet I am seen as a show-off. My parents and I are a typical middle class family. My parents have boring desk jobs in offices with 4-figured salaries. I didn’t get my own cell phone till 9th grade, and my own laptop till university. We belong to embassies. Embassies are representatives of foreign governments in each country. We don’t pay the ridiculously high private school tuition fees worldwide – the embassy does. Not all international students are filthy rich. True, we pay really high university fees, but you don’t know that my parents are struggling to pay my fees and that I have a merit-based scholarship to UBC. Many of us are like that. It makes me uncomfortable that our struggle is downplayed or ignored or declared as non-existent just because we get an “international student” stamp branded on our foreheads the second we answer the dreaded “where are you from” question. Can you believe that “withdrawal from social situations, and an inability to fit in are all common to TCKs, overwhelmed by their lack of national identity?” I can, now.

But that’s not my main point. Where were we? Oh yes, I was done with these white lies. I was done with a simple question and answer dictating my whole day, not to mention being met with responses that made my head spin. Sure enough, these white lies became less white. I started just responding to the question with an expected answer: “Vancouver” or “Kelowna.” My answer was met with a friendly “alright” or nod. I breathed out. Life was easy again.

Junior year rolled around and I became more involved on campus than I was before. Reality hit me like a Mack truck. Why am I lying to people? Just because I don’t want to have a conversation? That’s ridiculous and self-centered of me. Nobody cares about my life story. Why am I getting so worked up over nothing? It’s just a question. Answer it. There are people with real problems out there. They asked. It wouldn’t do for the President of the International Student Club to lie about their own international background, would it?

I pushed my discomfort and distaste aside. Anyone who asked me where I’m from got a “Indian and Mexican by origin, lived in Europe and Africa” as an answer, with an immediate “diplomat parents, yes I am an international student, and no I’m not rich” as an afterthought with an accompanying smirk or wink. And hey, it’s not a perfect answer, but it works. It works as long as I keep an open mind to honestly answering genuine follow-up questions driven by curiosity and not disapproval. It doesn’t make me uncomfortable anymore (except when I’m introducing myself to a circle of new people at an ice-breaker, where I just resort to humor or “it’s a long story” to mask my fear). It makes me feel accepted, and makes me appreciate how many people at UBC and in Canada have open minds. It makes me wish I had pushed my awkwardness away earlier so I could enjoy my first two years more. But I don’t have any regrets, as this was a period of learning and growth for me. And it all started because of a simple question: “where are you from?”

Nevertheless, the fact remains that “within the Third Culture Kid (TCK) community, distaste for the ‘Where are you from?’ strikes a common chord. It’s indicative of the confused identity that comes innately with a TCK status.”

I respect and appreciate people who would honestly like to know more about the TCK culture – who keep an open mind and understand that we are people who want to be accepted too. We didn’t choose to stick out. And it’s okay to be amazed or awed. Our own parents don’t fully understand what it’s like to be us: “what separates us from immigrants or casual travelers” is that “instead of developing our identity and worldview in one locale and then leaving, we develop these characteristics while in constant transit.” We were born to this life, whereas our parents (mostly) were in one place for the first 20-30 years of their lives until they went overseas. We don’t know a life that doesn’t involve home being equivalent to three years here then there and on and on.

I will continue circling “other” under “ethnicity” and “origin” on every questionnaire I ever fill out. I will be frazzled with nerves every time I am asked where I am from. However, I wouldn’t change my TCK upbringing for the world. Nor would I change my UBC experience for the world. I would, however, prefer it if stating where we came from had less of a prominence in introductions.

We are caught in a dichotomy of wanting to go back home, yet knowing that we are home. Time – the present – is the first and best home we’ve ever had. The intangibility of home is the price we pay for having known and loved throughout the globe.
We are caught in a dichotomy of wanting to go back home, yet knowing that we are home. Time – the present – is the first and best home we’ve ever had. The intangibility of home is the price we pay for having known and loved throughout the globe.

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