“It’s a long story.”
“I’m from all over the world.”
“I’m not really from anywhere.”
“I’m from everywhere and nowhere.”
“I’m a global nomad.”
“Do you want the short version or the long version?”
“I’m a third culture kid… Do you know what that is?”
These are just a few of the things I have told people in response to the question “Where are you from?” Every time somebody asks, my heart sinks a little. I have to pause, collect myself and think about what to say. It’s kind of unfair to blame the asker for asking. Most people have no way of knowing that for people like me, answering this question is something akin to emotional labour. If I’m honest, I find the question intrusive. I believe that knowing the answer is not an entitlement but a privilege that comes with taking the time to get to know me. But if I reveal the discomfort I feel, I risk confusing or even upsetting the asker. I risk them judging me or thinking I’m arrogant or uptight. So, most of the time, I fake a smile, adopt a storytelling tone and briefly explain that although I am a citizen of a country, I don’t feel “from” that country. It’s a mini performance. I have memorised lines in preparation for it. It’s not always fun to be asked to get into character at the drop of a hat.
In her TED talk, the writer Taiye Selasi invites us to ask “Where are you a local?” instead of “Where are you from?” Asking someone which places they feel most comfortable and familiar in will generate stories of experiences rather than preconceptions. “How could I come from a nation? How can a human being come from a concept?” she asks. Which resonates with me so much. When people ask us where we are from, what do they see when you tell them you come from a nation? Why do we reduce our identities to singular countries when the reality of human experience is so much more complex?
“All identity is experience,” Selasi says. My identity is the experience I am about to share with you, not just the country that issues my passport.
My answer to the question, “Where are you from?” cannot be one word. It cannot be one place. It can only ever be a story. Here is an abridged version:
I was born in Poland to parents who would divorce five years later. I don’t remember much about my dad, and the things I do remember, I’ve romanticised. He played the guitar, loved hiking in the mountains and developed his own black and white photographs in our bathroom. He had a moustache and smoked a lot.
◑ Age 6
When I was six years old my mother married a Norwegian man and we moved to Saudi Arabia. I started going to the Saudi Arabian International School in Riyadh (later renamed to the American International School). I was very shy and quiet and spent my time in the school library, reading books. I learned English from The Little House on the Prairie, The Magic Treehouse and American Girl. I had two best friends in Saudi Arabia. Ida was from Sweden and lived next door to me in our compound. She didn’t speak much English but we became friends anyway. Yoon-Jee, from Korea, was in my grade at school. We bonded over our shared love of Laura Ingalls Wilder. When I moved away, we wrote heartfelt letters to each other for years.
◓ Age 11
When I was eleven we moved back to Poland. I went to the American School of Warsaw and lived as an outsider in the country of my birth. After five years away, I had become fluent in English but had forgotten most of my Polish. It took me a long time to get over the friends I had left behind in Saudi. Losing contact with my father was my first experience of loss; leaving my beloved friends was the second. Years later I learned about unresolved grief and the way it affects TCKs (third culture kids).
◐ Age 14
When I was fourteen, we moved to Russia. I went to the Anglo-American School of Moscow and saw this as my chance to reinvent myself. It was very tempting to try and become a different person in this new environment where nobody knew me. I think I succeeded to some extent – or maybe I just discovered a different side of me. I formed a lasting friendship with a Polish-Singaporean girl. We bonded over the fact that we had the same name. By the end of the school year, I felt like I was part of a community for the first time in my life. Then, we moved away again.
◓ Age 15
When I was fifteen we moved back to Warsaw unexpectedly and I was reunited with the friends I had tearfully parted with not long ago. I resumed being a foreigner in ‘my’ country and began to feel very uncomfortable. I was acutely aware that I wasn’t like other Polish kids. Polish people couldn’t understand why I carried a Polish passport but spoke Polish with an English accent. I felt like a traitor. I wanted to leave.
◐ Age 19
When I was nineteen I moved to London on my own. I took two large suitcases and a backpack. I lived for a while with a family friend from Saudi. Later, I moved to a flatshare near Brick Lane. It was filthy and fabulous. My housemates were Japanese graphic designers. I worked in a hotel restaurant, and later in Zara. I didn’t really look at my move to London in context, but I was part of the huge influx of Eastern European migrants that would later become such a problem for some Leave voters. I didn’t think I was one of them. Unlike them, I didn’t move to the UK to earn money to send home. I didn’t think I would ever go back to Poland. I never bonded with the Polish people I met in London. They always viewed me with suspicion.
◑ Age 24
When I was twenty-four I moved to Cambridge for a year. I fell in love with the city and found it very hard to leave at the end of my university course. I loved the freedom of riding my bike everywhere. I moved back to London but hated it.
◓ Age 26
When I was twenty-six I moved to Lilongwe, Malawi. I committed to a two-year work contract. It was scary because I wasn’t ready for the culture shock and homesickness. I thought I was a seasoned traveller. I learned a lot about the world, and myself. I will never forgot the Warm Heart of Africa. Zikomo.
After Malawi, I moved to Canterbury, Kent, and then back to London. I wouldn’t rule out moving again. Sometimes, when life gets a little too much, I start plotting my escape. I think about moving to a new place, but I also recognise that it’s my way of trying to run away from my problems.
Every place I have lived in was my home for a little while. I was a local in each of them at some point. I am not “from” these places, not am I any more “from” Poland than I am from the United Kingdom (the two places where I lived the longest). What I am from is the experience of movement. The restlessness, the getting to know places, the transitions, the homesickness, the good-byes, the grief and the growth. I am from this story.