‘Where are you from?’
My stomach plummets. Anxiety billows through my chest. I feel flushed as expectant eyes train on me.
My brain instinctively switches into processing mode. Do I tell the long version of my life or short version? Is this person worth the long version? Am I ever going to see them again? Do I even have the energy to tell the long version? But if I do tell the long version, I might get that annoying comment ‘but you don’t have an accent.’ Then I’ll have to amp up the foreignness in my voice to match the story.
Or should I just tell the short version? It’s so much easier. It allows people to stow me in that cozy cubby hole of relatability. I’ll be spared the glazed look of incredulity, the conversation topic-switch that time and again has invalidated my upbringing and validated me as an oddity. But I have to remember, I can’t use any words that will betray my difference.
I’ll go with the short version.
Relief comes with a sense of slight falseness. I’m not being wholly true. Not to them, but to myself. I’m leaving out a huge chunk of my story, of the stuff that actually made me me. But I’ve had to skip over that for most of my life.
This question, where are you from?, the polite inquiry of tedious talk and cocktail conflab, has caused me exquisite anguish my whole life.
Because I don’t have an answer. Because I am not from anywhere.
I was born on the South Island of New Zealand, in a town with a beach flogged by the restless South Pacific. I should’ve been born in the copper mining town of Mufulira, in what was then called Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, in the waning days of colonial Africa. My father, from sheep-country in New Zealand, worked as a foreman at the mine. My mother, from England, was an auburn-haired nurse at the mine hospital. They met at a party, one of the many social events attended by young expats who came from all over the British Commonwealth to work at the mine.
When my mother was nearly due to give birth to me, their first child, my father whisked her off to New Zealand, where I entered the world. Three weeks later, we were off.
Over the first four years of my life, my father’s job moved us to Fiji, England, Sweden, Nigeria and back to New Zealand, where I started school. Then we moved to Australia, where I spent the formative years of my childhood. Australian became my identity.
When I was thirteen, we moved to the United States. That’s where the New Jersey bit comes in. It was like being shoved off a boat into the open ocean. I pushed my head above the surface as soon as possible. I trod water, learnt to dog-paddle and finally swim. It was either that or drown.
I started ninth grade that fall at a public high school with fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds because I was far ahead academically. I’d never owned a pair of Levi’s or sneakers or been to a shopping mall. No one understood my accent or the words I used. Teachers marked my British spellings as mistakes and couldn’t read my modern-style cursive handwriting. Everything about me was wrong.
What I did have, no longer counted. My knowledge about Australia’s founding as a penal colony, unique fauna such as wombats and flying foxes, lingo like ‘fair dinkum,’ ‘dunny’ and ‘silly galahs.’ Whenever I mentioned anything about Australia, I’d get blank looks, maybe asked if I had had a pet kangaroo, then the conversation would be switched to a topic that was more ‘normal.’ I got the message. My background was unrelatable and therefore unworthy. So, I stowed it in the deep crevices of memory in order to fit in. Despite my best efforts, my accent eventually faded. I became an American Teenager, and nobody was the wiser. It was so much easier that way.
Back then there was no Internet that made it easy to keep in touch internationally. Communication was by letter, or the occasional expensive phone call in an emergency. I eagerly wrote to my friends and a cousin my own age Down Under. After receiving their letters, I always replied straight away because I was desperate to keep up a steady stream of contact. I think I knew even then on some subconscious level that without the rhythm of regular connection, the gap between us would grow wider than the Pacific Ocean.
It didn’t take long for my letters to go unanswered. Friends couldn’t relate to my new life and while I could relate to theirs, it was increasingly irrelevant to mine. Still, I kept it up. I even gave them a last chance with a second letter before I accepted that the thread had been broken and I succumbed to the rawness of rejection, the loss of letdown.
When I last went back to Sydney for a visit at age nineteen, I thought I could finally be my true self. I was in for disappointment. Everyone said I looked and sounded American. I felt betrayed. I wanted to be Australian. I didn’t want to be American. The accent was a question of survival, I told them. I got tired of being told ‘you talk funny,’ of having to repeat myself, of how I spoke getting more attention than what I said.
But they didn’t understand, and I came to the painful conclusion that I couldn’t expect those who had never left to get it. They had never had the experience of passerbys’ heads whipping around to stare when they opened their mouths, of shop clerks saying ‘what? what?’ when you asked for something.
The Sydney I’d known as a little girl had transformed, too. Change is unavoidable, of course, but an émigré’s native home is inevitably trapped in the eyelet of era. Without the benefit of gradualness, the change seemed harsh and sudden. I felt like my childhood had never really existed. It was there when I left, gone when I returned. Friends and family had turned into tongue-tied strangers. I felt like a tourist – discomfiting in a place I thought I claimed.
So, I never returned after that trip. There didn’t seem much point. I had to cut the tethers, let the past drift into the ether and moor myself to the present, to where I was.
I became a U.S. citizen and a reporter for various newspapers in New Jersey. I never told anyone my true story. Everyone assumed I was from northern New Jersey. My facade was so perfect that one time when I told my real story to a guy I was dating, he accused me of making it up.
Journalism was the perfect career for me. It’s a calling for the endlessly inquisitive, for rebellious spirits who can’t sit at desks, for those who love the adrenalin highs of deadlines and the edge of danger. And the focus is always on someone else, not on myself. But I never ceased to feel like an octagon in a round hole.
The childhood that had addicted me to novelty and adventure came roaring back in my late twenties. I wanted to live in a country that was non-English speaking, find a home in complete foreignness.
I taught myself Spanish, and over the next decade I lived in Spain, Guatemala and Venezuela, teaching English at first then returning to journalism. I travelled all over Latin America writing for Time, Business Week, The New York Times, and many others. Everyone assumed I was American, of course, since I had a U.S. passport although I’d never learnt to sing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ or eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
But the question of my identity plagued me more than ever because I couldn’t lay claim to any real nationality when asked where I was from. When I ran into Kiwis or Aussies, I couldn’t identify with them because I really hadn’t lived very long in either place. I wasn’t really from America, either. I was amorphous, a chameleon.
I started to resent my parents for hauling me around the world. I couldn’t claim their heritage since they were from opposite sides of the globe. I envied those who had ‘hometowns,’ who grew up with the same kids, the same neighbors their whole lives. It seemed idyllic compared to what I’d gone through.
After much angst, I decided to simply belong to where I was, that would be my home. I shoveled the whole thing away and returned to the United States, first to Miami then to Los Angeles.
The similarities between Southern California and Australia – the dry, sun-baked summers and mild, wet winters–forced an unexpected unearthing of buried souvenir. I’d catch glimpses of my childhood as I wound up the Pacific Coast Highway, which is similar to the Pacific Highway I’d walked along to school in Sydney. I’d pass clumps of eucalyptus trees, bark peeling in huge curls to expose ghostly white trunks. We had a towering eucalyptus, called gum trees in Australia, in our back garden. Cackling kookaburras perched on its branches before swooping down to snatch strips of meat my mother would hang on the clothesline for them.
As I walked around houses in springtime LA, I drank in the sweet scent of wisteria, which takes me back to the perfumed house of my neighbors in Sydney, awash in the vine of lavender blooms.
I lazed on a bluff in Malibu beneath the same cloudless blueness that I once played ‘Mother May I?’ under. The mountains behind me were carpeted with the same parched terrain of fire-prone dull-green brush. As the spangled Pacific Ocean stretched before me connecting the continents of my past and present, I watched salt-blonde, sun-bronzed surfers jog by, boards tucked under their arms, just like at Bondi Beach.
On a road trip to San Francisco, I drove through hilly paddocks dotted with sheep. It touched a long-ago chord of driving trips through the New Zealand countryside. To my surprise, the memory swelled to an ache. Tears trickled down my cheeks like creeks.
I realized that I’d spent so much of my life trying to be like everyone else, I didn’t know who I was. I had to come to terms with my difference, make peace with my past. It wasn’t good or bad, it just was. I couldn’t change it, so I should celebrate it. I had to be me with my odd accent, my repertoire of unique experiences.
The funniest thing is that I recently discovered that I do, in fact, have an identity. People who grew up like me, expats moving country to country, are called ‘third culture kids’ or TCKs. When I came across this one day on the Internet, I immediately bought the book on TCKs and found myself in its pages. I was far from the only one who dreads being asked ‘where are you from?’ I had found my tribe.
I still get tongue-tied when asked where I’m from and run through my mental checklist whether to tell the whole story or not. But now the short version goes something like ‘I live in California, but I grew up all over the world,’ and I appreciate questions when asked instead of ruing their absence.
I’m glad of my upbringing, the breadth of perspective and the richness of flexibility and resilience it has given me to face life. Home for me, I have decided, is not a place. It is a mobile state of being, an ongoing evolution of all the bits and pieces of different places an adventurous life has accumulated. It is wherever I am.