photo by Emily Morter from unsplash.com
In almost any introductory interaction, “where are you from?” surfaces quickly. Every time this question is asked of me, I melt into a puddle of befuddlement. In all honesty, I have no idea.
It surprises most people to learn that I was born in Texas. Specifically, Lubbock, Texas. As young kids, my brother and I learned a bit of Spanish along with our Hindi and English, as our closest family friends and babysitters were Mexican. I remember a bit of pre-school, our house, the wide, flat roads. And then we moved to Louisville, Kentucky. Even within Louisville, we shifted from private to public school, apartment to house. We were in Louisville for 9 years. It’s where I learned to read, where I learned algebra, where I had my first crushes and made really close, lasting friendships.
And then just before 8th grade, my family moved to Cleveland, Ohio (or more specifically, an excruciatingly suburban yet remarkably diverse town called Solon). When I moved to Solon, I was from Louisville. However, high school is a formative time for nearly everyone, and I gradually began to come into my own. More strongly than Solon, I felt connected to the city of Cleveland—it’s hole-in-the-wall restaurants and rich arts and sports culture. After completing high school in Solon, I returned to the south for university in Nashville, Tennessee. In Nashville, “Cleveland,” was my go-to response when asked where I was from over a million orientation conversations. When I graduated, I interned in New Jersey for a few months and from then on have been totally nomadic for about a year. Soon, I will be starting medical school in New York City.
Aside from all of this, I am ethnically Indian and the first American citizen in my family. I was raised with Indian values and traditions at home while grappling with vastly different Western ideals at school and in social life. I have taken from both what I enjoy and what serves my lifestyle best. I don’t feel like I could ever say “I am from India.” I also couldn’t say “I am American” with full conviction. My passport and birth certificate are American, so that’s a start. But I am also an Overseas Citizen of India (and thus have a lifelong visa there), and have frequently summered in Delhi’s heat.
After some confusing and frankly medically alarming Google searches, I finally came across a term that describes this phenomenon: Third Culture Kid (TCK) or Third Culture Individual (TCI). I’m going to stick with “kid” because I still jump on my bed regularly.
screenshot from google searches
A TCK is, according to sociologist Ruth Van Reken, “a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture. The TCK builds relationships to all the cultures, while not having full ownership in any.”
The term itself, coined by highly accomplished sociologist also named Ruth (Dr. Ruth Hill Useem, b. 1915, d. 2003) came about after she observed her own children’s cultural identities develop throughout various transnational relocations. Dr. Useem cited military children and business kids as prime examples, but a TCK-like phenomenon also occurs in children of immigrants, particularly when the parents adhere strongly to their original culture. The immigrant home environment becomes the locale of a language, diet, and lifestyle thoroughly different from the country in which it resides. Indeed, I often felt as though I were vacillating between two realities, each with their own sets of priorities and codes of conduct. Factor in moving schools and states, frequent international travel, and amplified intergenerational hang-ups and you have the perfect brew for cultural confusion.
To top this all off, I never fully know what someone is angling at with the “where are you from?” question. About half the time I say “Cleveland,” I get a confused look at my visibly un-Ohioan complexion and the question is readministered. “No, but where are you from from?” While the latter “from” is not always necessary, that special emphasis on the former “from” is a complete gamechanger. It means “What is your ethnic origin?”
Sometimes I say “I’m Indian,” and I am amused to report that more than once I have received the response, “Wow, your English is so good!” Other times, I say “My parents are Indian.”
“Both of them?”
“But you don’t look—”
And so on.
After traveling around Asia for many months (including India and Nepal), I grew more confused than ever. The casual interactions in which everyone is like a brother or sister, the gestures of hospitality, signs of respect, meaning behind specific rituals or actions—I understood them and oftentimes felt a part of them. For instance, a cab driver in Ladakh told me I looked like his daughter, and as such would treat me and my friend very well. He proceeded to give us an extensive tour with full explanations in a sort of mash-up between Hindi and Ladakhi and naturally argued when we tried to tip him, raising both palms and shaking them in refusal. I immediately understood this as both a gesture of hospitality and not wanting to accept money from a younger daughter, while the (American) friend I was with was perplexed as to why he didn’t want the money.
At the same time, however, even if I was dressed head to toe in Indian clothing, many locals could simply tell I did not grow up there. Maybe it was my physique not being quite typical for a young Indian woman. The streaks of blonde in my hair. My complexion, not toughened and darkened by years of the blazing Indian sun. The fact that I was a young unaccompanied woman roaming around independently. I got the question “Excuse me miss, where from?” more times than I can count. “Miss, you want to buy something? Souvenir?” After a week of hearing this at least five times daily, I eventually started retorting in Hindi. “I’m from here,” I would say flatly.
One particularly enterprising souvenir seller called out to me in English. When I didn’t respond, he asked in Arabic. I turned to look at him, and he asked again in broken Spanish. I feigned confusion. He tried Hebrew (if you can call repeatedly saying “shalom” Hebrew). “No thanks,” I told him, laughing, “I’m desi.”
My Hindi, undeniably accented and grammatically flawed, improved a lot. I eventually started receiving local prices for items and make local friends in addition to those at hostels, even navigating working at a couple of local cafés in exchange for meals. During my six weeks in Nepal, I can truly say I felt like I was living there. But there was always a distinction—real or perceived—in my head. My level of education, with medical school waiting for me upon return, loomed beyond most people’s in Pokhara. My oldest pair of Adidas shorts still somehow looked less worn than the knockoff ones donned by many locals. But on a night out I was dancing just as enthusiastically as anyone to hit Bollywood songs and had the luxury of imparting Western dance moves (namely, the steps to the Wobble) to eager Nepali clubgoers.
I can’t pin what comprises a sense of belonging to one or a few factors; it’s just a feeling. I have strong ties to the Indian subcontinent. Yet, when I’m there, I am acutely aware of all the reasons I don’t totally belong (and possibly never may). And even in the most liberal and diverse cities in the U.S., I know there are pieces of me that are fundamentally different from, if not directly opposed to, the mainstream culture. When I came back to Solon, Ohio from the airport, I could barely recognize my neighborhood. It all looked familiar, but I no longer felt a connection to it. I had moved on, somehow, without knowing.
My “home” remains an undefined elsewhere.
This isn’t something to be lamented. In fact, it makes TCKs highly adaptable and mobile. In high school, I visited Peru three times and fell in love with the country, and even spent some portion of tenth grade hoping to spontaneously metamorphose into a native Spanish speaker. When I studied abroad in Sydney, Australia, I easily felt like I could move there. Nepal has a cushy home in my heart. So do multiple cities in India. Even in Tibet, where, short of basic phrases, I couldn’t speak the language, I could feel a strong connection to the Buddhist culture—enough to make me love it despite trough-style privacy-free toilets and a biting deoxygenated climate.
As one BBC article put it, TCKs are “citizens of everywhere and nowhere.” The same article mentions that TCKs tend to pursue higher education (30% with postgraduate study), and 85% speak at least two languages. International transplants generally learn to cope with change and define what is important to them. They, perhaps out of necessity, learn to claim the space and comfort of home within themselves.
When I start medical school soon and inevitably receive the well-intentioned “Where are you from?” at orientation, I aspire to just be honest. “I don’t really know. I moved around a lot. Most recently, ______.”