Being an expat and having the opportunity to live in an exotic place might sound like a dream come true to a lot of people.
But it’s not always easy being an expat.
Aside from all the big hassles moving entails – packing up your household every few years, finding new schools, buying a car, navigating a bureaucracy that invariable strikes you as more complicated than the one you grew up with, and – this might be the hardest of them all – finding a new hairdresser, there are the little inconveniences too.
One of those little inconveniences of expat life is having to answer the question of where I’m from.
Because there is never just a simple answer.
Somehow “I-was-born-and-raised-in-Germany-then-moved-to-Raleigh-North-Carolina-to-attend-business-school-in-1991-with-my-then-boyfriend-after-having-been-an-exchange-student-in-the-US-at-age-16-and-really-loving-it-there-then-got-married-and-had-kids-then-lived-in-Singapore-for-a-few-years-then-moved-back-to-North-Carolina-then-to-Wisconsin-then-to-Kansas-then-to-South-Africa-after-becoming-American-citizens-right-before-leaving-America” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue easily.
I’d love to be able to unequivocally say “from California” or something equally short and simple. Period, end of story. I suppose I could do just that, but it feels wrong. Because what does “where are you from” mean? Where you lived most recently? Where you were born? Where you lived the longest?
So, as an expat, your answers are often lengthy affairs, with many starts and stops and bits like “well, let’s see…most recently lived…born and raised in…originally from” and “wait a minute, I forgot the time we were kept captive by cannibals in the South Pacific.” You’ll invariably run over your time limit – let’s face it, people typically don’t allot more than fifteen seconds to their where-are you-from questions – and feel compelled to shout “and I was raised by wolves in Transylvania!” after them as they’re already turning their backs.
Because I never really get to tell the entire story, I feel like I have all these different identities among my acquaintances of the moment, depending on the day and my mood when I told my tale.
Every once in a while I’ll sit down and try to think about where I really am from.
Am I from Germany? That’s where I was born. But I haven’t lived there in 20 years and it doesn’t feel like home anymore. On a recent visit, I got utterly lost on what should have been an easy drive from the airport in Hannover to the town of Grossburgwedel (yes, that is the name of the town and there is, of course, also a Kleinburgwedel). As I was growing more and more desperate circling through quaint villages and trying to interpret the utterly confusing signs, I was already formulating a blog post on it in my mind, describing the pitfalls of German highway signs. I felt like an expat in my home country, which I suppose is precisely what I am, if at least one who can speak the language reasonably well. Although even that can be a challenge. I seem to have missed a wave of hip new language since 1991, so that I probably sound like a Pennsylvania Amish woman coming to the big city.
Maybe I should practice wearing a bonnet.
I found that the best way to make myself understood is to take the equivalent English word and pronounce it in a German way, hoping for the best. English words are definitely in fashion.
Speaking of language, there is also the problem of articles. Not the written kind, but articles as in “the.” The German language, you know, insists on hoisting not one, or even two, but three different articles at the unsuspecting learner. Every noun known to mankind must become either male, female, or neutral before it is allowed on German soil, there is no escaping it. Clearly, trees are male, and the sun is female, as is butter (although there is a bit of a North-South debate on that latter one, to be completely honest). The problem arises when articles must be found for new arrivals from overseas. Is an iPad male or female? A computer is male, because its predecessor, a calculator, was also male. You’d think that would make an iPad male as well, but no, I was corrected, it is actually neutral. The German word for swimming pool is neutral, but if you use the English word pool, as many Germans are wont to do, it suddenly becomes male. And how in the world am I supposed to guess that a donut isn’t female like all the other nuts out there?
And how, while we’re on it, do you “friend” someone in German?
I know it sounds corny, but most likely home is really where the heart is. Which means wherever your friends and loved-ones are. Except that makes the home debate even more difficult, because by that definition(not even counting all the other places some of our friends have moved on to) we have little bits of heart scattered all over the globe, from Germany to North Carolina to Singapore to Wisconsin to Kansas and all the way to South Africa, where one day, when it comes time to say our good-byes, we will leave a particularly big chunk sitting on the doorstep.
So you see, my identity is not all that clear to me.
Which is why I was actually pleased to find out the other day that I’m not the only one feeling this way. Apparently there is a whole host of people similarly afflicted, and they are called Third Culture Kids or TCKs. People who grew up in a different country than their parents, or who have parents of different nationalities, or who have lived in so many different places they have no idea which one to call home anymore. I’m not particularly fond of the term TCK but apparently there are entire books written about it, some of which are on my reading list. If I myself don’t technically qualify as a TCK, having only moved to the U.S. in my twenties, our kids certainly do. Three of them were born in the United States, one was born in Singapore, and they all currently, temporarily,live in South Africa with German-American parents.
I wonder how they will answer the question of “Where is home?” when they are young adults?