When my college peers in Boston ask me where I’m from, they expect me to name a state. I don’t blame them: English is my first language and although some claim they hear an accent when I talk, to most people I sound like a born and raised American.
In reality, I come from a Swedish mother and an American father, but I grew up primarily in Asia. Vietnam, Mongolia, the UAE, Kazakhstan and Thailand are among the countries I’ve called home. From ages 8 to 12 I lived in New York, but it would be a lie to say this is where I came from.
So I fumble to answer the question at orientation. I tried out responses left and right, hoping to find one that was as easily accepted as “New York” or “Massachusetts.” I was surprised at how difficult this was, as I had been answering the question all my life. But the difference was that I couldn’t simply say “the United States,” which sounded awkward in a room full of Americans; or “Sweden,” because although I have a Swedish passport, I’ve never even lived there and don’t speak the language; or “Denmark,” which used to always feel natural because I was born there, lived there and I speak Danish with my mother and her side of the family.
To one girl, I said, “I’m Danish and American.” She looked at me with a confused expression and pressed, “No, like, where are you from?” To another, I said, “I’m from Denmark.” She responded, “Cool, what was it like growing up there?” This instantly posed another roadblock, as I had only lived there for one year. To a third person, I said, “It’s kind of complicated,” but felt myself blush when I started to explain, as the blank expression that crossed his face told me he had almost immediately lost interest.
In the past, when I found myself in a foreign country or surrounded by TCKs, my usual answers were passable. It took several months at an American university for me to finally accept that I couldn’t give a one word reply. Each time I did, I felt like I was lying about my background. So I finally settled on a response that was as concise as I could make it, while remaining as true as I could make it: “I’m Danish and American but I grew up mostly in Asia.” This became my default response to anyone who asked me.
It wasn’t until my second year in college that I realised the reality of being a TCK ran deeper than I had thought. Of course, I knew my international background had always played a major role in my identity; still, I didn’t expect what I can only call an identity crisis to strike during the second semester of sophomore year.
When I was growing up, I was told by many people that I wouldn’t meet my lifelong friends until college. I started university with these expectations at the back of my mind. I made friends in classes and extra curricular activities and there were people I got along with well. But, with time, I distanced myself from many of them because I felt a divide between us.
I often felt that I couldn’t be myself around them. Meanwhile, I felt incredibly isolated from the friends and loved ones that I truly connected with. My parents were in Thailand, my three sisters and closest friends spread across the US and Europe, and my long-term boyfriend in the UK They were the members of my strongest social network, and I got to see them twice a year at most.
What followed was a desire to leave Boston and burn my bridges there. I’ve spent my entire life leaving places, people, and conflict behind the longest I’ve lived in a place is five years, and that was between ages 1 and 6- —and the result is a deep restlessness inside me. After a year and a half in Boston, I already felt ready to move and start over yet again. It seemed that this had become my solution to every problem. It even felt like the only solution.
As these feelings of restlessness consumed me, I began to worry. Would I ever find a place that felt permanent? Would I ever feel that I belonged somewhere? It was startling to realise that, perhaps, I wouldn’t. Then it dawned on me that maybe I, and others like me, were the exception to the idea that you meet your lifelong friends in college. Maybe TCKs meet their lifelong friends before that.
TCKs are united by the lack of structure and permanence in our backgrounds. Those who understand me the best are the ones I’ve met at international schools around the world; we can go months without talking, and years without seeing each other, but still we remain best friends because of the strength of our connections. My closest friends are the ones who know the pain and excitement of moving every few years, who feel agitated when stuck in one place for longer than that, who feel at home in airports, and who understand the struggle of answering the question “Where are you from?”