Monday, August 29, 2011

A cultural mulatto moment

Identity is such an elusive animal for us Third Culture Kids.

When I first moved to England from the Middle East as a young adult, I became "the American girl" even though I had not lived in the U.S. for a decade.When I moved to the U.S. 10 years later, I became "the English girl," even though I had only lived in England since I was 18.

When people ask me where I'm from, I have to give my life story. Sometimes I just say, "It's complicated," or, "It takes too much time to explain."

But usually that just piques people's curiosity.

"Why is it complicated?"  "I've got time."

I can tell my life story quickly and I've done it a million times. I get bored of telling it, rattle through it to get it out of the way, yet it is a formality that cannot be dispensed with -- and the essense of who I am.

The older I get the more comfortable I am with being out of sync, with being a perpetual foreigner. But ever so often, something reminds me that, as a TCK, I belong everywhere and nowhere. And sometimes that hurts.

The most recent incident was in Cambridge a couple of weeks ago. I worked at the Cambridge University Library for three years when I first moved to England, and spent many more years in and around that city. It's one of my "homes." So I was in the market, happily browsing a photographer's stall. I asked him if he had any photos of the University Library, and he asked me if I had been doing some work there.

I said "yes," thinking of my job, then realised he had assumed I was a foreign graduate student... Then he asked me where I was from. I said "Washington" which is where I live, but of couse I'm not from Washington; I only moved there in my 30s... But I didn't want to get into my whole life story with some guy on a market stand who had me pegged as an "American girl" just when I was starting to feel like a local.

Last year, a woman in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul asked me the same question. I was traveling with a Palestinian friend and we were visiting from Jerusalem, where I grew up.

"Palestine" my friend responded, then the woman looked at me. "Palestine," I said.

"No," she insisted. "Where are you from?"

Everywhere and nowhere, my friend. Everywhere and nowhere.