‘Where are you from’ has always been the dreaded question whenever I meet someone new, summoning a flood of mixed emotions; a difficult question to answer, every single time. Maybe this is a narrative you can relate to; some of you might be like me, where you’ve lived your whole life abroad, away from your ‘home’ country. Some of you might simply be coming to Holland as international students. In either situation, the concept of international identity could be familiar to you.
International identity: confusion at it's finest
Let’s clarify what being an ‘international’ student is. The first definition is probably the simplest: you are living and studying abroad, in a country not of your own nationality. Then, there might be students who have lived abroad before university, also identifying as international. Finally, there might be those who have live abroad literally their whole lives, have attended international schools, and might not even feel like they have a home. Of course, there are many between, but these are the types of international students that are come across the most.
A little backstory about me: my nationality is Finnish, my parents are Finnish, and I have a Finnish passport. However, I was born in Paris when my parents were working there as expats. From there, it was back for a brief stint in Finland, then off to London, where I learned English, and finally to Germany, where I ended up graduating high school. This is the long-story-short version.
At international schools, being multinational becomes the norm. Suddenly, everyone has a rich cultural background, some having lived in six countries or more before their 12th birthday, others being fluently trilingual and possessing two passports. This forged a strong sense of belonging. Odd, since no two-people had the exact same international or multinational experience. Somehow, everyone became connected through the shared experience of belonging nowhere in that moment, in that place.
A tourist in my own country
‘Identify’ was always associated to a sense of belonging, having a place to call home, a place where you sewed your roots. But I never had that; having moved around Europe, experiencing multiple cultures, and learning new languages, I never considered myself to have proper roots. Even in Finland, I am a tourist in my own country, if you will.
Back to the question I talked about at the top of the page: where are you from? I’ve heard this asked too many times to count, and both I and a lot of people I know have come to the conclusion it’s a really difficult question to answer. Because, those that might have lived in the same place or country their entire lives might easily say, ‘oh, I’m from right here’. Now, don’t get me wrong, that is a very good and perfectly reasonable answer to give. However, for those of us who haven’t spent much of our lives in one place, it’s more complex. You might have lived 2 years in a handful of countries, never really settling down. On the other hand, you might have lived 8 years in one place, but you can’t call yourself a true local.
But maybe there’s something in that word, ‘local’.
Local, not national
I recently watched a Ted Talk by Taiye Selasi titled ‘Don’t ask me where I’m from, ask me where I’m local’, in which she describes her distaste for the question “where do you come from?”. Being ‘multinational’ herself, she claims that by putting yourself into the identity box of ‘country’, you are limiting yourself. Instead, where we come from is not a country or nation, but our experience. As Selasi says, “the country doesn’t quite work…. the myth of nationality puts us in mutually exclusive boxes”. In the end, no group of people from the same country are the same person; stereotypes only go so far.
In my case, limiting myself to answering that I am from Finland, my answer should instead be I am a local of Helsinki, Paris, Düsseldorf, Edinburgh, Rotterdam…all the places I have established routines and hold my closest relationships. Perhaps that's the true meaning of an international identity.
Eventually, you might come to realize that while identity may indeed be built upon a sense of national character or national pride, identity can come in many forms: the languages you speak, the people you meet, the experiences you have. What makes these countries my home is not my passport or my accent (or lack thereof), but the specific experiences I have had. Be they in specific cities, specific areas, or with specific people and specific culture. Each person is the sum of their specific, local experiences.
This wasn’t supposed be anything ground-breaking, because I’m obviously no cultural expert. However, maybe someone can relate to what I’m talking about. Being international and studying with other internationals is one of the best experiences anyone could have, without a doubt.
Maybe it’s time to ask ‘where are you local’, instead of ‘where are you from’.
What are your experiences with having an international identity? Do you agree with this post?