There’s one question, abruptly raised at parties, abroad or during interviews, that I dread more than anything, and that’s “Where are you from?” I’m not resentful of the question asker – I think it’s nice they’re interested in my mashed-up accent and social incompetence. And because I’m generally classified as a white privileged person, I rarely encounter that ugly racist dig, “Where are you really from?”
The reason I dread that awful question is simply because I don’t know. I could say South Africa, but my parents moved my brother and I out of there when I was six, and besides, it’s not really a country I want to lay claim to, particularly after growing up with the questions, “Why aren’t you black?”, “Do you speak African?” and “Are you a racist?”
I could say New Zealand, because that’s what my passport says, even though I haven’t lived there for five years and to be honest have never fully clicked with Kiwi culture.
Sometimes I’ll say Australia, because that’s the place I call home, even though my pathway to citizenship – and voting – is challenging to say the least (good luck reaching the new salary threshold as a freelancer).
Often I’ll say “I don’t know”, and see how long I can leave that awkward conversation hanging.
Luckily, I’m not alone in my mess of a cultural identity. Cross-cultural and Third Culture Kids (TCKs) have been floating around confused forever, but as our world gets increasingly globalised it’s about time we talk about the idea that – just hear me out here – nationality doesn’t have to be ‘one-size-fits-all’. It can even be something as fluid as sexuality or your political opinions.
What the hell is a Third Culture Kid?
Everyone who is a Third Culture Kid (TCK) will understand the relevance of this BuzzFeed article immediately. For everyone else, Third Culture Kids are people who have spent a big part of their lives outside their parents’ cultures, usually because of their parents’ international work in diplomacy, as missionaries, whatever. So their passport might be the same as their parents’, but they might not have spent much time in their ‘home’ country at all.
Lots of TCKs, like Melbourne-based Pozible general manager Claire Mequita, also grew up in international schools. Born in Perth to a UK dad and Singaporean-Chinese mum, Claire’s parents relocated to Indonesia when she was four. After studying alongside other expats at an international school until she was seven, Claire was whisked to Singapore to begin school proper. Used to living alongside TCKs who were constantly coming and going, the transition to Singaporean life was tough at first. But once she started making friends, Claire quickly began to consider herself Singaporean. Almost.
“I guess I never felt completely Singaporean, because I was still obviously not Chinese or Malay – not one of the main races,” she tells me.
Taxi drivers were the biggest culprits when it came to the question, “Where are you from?”
“It’s the kind of question I dread,” says Claire, who moved with her family to Australia after her daughter and Filipino husband were denied permanent residency in Singapore. “If I say I’m from Singapore, [taxi drivers] are like, ‘But you don’t look like you’re from Singapore.’ So there’s no use saying it.”
To get around the question, Claire says she sometimes “ended up making stuff up”.
“Sometimes they’ll say, ‘You sound like you’re from America’, because my accent is a mix of international school and American friends and Singaporean friends. Even now that I’m in Australia people usually pick up on the accent and say, ‘are you from Canada?’ It’s difficult.”
Learning to deal with cultural loss
One of the biggest challenges both TCKs and cross-cultural kids face, according to TCK expert Ruth Van Reken, is growing up with not only a sense of cultural marginality – that feeling many of us, especially minorities, share of not fully fitting in anywhere – but unresolved grief for cultural losses that “are not visible or recognised by others”.
This is particularly the case with kids whose families have sacrificed much for them to grow up in a better place. No one wants to complain about feeling adrift from a home country that would have stripped them of the privilege they’ve enjoyed growing up. The sense of loss many cross-cultural kids feel isn’t coming from a place of ungratefulness or regret, but rather from the confusion of unearthed roots – of not feeling they truly belong.
Russian-born artist Elizaveta Maltseva juggles the claim to two cultures – Russia and Australia – while not fully claiming either.
“It’s funny because I don’t know which part I am more,” she says. “I think it always comes back to childhood. When I think about growing up in Australia, there’s always that time when I’d be talking to friends and they’d be like, ‘Do you remember this growing up?’ […] And I’d think to myself, ‘Oh yeah, I was living in Russia. I have no context for that at all.’
“But then I don’t feel 100 percent Russian, especially […] because my family, my sister and I were removed from Russia’s modern history, going through Perestroika and the collapse of communism. I feel like that was a pretty fundamental shaping point for a lot of contemporary Russians, and because I didn’t go through that – I got to go off to little athletics and to watch Play School in Australia – I feel that I don’t relate to the Russian mentality in a way.”
Instead of struggling with a scattered sense of identity, Elizaveta has forged her own. Part of this included moving to Edinburgh for two years.
“What I think I was doing with Edinburgh was claiming my own home. Being a child of many lands made me appreciate lots of places, but it was always my parents’ choice to move, and this time I felt like I [had] the voice and made it happen.”
Growing up outside the monoculture
La Trobe anthropologist Professor Helen Lee, who is studying the sense of belonging and cultural identity in children of Tongan migrants to Australia, has found that the cross-cultural children of today are much more comfortable with a hybrid sense of identity.
“I think the younger generation – particularly those who came when they were very young or were born here – are very very comfortable with multiple identities that they can shift in and out of, particularly if they manage to feel that they’re accepted by their parents’ ethnic group or groups,” she says.
Language often plays a big part in this feeling of acceptance. Helen says early Tongan migrants to Australia were reluctant to teach their children the Tongan language because they wanted them to speak English and win at their new country.
“[A]s those kids got older they actually got quite resentful of the fact they didn’t speak the language, and so they couldn’t access a lot of cultural knowledge […] It became a real identity confusion for them.”
She says this loss of language is common to many minority cultural groups across Australia. Often these groups will exclude the younger generation by telling them they’re not “authentic”, while at the same time not putting the systems in place to help them learn the culture.
“It’s very hard for parents to teach their kids their own language if they’re growing up in Australia and they’re at school all day [and] the parents are working long hours,” she adds.
Pharmacist and freelance journalist Melissa Coci was raised with a strong sense of her cultural heritage as a third-generation Italian. But she says growing up without the language also led to her feeling excluded from the Italian culture.
“I really wish my parents spoke Italian to me when I was growing up, so I would be fluent in it now. They both can speak it. Not being able to speak Italian actually really bothers me.”
Melissa’s pride in her Italian roots also makes the label ‘Australian’ problematic.
“As far as my cultural identity goes, my Italian heritage plays a big part for me. Even to this day I sometimes feel so disconnected from Australian cultural identity, even though I have no definition of what that actually is.”
Why we need to rethink what it means to be ‘Australian’
With so many Australian kids growing up with so many hats – Australia is ranked as one of the highest western immigration nations in the world – the need to rethink what we mean by ‘nationality’ and the arguably obsolete question, ‘Where are you from?’, becomes even more important (check out Fiona Broom’s excellent The Vocal article on the subject here.)
“I think Australia needs a big discussion about what the Australian nationality means,” says Helen. “I think multiculturalism has a lot of advantages, but also disadvantages, because it assumes people can be put in a nice neat box, which they can’t in many cases. […] There’s no room for fusion and mixture and hybridity. And certainly no recognition of just Australian – it’s always other.”
If we’re going to change the way we see nationality, then it’s the young people – the hat wearers – who need to lead this change.