The question, “Where are you from?” seems like it should be an easy question to answer. Most people respond with “I’m from X place.” My good friend, Satia Dias from back in Madrid, however, would fail to agree with the simplistic implication of that question. She suffers from the unofficially coined term Cultural Bipolarism Syndrome (CBS), that’s usually provoked by questions like, “Where are you from?” She tends to respond that she was born in Lisbon, Portugal.
While this seems like a direct reply, those who’ve asked her this question, seem to have a problem believing that a black woman could be originally from, what is presumably a white country. They usually proceed to ask where her parents are from to expose her non-white background. Even after telling the interrogators that her parents are from the lusophone country Guinea Bissau, they’re still disappointed because they want Satia to say that she’s from Africa, despite the fact that she had never stepped foot in her parents’ ancestral homeland at that time.
If that doesn’t confuse people enough, they are usually flabbergasted when their ears become finely intuned to Satia’s British accent, due to her upbringing in U.K. Then, people declare that she’s really British, even though she has never held a British passport. This back and forth activates the CBS, where Satia gets anxious and annoyed because she doesn’t quite have a narrowed national identity that others may want her to subscribe to.
To many, Satia would be considered a third culture kid (TCK). There are a few parameters on what a third culture kid is, but my preferred paradigm comes from sociologist Ruth Hill Useem’s version. She highlights that a TCK can be an individual who 1) was born in one country 2) has parents who are from a different country 3) grew up in a country that isn’t their birth country nor is their parents’ country. Satia’s identity conundrum is quite similar to my other friend Araba, who was born in The Ivory Coast to parents of Nigerian, Sierra-Leonean, Senegalese and Ghanaian descent. She’s lived her adolescence years in Vancouver, but lived her young adult life in French-Canada, and she currently resides in the UK, while holding a Canadian, a Nigerian, and pretty soon a British passport. I didn’t quite understand why my TCK friends disliked the question “where are you from?” until I was constantly faced with that question while living abroad for about 5 years in Argentina, Spain, and The Netherlands and being a non-heritage bilingual speaker. These experiences forced me to reflect on my identity in the not so traditional American sense.
While living abroad, whenever someone asked, “the question” as I’ll refer to it from now on, I usually replied with a simple “I’m American,” “I’m from the U.S.,” or the Spanish version “Soy de EEUU” However my answer was never good enough. It’s interesting though that when I was amongst white Americans, I noticed that they were never met with the question: “Where are you really from?” Most Spanish people just nodded in agreement and asked the white Americans about their life in the U.S. The difference between being black and being white when asked the question will call for analyzing perceptions of homogeneity, passport privilege, the half-truths of introductions, and multi-localism.
I, along with other colleagues and friends who came from non-white North American backgrounds, experienced the same type of in-depth interrogations. The similarity in experience could leave one to believe it was scripted: “Where are you from?” “And your parents?...grandparents?...great grandparents?” “You don’t look very American” “Where are you really from?” and “What passport do you hold?” These interrogations point to the larger issue of identity politics. It is problematic to nail down someone’s identity based on a few aspects of that person’s life. There are many experiences and degrees of political and national association that shape how someone internally identifies him or herself.
Speaking of what doesn’t define people, passport privilege loomed around my social circles. As a black person in Spain, most people (both Spanish and non-Spanish) don’t expect one to hold an American passport. I often spoke to my West African friends about the challenges of being black in the U.S., thus connecting our identities as marginalized people of color. However, they didn’t see my “passport identity” as anything marginal at all. In fact, for them I held passport privilege. I was allowed to critique systemic racism and oppression while simultaneously enjoying the benefit of jet setting from Paris to Berlin without visas and without stigma.
I never thought of myself as being privileged. I didn’t profoundly think about the power that came with holding a U.S. passport while being phenotypically marked as “different” or not “typical” on the international scheme. One big challenge I faced was conveying to people, that it’s possible to hold an American passport and not be privileged back home. That individual experience should outweigh others’ stereotypes and preconceived notions of what your life is back in the U.S.
There is an assumption that when you’re abroad the local culture that you’re living in, doesn’t become a part of you, because the passport you hold is the only marker of true identity. That is problematic because it doesn’t acknowledge the metamorphic personal development that one undergoes while living abroad. Plus, passport status is not static. Passports can disappear (Czechoslovakian no longer exists) and they can be born (“Greetings South Sudan”). Furthermore, passport holders can change, and no longer be affiliated with their country of origin, (We’ll miss you Tina Turner).
Of course, when you’re an internationally, recognized pluralistic society, like the U.S., although people have their doubts about how American you are, being black and American is a bit more fathomable than coming from Ghana and looking Lebanese. Writer and photographer Taiye Selasi attest to this in her TEDTalk video, while discussing the dynamics of “where are you from?” She admits to committing the error of disregarding an associate’s Ghanaian identity, because she wasn’t black, even though her family had three generations in the country. Selasi emphasizes that ‘privilege of a fiction, the singular country, over reality, human experience” is not real identity, but rather what people decide is an identity for you. If you say, “I’m from the United States” in some sense you’re saying that you’re from 50 states when in reality you’re from a state, a city or maybe even a town. In other words, people come from localities and sometimes move and go to new ones. Each time they move they take with them a little bit of that locality. So why ask, “where are you from?” when you could ask, “what has shaped your local context that makes you the individual you are today?” It’s a bit long of a question, but it allows people to tell the full story of where they’re really from.
After 4 years of living in Spain, Marcus Hall moved back to the U.S. to pursue graduate studies in public policy (MPP) and information science (MSI) at the University of Michigan. Before completing his undergraduate education at the University of Virginia, Mr. Hall studied abroad for a year, interning with a local black rights organization in Argentina and working in immigrant education and professional development in The Netherlands. His professional and academic interest lies in international education policy and management. In the short-term, Mr. Hall plans to pursue a career as an education specialist, working for an international education organization that works at the intersection of global development, education, and technology. In the long-term he is interested in founding his own organization dedicated to providing international and multilingual education to historically marginalized groups, either domestically or abroad. He plans to assess the impact that an international education may have on child development into adulthood, and seeing the impacts that this has on other areas of people's lives. As a global education scholar, his aim is to advocate for more government policies and practices that push the U.S. education system the incorporate global thought and perspective to solving problems and plights that we share worldwide.