Photo: Philip Clifford
“HOW DO YOU SAY UZBEKISTAN IN CHINESE?” I asked my colleague. “I’m telling my taxi driver from Uzbekistan so I won’t have to explain where I’m from.”
“Wuzi bieke” (烏茲別克), he said.
It was almost an everyday occurrence in Taiwan, people asking me where I was “from,” because I spoke Chinese with a waiguo (外國) or “foreign” accent. Sometimes I said I was from Greenland. Other times, I was half Laotian and half Marshall Islander.
In the past year, I had been in a different country almost every month, but for someone who writes about culture, lifestyle, and travel for a living, my brain is blank whenever I get back from vacation.
“You should pitch to a travel publication,” my parents and friends always tell me.
But what should I write? That the ocean in Hawaii was a tranquil kind of blue? That the snow-capped mountains in Switzerland were majestic white? I’ve been on the road for almost 26 years now – basically my whole life – yet, whenever I read a travel blog or magazine the last thing I feel is inspired. The level of enthusiasm in these stories astounds me. Every single experience – whether it be scuba diving with tiger sharks in Thailand, volunteering in Cameroon, or cross-country skiing in Norway — is exhilarating, life-changing, and an eye-opening experience. Why couldn’t I feel those same things as my globe-trotting compatriots?
I’m not jaded. I love traveling. But traveling is my normal state of being. There’s no “home” or “home culture” to compare it to. When I travel, shop owners and street food vendors ask me if I can purchase this merchandise or this dessert in “my country.” I stare at them blankly. I don’t know how to say that I don’t have a country, that I’m not going “home” after this trip – just back to the place where I happened to be living at that moment. At one time it was London. Another time it was New York. Now it’s Taipei.
August 31, 1990, was Malaysia’s 33rd birthday. It was also the day of my first plane ride. My family – mom, dad, grandma, grandpa and little one-year-old Dana – packed all our belongings (which at that time consisted of only a few suitcases) and hopped on a plane from Kuala Lumpur to Hong Kong. I didn’t have a seat number. Instead, I sat on the floor near the divider between economy and business class. My mom said I was a brave baby, that I simply clenched my fists when the plane took off and landed.
A few months back, my dad, who was only a little older than I am now, had received an expatriate job offer in Hong Kong. He took it, thinking it’ll only be for a few years. Four and a half years later, we moved to Indonesia, and four years after that, to Singapore. A year later, it was Taiwan. And nearly 26 years since that fateful day in 1990, I had lived in 17 houses in 10 countries across four continents.
My classmates at the seven different international schools I attended were on the same boat as me. Introductions were always, “Which country did you move from?” not, “Where are you from?”
Of course, I also knew that this existence was not an “ordinary” one. On a family vacation to Singapore when I was in middle school, I was getting my hair washed at a salon when the stylist, upon hearing my American accent (picked up from attending international schools), asked me where I was from.
“I live in Taiwan,” I said.
I felt her fingers stop massaging my skull for a moment and I could sense her confusion. “Your family immigrated to Taiwan from Singapore?” She asked.
Why would we immigrate to Taiwan, of all places? I remember thinking. Back then, we had to drive 45 minutes to the nearest cinema just to watch a movie.
“No, we just live in Taiwan. But we’ll probably live in another country in a few years,” I replied.
I couldn’t comprehend her difficulty in comprehending the situation.
Growing up in a number of different countries because of our parents’ jobs, “Third Culture Kids” (TCKs) are supposed to be highly adaptable and embracing of cultural differences. We live in a constant state of identity crisis and belong everywhere and nowhere at the same time. We feel most at home in airports. Disillusioned with life on the move, some TCKs decide to stay put in one country when they grow up, whereas others (like me), find jobs that will allow them to travel all the time.
Yes, it’s a privileged existence and a real first-world problem. But I don’t believe that my “different” upbringing makes my ability to look back on my life and feel love, empathy, sadness, or happiness any less than someone who was born and bred in one country.
I’ve moved thousands of miles away from my family and my best friends to places where I knew absolutely no one. I’ve been in love with guys from villages in Bulgaria and farms in Sweden and left knowing that it was going to be almost impossible to build a life together with me always on the move and the other rooted to one place, at least for the foreseeable future.
“You can’t move here – it won’t make any sense,” they all say.
“No, it makes sense; I can write from anywhere,” is always my defense.
But deep down inside, I know – and they know – that I’ll never be content living a modest existence on one tiny corner of the earth.
I’ve found myself in too many situations where I’ve felt lonely beyond words. Yet I’m also the one who keeps putting myself in situations like these. Sure, I have friends and family to commiserate with, but too few people understand.
As I placed my cut fruits and salad boxes on the conveyor belt at the check-out counter at Marks & Spencer at Waterloo Station, I felt the check-out lady’s eyes gaze at me. I prepared myself for the inevitable.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
Crap. Which country should I say today? Fed up, I decided to tell the truth.
“I’ve lived in 10 countries; I’m not from anywhere,” I said coldly.
“10 countries?! But you still have to be from somewhere! Where are your parents from?” She said, still trying to make friendly conversation.
“I’m not from anywhere,” I said, louder this time.
“You’re not an alien, are you?” she joked.
“Nope, I’m just a human who’s living on this earth and who happens to be in London and craving fruit and salad at this moment,” I replied, grabbing my cut fruit and salad boxes and stomping away after paying.
“Just checking to make sure that you’re not alien…” I heard her voice drift as I walked off.
Three and a half years later, I went off on a tirade to a friend about a taxi driver who asked if I was “going home to Japan” after dropping me off at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport. “Yea,” I said, not bothering to explain that I work in Taipei as a journalist for a Taiwanese-owned English-language newspaper and was heading to Singapore for a press trip, then to Seoul to see my family before jetting to Sweden to visit my boyfriend, from which we’ll travel to Denmark and then go our separate ways.
“I feel you, sister,” my friend typed on Facebook messenger. “People always love to categorize us. You know what I say these days when people ask me that? I say I’m from earth. It fucks with people, and I can usually divert the question or tell them how it doesn’t matter where I’m from. Most people probably think I’m an asshole when I do that, but I just laugh it off.”
I’m trying to laugh it off. I’m trying to own the fact that I’m a Third Culture Kid from planet earth.
I may not have a place to call “home,” but I’ve been in love, had my heart broken, cried, laughed, got upset, and repented just as many human beings have by the time they reach 27. If I don’t mention that I’ve lived in 10 countries and traveled to numerous more, my life wouldn’t be that “extraordinary.”
I don’t know which country I’ll live in next or if I’ll move around forever and raise my kids as Third Culture Kids too. But I’m looking forward to whatever is in store for me down the road.
These experiences, these emotions, the ability to emerge from a situation and grow from it – isn’t that what makes us human, what defines us and shapes us, rather than the mere fact of where we happened to be born and raised?