Why the question: “Where do you come from?” makes me uncomfortable

As I’ve gotten older, some family members have been prompting me to “pick a side”. As in, decide whether or not to denounce my Zambian nationality to take up citizenship elsewhere. Perhaps it’s time I gave serious thought to where it is in the world I would like to settle down. Previously, I figured I’d get a job or do a master’s degree and see where life takes me from there. The thing is; I don’t feel completely attached to any one place and I don’t believe I ever will be. Being born in one country to parents from another and having resided in various countries has caused me to experience a bit of an identity crisis like many other so-called “third culture kids” (read more: TCK World) I’ve often struggled with figuring out where it is that I feel I belong. This issue relates to my sense of cultural identity. 
Recently, I’ve been reading up on what it means to other people, in similar circumstances to mine, to grow up without any concrete sense of identity and came across the notion of being a third culture kid (TCK). This essentially entails having three cultures – your ancestral culture (that of your country of origin), your adopted culture from the country you are raised in and a new hybrid culture which is the amalgamation of the former two cultures. I came across a variety of compelling stories. Some people felt they closely identified with one particular culture in adulthood or always felt connected to the country they grew up in. On the other hand, I read a few cases of people who still felt that they didn’t belong but developed a cultural identity encompassing the best aspects of each culture they are connected to. I can relate to the anxieties that many TCKs face regarding issues of identity as well as the many wonderful things that come with this complex existence.
The common thread I discovered with the stories I read, was restlessness on the part of TCKs in that they have the inherent desire to travel and explore the world as well as a fear of being stuck in one place. Furthermore, many are and feel they would be able to acclimatize easily to a new environment. This seems to be why many of us feel like we don’t belong anywhere but generally feel comfortable anywhere we go.
I was born in London, United Kingdom but hold a Zambian passport and am a South African permanent resident. Being asked where I come from is not always something I enjoy. If I simply say I’m Zambian what sometimes follows is either a greeting in a Zambian language or questions like: “how do you say…?” or “where about in Zambia exactly?” so I often have to qualify the statement with: “…but I was born in the UK and live in SA.” I do this to account for my lack of fluency in a Zambian language and lack of knowledge about certain aspects of life in Zambia. Saying I’m from the UK isn’t technically correct despite being born there and I don’t feel like a South African at all. Thus, simply saying I’m Zambian is the most fitting option although it also doesn’t always feel right to me.
I have met several people who, once they become aware of the fact that I was born in Europe, believe I should ditch my Zambian nationality for UK citizenship. It never really occurred to me to be a priority to change my citizenship but it may prove useful as far as my future plans go. I missed an opportunity to visit Britain a few years ago and would relish a chance to see the place where my life began. However, changing my nationality isn’t that simple and I want a very compelling reason to take such a drastic step. Long story short, under UK immigration law I could not have acquired British citizenship automatically at the time my birth. I may however have the option of staying on in the UK to acquire permanent residence status should I enter the country legally. Zambia also doesn’t allow for dual citizenship so it’s pretty much all or nothing. I’m currently weighing up my options so we’ll see what happens.
I can’t say I’ve ever had a particularly strong desire to live in England simply because I have never experienced life there. But there are a lot of things I love about the place culturally-speaking and acquiring British citizen or permanent residency would to some extent validate my anglophilia. I’m obsessed with British television particularly comedy and game shows, I’m fascinated by British history and I’m a massive fan of Arsenal FC (the more superior of the London clubs and the natural choice for someone born in London ;)). I’ve also received a few compliments over my impressions of various British accents lol. This hardly makes me British though.
I am a Zambian national regardless of the fact that I am not fluent in either of my parents’ languages and spent most of my life outside the country. I’ve been there many times for the usual weddings, Christmases and general family visits. My brother and I also lived and went to school there for a several months in 2002. I’ve quite enjoyed trips to the “motherland” and love a lot of things about the place. As much as I am often treated like a resident I don’t always feel like one and I’m not sure if I could ever get there. There are a fair number of Zambian cultural practices my immediate family observe but I don’t see myself wanting to practice some of them in the future. As I got older, I hoped I would feel closer to this part of my heritage but I find myself drifting away. I am very proud of where I come from and would love to get closer to my extended family but have never really felt like I belonged there. I haven’t seriously considered denouncing my Zambian nationality until a few of my relatives kept jokingly pressing me for a decision. The idea of it seems so final to me but my doubts could be a sign that I really need to apply my mind to it further.
The family and I moved to South Africa just over a decade ago and to a large extent it feels like home. Before that, we were in Australia and Swaziland for about six and two years respectively. Having lived in SA for so long many people assume that I would feel like I’m a proper South African by now but the truth is, I don’t. I recall one time in 2007 when my classmates where excitedly discussing the events of the previous night when South Africa lifted the William Webb Ellis trophy for the Rugby World Cup. It was their first win since 1995. Perhaps they noticed that I hadn’t contributed much to their fervent conversation on the issue because they asked me about my thoughts on the win. Besides the fact that I have zero interest in rugby, I just didn’t see the big deal. I simply responded that I had not watched the game and, to my slight amusement, they reacted as if I had said something blasphemous. It’s not that I wasn’t happy for them and the country but personally I just couldn’t empathise. To me, it didn’t mean that much.
It’s not that I hate living here in South Africa. Quite the contrary, it’s a great place to be and I’ve very much grown accustomed to the South African way of life. It’s a beautiful country, I’ve made some incredible friends who I consider family and I admire the strong traditions and cultures of this diverse nation. The only language I speak is Afrikaans which I am proficient in because I learnt it in high school. Otherwise, I have very elementary knowledge of Zulu and Xhosa. Nevertheless, I don’t feel like I’ve become fully assimilated compared to some of my foreign-born friends living here in spite of the fact that I spent most of my formative years here. I certainly wouldn’t mind settling down here in the long term and it would be quite convenient for the purpose of visiting the extended family. I just don’t feel like I could adopt the South African culture as my own.

I’ve only recently started to seriously reflect upon the confusion I’ve had growing up regarding my cultural identity. It isn’t necessarily depressing but the intense love and devotion some people have for one place – be it a school, town or country – is something I’ve always wanted to experience yet never have. It’s not a huge loss though because I am very grateful for my upbringing and the brilliant cultural experiences I have had as a result. This crisis of identity or rather, mix-up of identity made me realise that I may never find a place in the world that I feel is home for me but that’s ok. It simply means that home is where I choose to make it. My restlessness may never cease but, from the three countries I am connected to, I have developed a cultural identity that is unique and precious to me. Changing my nationality doesn’t have any bearing on that fact. It’s one of the things that make me interesting and I embrace it wholeheartedly. It’s also great knowing I’m not the only third culture kid out there who goes through this. I see myself as a citizen of the world – feeling at home everywhere and nowhere at the same time. I don’t need to pick a side because I think I occupy a pretty great space in the middle.


2 thoughts on “Why the question: “Where do you come from?” makes me uncomfortable

  1. Pingback: 5 things that parents of third culture kids should understand – The Diaspora Baby

  2. Pingback: Mid-year musings – The Diaspora Baby

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