When the Answer to Where are you From is Complicated
Lessons In Living Abroad with Third Culture Kids
I met a fellow left-coaster today. Hailing from the beautiful Pacific Northwest and Portland’s sister city (sometimes rival) Seattle. Like sliding on your favorite jeans that have been broken in and fit just so, it was nice to have the same accent. Not be the only one who speaks ‘Merican round here. And it was nice to know exactly where she was from. Oh yes – I know that neighborhood. I know that place. I know where you are FROM. Ah. From. I’m FROM there. From.
But, as it turns out… “from” is relative. It’s not always so simple the answer to “where are you from?” You find this out quite quickly after arriving in a foreign country and enrolling your children in an international school of British standards with a Danish department. Me? I am from the United States. I’m American. I’m FROM Oregon. Having lived there a cumulative 17 years – it’s the FROM that I claim. I identify with it, adore it, pine for it, it is HOME to me. And it is the easy answer for my kids. They are from Oregon.
But here, from is not quite as clear-cut or easy to define. Of course, I have met Danes who have lived in Copenhagen their whole life and their from answer can be a simple personal identifier as well. I’m Danish (swelling with pride). From Copenhagen. (more pride, especially because they aren’t from Jutland. Sorry Jutland – I haven’t really met you yet – just mostly Copenhageners and well – you know – they like it here.) At the international school, the question, “where are you from” instantly gets more complicated.
More often than not, children we have encountered in the expat community here have lived in many places. So even though their parents are British, and their accents are as such, they have never actually lived in the U.K. – the children that is. I have stopped asking my kids’ new friends “where are you from?” as many look at me puzzled, incredulous, confused. You mean – where did I live last? Where are my parents from? Where do I live? I live here. Like you.
For example – my daughter’s new friend moved here from an international school in Switzerland, but her mother is Indian and they have lived in Germany as well. What is her FROM? She didn’t know. Or rather, it wasn’t so simple and to be honest, it didn’t really matter to her. It didn’t define her. Do you want to go play? Of course, my daughter responds. That’s where they’re both from right now.
I should know better. Being raised a “military brat,” I was moved from base to base until my dad ended active service with the U.S. Army. We landed in Eugene, Oregon, where he had attended one year of university as a freshman and always felt a tug to return. And so we did. From 3rd grade on, my formative years through high school were spent being raised in a mid-sized community in western Oregon. This gives me cause to call myself an “Oregon Girl.” You may have your definition. But Oregon seeps into your skin damp and mossy and green and mountainous and wonderful.
Meeting my husband at the end of my college career in (gasp) Washington, I again went through a round of moving from state to state to state, the likes of which exceeded even the U.S. Military. Thanks to my husband’s job with Ford Motor Company. And when our third child was born in the third state and American big automotive was precipitously near a face dive into the economic pavement, we took a severance package, sold our home in Texas (after time in Michigan (twice), Ohio, Philadelphia before Texas) and moved our family back out the Oregon Trail to Portland. My husband always saw our triumphant west coast return in a sort of ticker-tape parade under the Space Needle in Seattle. I always saw us in Portland. It took some convincing but is soon became our home. And we both loved it.
So meeting someone here in Denmark whose children attend your children’s school, who is FROM your FROM – or the nearest proximity that you have encountered in your new now – there is an instant comfort level. And guess what? She is newer than my new here. Shocking. I have more experience than her here in Denmark? That’s crazy talk. But each day is more experiences. And more learning. And more new.
She asked me what I miss most about America. Hunh. I haven’t really thought about it that way to be honest. Knee-jerk response? A garbage disposal in my sink. Ha! No seriously – I do miss it. Seems silly, but scooping up the bits of food that can’t go down the drain all soggy and mushy is seriously eeeeeeuw. But other than that? Friends. I miss my friends and my family and my dog. Don’t worry, I am making friends here. Slowly, but making them. Thanks for suggesting coffee this morning – friend who may be reading this! My new friend who has had three children in three different countries by the way – makes my 3 kids in 3 states gig look a little less impressive I have to admit. Their family’s FROM story is so very interesting. But you’ll have to meet her and she can tell you herself.
So, more than American super chunk peanut butter and good affordable Mexican food or NFL games broadcast in English, (my husband would add an Oregon craft-brewed hoppy IPA), I miss my network. It’s something you know that going in. Moving abroad. Missing people would be a given. Calculated into the decision before entering. Knowing that those ties were strong enough to hold fast over the miles and distance, made the calculation bearable. Thankful for social media connectivity that keeps me in touch with family and friends on a somewhat regular basis. And thankful now for a new and growing network that will probably lay indelible markings on my ever-evolving “FROM.” It’s all relative. Right? Sending love FROM DENMARK. That is still somewhat surreal to write. Where ever you are reading from – happy Fredag and a godt weekend! Enjoy the gallery of images from my new FROM. Skål!