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“Where are you from?” is a bad question

How growing up with an international background altered my perspective on identity

Growing up internationally is hard. Although there is no place I could call home apart from physical places, like my room in my apartment or my parent’s house, growing up internationally changed my life forever. It completely altered my perception of the world, exposed me to multiple cultures and provided me with the open-mindedness I have today. 

So why does a simple question like “Where are you from?” have such a negative impact on me? 

Like many others, I was born in a different country than the one on my Canadian passport. I was born in Belgium, and moved to two different cities in Switzerland before experiencing the culture shock that was New York City and Boston. Growing up, I found myself adjusting to a new country or community so frequently that it became part of a rhythm in my life. 

Sometimes it was pretty rough to adjust, like when I moved from a small town in Switzerland to NYC. I had to adjust to the number of people around me, a new language, new habits, and the NYC subway. I felt so overwhelmed at first, with the amount of people everywhere all the time, and words people used that I had never learned in my English classes before. 

The plus side of moving was that I always gained the same things: familiarity to new cultural elements, and being exposed to new people and languages, all of which has helped shape who I am today. 

Transitioning between schools and cities in different countries frequently made me feel as though I was a stranger, always the “new kid.” 

“Where are you from?” reinforced the feelings of not belonging I have felt each time I moved. 

When I finally arrived in Canada nine months ago for university, saying I was Canadian became easier, it meant more than just a document I held. But imposter syndrome was still very much present. How could I be more Canadian after living in other countries for years? It’s simply not possible. 

Humans crave validation and in turn crave to belong. I sometimes also wish I had a set nationality that I could be so proud of. 

Often I look at my Balkan father and the way he talks about his country, the people, the food, and the culture. I admire the way he can always scope out a community of Bosnians and feel pride in his country. I know, however, that I will never feel so attached to one country. 

I’m sure I’m not the only one. Maybe you, too, feel like you don’t fit in where you were born, or where your family comes from. Maybe you feel like you’re not “enough” to truly be accepted. 

We should change the meaning behind the term “home” and the idea that we should fiercely represent one country or culture, or consider our home to be the country printed on our documents. We should be able to argue that our home is in multiple places without turning heads. 

In a way, having an answer when asked about our nationality takes weight off our shoulders and allows us to belong to a “club” or a community — a cheat code to having a particular identity. 

The catch is, in the midst of globalization, I believe there is no way to identify with only one place, or belong in only one community. In fact, I strongly believe that seeing yourself as coming from one definite place immensely restricts your experiences and potential future connections. After all, you’re the sum of the many segments of your life. 

Should we not be more concerned about where we could go than with where we have been in the past? Should we not focus on how we could shape who we are by learning from others and exploring new faces in this world we live in? 

In a world where we are so interconnected, a question like “Where are you from?” should never hold as much weight as it does today, nor should the answer ever contribute to who we are. 

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