Why I Can’t Answer “Where Are You From?”

“Hey, where are you from? Your accent…”

People love to guess where I’m from, but the problem is, I don’t really have an answer to that question, and I’m pretty sure all Third Culture Kids (3CKs) don’t either.

‘Third Culture Kid’ is a term usually applied to people that were raised outside their parents’ culture, and moved through more than one culture before they had time to develop their own cultural identity.

It should be an easy question, like “What’s your name?” but it’s such a complicated question that forces me to delve into a complicated and often annoying thought process. What story do I tell today? How do I fit my entire culture into one country? My culture doesn’t fit into one, nor even three countries.

“Brazil? Spain?”

No, and no, but you’re getting closer.

“Turkey? Cyprus? No? Okay… I know! Israeli!”

Well, close enough. I’m Lebanese.

That’s my short answer.

Once a man at the tube entrance stops me and asks, “Tu es Français? Non? Parlez-vous Français? Non?? Oh. I thought you had a French accent.” He was genuinely disappointed at my lack of Frenchness.

Although all three of my main nationality parts have French as a main or second language, I am constantly reminded of my linguistic ineptitude. Thank you, tube man.

But, coming back to my answer—to friends or when slightly intoxicated, this is the long answer:

My father is for the most part Lebanese (former French colony number 1). He was born and raised there, and his parents come from mostly Lebanese ancestry. Easy—except his mother and her family were raised in Africa, making African curry one of our “specialties.”

My mother is a tricky one. Her mother is Palestinian (already makes matters complicated) and part Egyptian. Her father grew up in Palestine, but is Moroccan (former French colony number 2). We still have arguments about whether her family is Berber or not. My mother was born and raised mostly in Kuwait, and I lived in Kuwait, this tiny country in the Arabian Gulf, for 18 years of my life.

“Oh I get it! So you’re Kuwaiti?”

No. Not at all.
Neither my mother nor I have the notion of being Kuwaiti, and Kuwait definitely has no notion of giving us passports. Kuwait, unlike European countries and places like the U.S. and Canada, is not open for immigration. If you are born there and never leave the country, you will not be Kuwaiti, unless your father is Kuwaiti (that’s right, mothers don’t get to pass citizenship) or you marry a male Kuwaiti. And live there for 10 years. And convert into Islam, and, and, and the list goes on.

But I’ve lived there most of my life. That being said, I don’t speak their dialect and have not assimilated to the culture one bit.

“But why do you sound American?”

Say hello to the American in me, who’s only been to ‘Murica twice. I went to an American private school in Kuwait, because non-Kuwaitis can’t go to public school. I grew up watching American channels like Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, shows like “Seinfeld” and “That 70’s Show” and other American “classics.”

I, like most people around me, was breastfed American media—so can you really blame me for my accent?

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“If you were raised in Kuwait and your family is Arab, you must be fluent in Arabic. How cool!”

Ah yes, an even larger linguistic ineptitude. But before you judge me, hear me out.
The working class of Kuwait, i.e. anyone you interact with outside school and home, is composed of Far East Asians and Southeast Asians, who speak English. So everything around me was in English, except my home where we spoke in a dialect form of Arabic. Thus, my Arabic is only conversational and as useful as…nothing. It’s not useful for reading and writing, which is done in traditional Arabic. My linguistic incompetence is made competent since I do speak—albeit an intermediate level—Japanese and Italian.

Surprise! I can’t read and write my own language, but for some reason I can read and write the language of lands far, far, away.

And then there’s my Canadian-ness (the third former French colony that I’m tied down to), which no-one ever guesses. I have a Canadian passport, having lived there for a few years during my already-awkward pre-teen years, but in Canada I’m as Canadian as a FOB (fresh off the boat).

I’m a Westerner to Arabs and an Arab to Canadians—leaving me stuck in a limbo somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean.

“What country is home?”

I’m an outsider in all those countries, so I guess I still haven’t found a country that I can call home, just like many 3CK’s. The problem isn’t that I don’t identify a country to the idea of “home”—but that society expects me to. I must have a home, and it must be a country.

My home is really just a combination of homes where my family are. Sometimes it’s Beirut, other times it’s London, Toronto, or Kuwait.

My home is as erratic as I am, scattered across the world, ever-changing according to me. I like it that way.

View Comment (1)
  • Loved this! I go through the same conversation all the time! Except with different countries. I have such an American accent, which means that when people ask me where I’m from and I answer half-French and half-Belgian, they tilt their heads and have a confused look on their face. Sometimes I just want to nod and smile. But of course that’s not enough. And there’s always the awwwing and ooing. And the follow up questions. Fantastic post! Loved it. Will share on twitter!

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