Let’s continue this conversation. We invite interested members of the Brown community to an IWB Luncheon to discuss multicultural identity on March 16th at 12 pm in JWW 203. For more information and to sign up, click here.
An international student’s personal reflection on what it means to belong somewhere
“Where are you from?” is a question that gets asked frequently on this campus.
To be honest, my immediate response to this question would be: “I don’t know.” However, that is not my current response because I know from past experience that I would receive confused looks if that were to be my actual answer. And the confusion would not be unfounded – everyone has got to come from somewhere, after all! My dilemma, however, does not stem from a lack of a geographic origin, but rather it is rooted in my inability to choose between the places I associate with, and so my issue lies in choosing which possible place of origin I relate to the most. Let me elaborate.
I was born in a Tuscan town in Italy. My family stayed there until I was nine years old, at which point we relocated to Cape Town, South Africa. Cape Town has been my family’s home since then. In light of this, my predicament becomes more understandable. To make matters a little more complicated, my parents were born and raised in Japan, and therefore the culture that my parents associate with the most is Japanese. Despite being raised and educated in Italy and in South Africa, the Japanese culture has naturally spilled into my upbringing.
The challenges of not wholly belonging somewhere have been present throughout my life. For example, in Italy it was assumed that everyone in my school was devoutly Roman Catholic, and since neither of my parents followed that religion (my mother had rejected her family’s Protestant faith, and my father was Buddhist), I grew up acutely aware of my family’s lack of these – or any – religious traditions. In retrospect, I should have considered that I attended a school run by nuns, and that it was to be expected that the families who sent their children to this school would most probably have been religious Roman Catholics. And so, part of my childhood consisted of shyly steering away from conversations of catechism and Confirmation.
Similarly, something else that I faced as I grew up was trying to deal with the discrepancy between how others perceived me and how I perceived myself. This is surely an issue that everyone faces during their adolescent years. For me, this discrepancy was between my physical appearance and the culture with which I associated the most. Whenever I visited Japan, people assumed that I had been born in Japan because I looked Japanese; thus, they assumed that I was well-versed in their culture and language whereas I actually felt a little out of place. Similarly, in Italy, people saw me as an Asian child, but in reality I felt more Italian than they assumed – I was more at home among them than in my parents’ home country. And then, once we moved to South Africa, people again saw me as an Asian pre-teen and teenager, and yet, having never lived in Japan, I internally compared my new setting to Tuscany.
It is probably to be expected that I have assimilated different aspects of each culture into my own life. To summarize a couple of examples, I value individuality and freedom of creative expression just as my Italian community did; my almost need for individual expression becomes most prominent when I visit Japan – I always find that after ten days in Tokyo I start feeling stifled by the importance that is placed on collective identities and the expectations concerning following norms. On the other hand, and in retrospect, my elementary and high school years seem to have a film of diligence and hard work that I think of as being typically Japanese. And now, at Brown, I find myself increasingly grateful for the warmth and generosity that I received from my South African community. While at the time I was easily fed up by the oftentimes inefficient way administrations were run in that country, I can now appreciate another aspect of the South African lifestyle that I neglected – that is, to take my time in doing things to better appreciate them. At Brown, I find myself easily getting stressed over many things that, to be honest, should be trivial, and I often run from one meeting or event to the next without allowing myself to stop and appreciate the fact that I am so lucky to be where I want to be. In South Africa, I developed a sense of gratitude for daily routines which I feel has grounded me in the midst of all the anxieties and stressors that I face at Brown.
I am, of course, aware that my specific background is not shared by many, yet, one of the things that I looked forward to while applying to American universities was the prospect of meeting other students who also had been meaningfully exposed to as many (if not more) varying cultures as I had been. In other words, I was looking forward to being finally understood and to finding people I could relate to in that way. As someone who had been raised in mostly homogenous communities both in Italy and in South Africa, the possibility of immersing myself into a multi-cultural community appealed to me. On that front, I have not been disappointed. This campus welcomes students from all sorts of backgrounds so that it has not been difficult to indeed find others like me.
Yet, looking for empathy in others like me may or may not be useful. If a sense of belonging to a place is mostly driven by a sense of belonging to the people in that place, someone like me cannot feel a satisfying attachment to any one place because I do not wholly fit into the mentality and ways of the people of any particular place. It is natural that a person like me would seek to belong to others who similarly lack a ‘place of belonging.’
Even so – even after connecting to another via an empathetic understanding – I believe that feeling a sense of belonging to a group of people who feel equally ‘displaced’ or ‘unsettled’ only brings temporary relief or even a sort of distraction from the actual issue of deciphering a part of my identity. Because, after all, when I ask others where they are from, I am actually trying to decipher a part of their personal identity. Similarly, when I ask myself where I come from, I am trying to decipher a part of my own sense of identity. It is sometimes disquieting not to have a clear answer. The places we have lived in have had some form of impact on our experiences and ideas, and thus they have had an impact on our sense of self.
I do not mean to say that it is difficult for me to relate to people who do not share a similar story. People have much more than just compatible places of origin over which to bond, of course. However, as we grow into life at Brown – as we make ourselves a kind of home on this campus – I cannot help but wonder whether we are not setting ourselves up for longing and nostalgia. I wonder whether we are all experiencing some sort of ‘crisis’ concerning where we come from because it is true that there is a campus culture that is unique to this university, which we will associate with this particular time in our lives, and which, I believe, can and will only be understood by those who have also experienced it. In this way, our nostalgia particularly for Brown will only be understood by other Brown alums. I anticipate this for all Brown students, regardless of which place(s) they originally associated with.
And so, I believe that there is a price that comes with exploring and experiencing a new place. The compromise of integrating into multiple cultures – the compromise of belonging to multiple places – is the feeling of not knowing where I belong, and even for feeling a constant longing for the benefits of other places. But this should not be a reason for me to stop seeking to explore and to embrace new cultures and mentalities; as I have mentioned, the varying communities that I have been a part of have helped to shape the way I think today. As dramatic as this might sound, I am who I am because of the different places I have lived. I do not mind not having a clear answer to the question “Where do you come from?” because I have decided that I do not need to know exactly who I am. I am fine with still discovering that aspect of my identity.