Ah, the dreaded question. It seems so innocent and simple that you’d wonder why someone would associate those four words with a feeling of panic and despair. I wish I could say I’m joking and being slightly overdramatic, but I’m really not.
See, I am a Singapore-born British-Indonesian currently living between England and Singapore. I lived in Indonesia for two years as a baby (which I remember nothing of), and spent the rest of my childhood and teenage years growing up in Singapore.
That’s the answer I am usually inclined to give, but that doesn’t clarify where I’m from, per se. Believe me, I am as confused as you are.
It doesn’t help that I give a different answer to pretty much everyone I meet. One moment I’m telling someone I’m from Singapore, just because it is where I have lived, and the next I’m telling someone I’m half British, half Indonesian. It’s even worse if the first person catches wind of that answer and goes ‘but I thought you’re from Singapore?’.
Okay, so to that, my answer is yes and no. Annoyingly (thanks Mum and Dad), the place where I grew up is unconnected to either of my ethnicities. I guess you could say this makes me a ‘Third Culture Kid’ – this basically means the culture I grew up in is different from my parents’. Inevitably there are some bits of British and Indonesian culture that I can identify with, but not enough that I can say I am from those places.
To make matters more confusing, I don’t feel particularly connected to Singaporean culture either. I may have grown up there, but I attended a British international school, which meant that most of my friends were also expats in the international community. Being an expat in Singapore means it is very easy to stay in your little bubble – you may be physically living in the country, but not necessarily part of the local culture.
When I moved to England for university I had hoped that this would be the time when I could settle some roots and finally feel at home somewhere. I naively thought that living in England would give me a sense of belonging that I’d been missing all these years. I mean, it is my passport country, right?
To some extent I can say that it has. The friends I have made and the experiences I shared with them have definitely played a huge part in making me feel at home the way I had craved for so long. Years of learning the stereotypes of ‘Britishness’ from my dad and people from school were finally part of my daily life. I was no longer an outsider looking in, but rather I was part of it.
I loved the smallest things I had only previously experienced for a short time during the summer holidays. They were mundane things like an uncontrollable obsession over tea, greeting everyone with “you alright?” and the uselessness of bus timetables. It sounds so incredibly silly, but it was those little things that made me feel like I was part of a national identity, at last.
What I hadn’t anticipated was that just because I was living in England, it did not mean I could finally say I was from there. Sure, I felt this sense of belonging that I never really had before, but it wasn’t as if I could name a town where I was from. It was this little detail that still bothered me – it was like I was so close yet so far.
Then came the homesickness. It was a strange thing, feeling homesick when I didn’t feel like I had a place to call home. I missed my parents, my dog, and my friends of course, but then I found myself missing the country where I grew up itself. I missed chicken rice, and the plethora of shopping malls along Orchard Road. I missed the tropical weather and cheap public transport. Was I missing home? Or was I just missing what I was familiar with? Are those two related?
Maybe both England and Singapore are home. I’m finding that now, as I write this post in the thick of Singapore’s infamous heat and humidity, I miss being back in England. I need to make up my mind, right?
Or maybe I don’t. I may never be able to state a specific place whenever I am asked ‘where are you from?’, but what I can say is that my answer is constantly evolving as I go through life. I know it sounds strange – where you are from is supposed to be where you started out – but I personally disagree.
I prefer to call myself rootless, as depressing as it sounds, but I quite like it. It means that I am not tied down to a particular place – after all, they do say the world is your oyster. It definitely used to bother me that I couldn’t pick one place to say I was from, but I’ve made my peace with it. I’m a bit of everything – taking a piece of different cultures with me as I go along. Home to me can mean so much more than just one town, city, or country. Maybe one day I’ll settle down in one place – it might be England, Singapore, Indonesia… or somewhere completely different. Who knows.