Where are you from?
Story by| Billie Tran, Guest Writer
Photo by| Billie Tran
I always get nervous with the introductory “Where are you from?” question because every answer I give either feels inadequate, pretentiously long or makes me stand out like an alien.
Growing up, I moved from country to country in three-year cycles. I was born in Hanoi but moved to London when I was three, then back to Hanoi again at six, then Sydney at nine, Hanoi again at 12 and finally Singapore from 15 onwards. My parents told me I should consider myself lucky, and they weren’t necessarily wrong, but back then I resented every single cross-country move. It wasn’t easy to start off as a fish out of water, integrate yourself in the community, and make friends only to be whisked away when you finally felt that you belonged.
As a result, I’ve sort of become a cultural mish-mash. My accent, a fairly good marker of where someone’s based, doesn’t even reflect any of the countries I’ve lived in. It’s caused me a mighty struggle in pinpointing my identity as in Singapore I’m the “Vietnamese boy”, but back in Vietnam I’m the “the boy who went to Singapore”. For the most part, I’ve circumvented this mess of an electrical circuit in my brain by embracing my personal melting pot of cultures, but at times the displacement still hits hard. I mean, when bits of you belong in various places, you don’t fully belong anywhere.
But during the virtual chats with my future Yale-NUS College classmates and looking through everyone’s introductory Facebook posts, I noticed a common trend. A lot of people were originally from here but moved there, have citizenship here but lived there or were born here but studied there. To think that I wouldn’t be the only odd one out giving a complicated answer to the “Where are you from?”. I didn’t know any of these people yet but instantly felt a sense of camaraderie with everyone who has had to move, adapt and transition to a new culture they weren’t used to. While I’m not sure that everyone faces these same third culture kid problems as I do, it sure would be ironically wholesome to belong in a community where everyone is split between communities.
Call me an idealist, but sometimes I like to imagine a world where borders, visas, and passports didn’t exist. People could travel all over to share their culture and embrace someone else’s as if it were just the normal thing to do. There would be no such thing as a displaced third culture kid, and everyone lives happily ever after as a citizen of the world. But of course, real-life ain’t like that.
My future journey at Yale-NUS excites me because it feels reminiscent of that idealized world. While I’m not expecting a romanticized coming-of-age novel-like story for my experiences there, it was truly wild to see how such a large group of nationalities, cultures and ethnicities could be represented in such a small cohort size. And I, without sounding too much like an overly-enthusiastic hopeful freshman, can’t wait to be living and studying with this diversity of people, possibly without feeling like the elephant in the room.
“Where are you from?” will always be a tricky one. But instead of having to strategically navigate my way through the answer or cutting it short just so I don’t feel left out, I’m hoping I can share where my upbringings were with a little more confidence.
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