“So tell me about China!”
“Did you study all the time in China?”
“Why don’t you have siblings?”
I used to dread these questions, posed by my new friends when I first arrived at my public school in Singapore on a scholarship age 15. To attend, I had left China, my family and the life I had known.
I smiled politely and answered patiently. Growing up, I learned to observe the traditional Chinese values of humility, patience and tolerance, but in my head, a voice would say, “Stop pointing out how different I am from you.”
But that was just the start of my life as a different sheep in every herd I’ve been in.
It’s hard to write about myself when I can hardly define who I am – when one of my biggest strengths has always been my ability to write away my identity to assimilate into a new environment. Because of that, one of my biggest weaknesses is that I constantly change myself to blend in, instead of looking at who I really am.
I answer the question, “Tell me about yourself,” by drawing a line along a world map: China, Singapore, the United States. What I don’t say is that none of these places represent me anymore.
Since I left my hometown in China, change has been the only constant in my life. Foreignness creates the strongest sense of familiarity.
Living in Singapore was a big change: no more going home to the smell of Mom’s home-cooked meals, no more Chinese New Year celebrations. I didn’t even read Chinese books or listen to Chinese songs because I was busy immersing myself in everything Singaporean. But returning to China during summer breaks was also a shock. I didn’t understand the latest slang my Chinese friends used, and they couldn’t understand that “lol” didn’t mean “League of Legends.” I wasn’t showing off when I inserted English words when speaking Mandarin – I was just already used to thinking in English.
On the other hand, my transition to the U.S. felt seamless. Before coming, I had thought to myself, “Just repeat at Northwestern what you did best in Singapore: conceal yourself and blend in.” But I was wrong. Sure, I adopted the American way of speaking, behaving, and sometimes, even thinking, but this time I wasn’t purposefully hiding my past. In fact, as much as I was interested in learning about different cultures, I found most people are just as interested in the cultures I represent. I can laugh at ridiculous stereotypes of Chinese people and debunk myths people might hold regarding my race, my nationality or my experience. I don’t feel singled out, but empowered, by the unique path I’ve chosen.
I’m not the only one at NU who feels this way. Medill sophomore Samarth Soni was born and raised in Dubai to Indian parents in an English environment and moved to India with his family at the age of 12. Soni says the global outlook he gained as an expatriate, together with a self-assuring sense of identity inspired by his family, prepared him for a relatively painless transition to Northwestern. “I really think that I was privileged enough to have grown up in a foreign environment to start with,” Soni says. “I felt comfortable with [Americans]. I can’t speak the same for someone who’s never left India coming to the U.S.”
In contrast, Weinberg senior Radhika Kalra found life at Northwestern challenging at first. Having moved from Delhi to Bangkok, Singapore and most recently Hong Kong, the only social circles she knew were full of international students from different countries. She shared little in common with many of her new American friends at Northwestern, some of whom lived just an hour’s drive away from home.
“Even though a lot of my friends in Singapore were American, I still had a lot in common with them. Here, it’s just more difficult,” Kalra says. She was shocked her freshman year when an American friend asked her if Singapore was in South America.
She tried to fit in with other international students, but unlike her, most of them grew up in a single location. Still, she says her experience has its advantages: she has greater adaptability and flexibility.
“Having moved so much means you are already used to it,” Kalra says. “In the next five years, I have no idea where I’m gonna be, and I’m very excited for it.”
Kalra’s experience resonates. Having stumbled so much as a teenager facing the challenges of an independent life in a foreign country, I can adapt anywhere I end up. Still, other students felt the same disconnect with their past as they moved. The people and places they knew faded away like trees in the rearview mirror of a fast-moving car. “I think because I travel so much, I’m very bad at keeping in touch with my old friends,” Kalra says.
When I see my old friends, the initial euphoria of reunion is tempered when we realize we don’t have the rapport we used to have. Our experiences and worldviews have drifted apart as we’ve assimilated to different corners of the world.
Kalra and Soni can see how a global outlook and readiness to change prepare them for a future with possibilities unbounded by geographical constraints. But they find “home” and “identity” two blurry concepts. Raised in a household that emphasized Indian culture and identity, Soni has always considered himself Indian, despite living abroad for the majority of his life.
“I keep saying move ‘back’ to India when that’s really not the case because it wasn’t exactly home until we moved there,” Soni said.
Living in India was nothing like occasionally visiting for vacations. Soni found himself in a “domestic-foreign environment” with new cultural norms. He realized that being street-smart was almost a prerequisite for assimilation. Bargaining and efficient money-saving skills acted as entrance exams to becoming truly “Indian.” He was also surprised by the intensive academic competition in school, with classmates openly asking about one another’s scores after an exam.
As a seventh grader, Soni says he attempted to act and talk in a way similar to his Indian friends just to blend in, but never to the extent of compromising who he was. “I never thought that keeping [the Dubai] side of me hidden … or being more contextually Indian was something I had to do,” Soni says.
Kalra was born in Delhi, but her birthplace feels foreign. “I feel more like I’m from Asia,” Kalra says. She has lived the life of a nomad in mostly Southeast Asia and said of all the countries she’s lived in, India is probably where she feels the least comfortable.
I wish I had a city where I’m always comfortable. The truth is, my hometown is familiar and strange at the same time. Whenever I’m there, I need to consciously remind myself I’m home. I know my town is where I belong when I see Chinese characters in the streets and hear the noises of the bustling outdoor markets. But now, the family stores where I bought snacks on the way to school are fancy restaurants; the lake I fell in during fourth grade is a parking lot. Roaming the streets, I sometimes feel like a stranger seeing this place for the first time.
Normally, Kalra introduces herself as from Singapore, where she spent half of her life. But she doesn’t identify as a Singaporean because she hardly interacted with local Singaporeans. Almost all her friends were foreign students at her international school. “I’ve lived in a bubble pretty much my entire life, the international expat kid bubble,” Kalra said.
Having a clearly defined place called home or a life-long group of friends from childhood is a luxury for Kalra. “When people talk about ‘oh, in 10 years I eventually want to move back home,’ I can never say that … I don’t want to move to Delhi, but is Singapore actually home?” Kalra said.
No matter how much I travel outside of China, at least I can always point to that city of mine and call it home – where I can find my family and heritage, where the smell of roasted sweet potatoes from street peddlers lingers in the frosty winter air, where the small airport that sent me overseas for the first time many years ago always waits to greet me when I fly back, no matter how long I’ve been away. Yes, I realized, that’s my home.